September - December, 1999

Eighth Bhutan-Nepal Bilateral Talks

The Bhutan-Nepal Joint Ministerial Level Committee had held eight rounds of bilateral talks since October 1993 in pursuit of solution to the Bhutanese refugee problem. The first six rounds of talks were held at the level of the Home Ministers of the two countries while the last two rounds were led by the Foreign Ministers.

The eighth round of the bilateral meeting took place after a break of three and half years between September 13-16, 1999. The talks this time focussed on the fate of the refugees in category II – People who emigrated [sic] and the modality for verification of the Bhutanese refugees. Nepal insisted that people under category II had to leave Bhutan under compelling circumstances including psychological terror, pressure from local administration and intimidation and that they should be treated as those under category I. Bhutan conceded to treat the victimised refugees under category II as those under category I. However, in the absence of any agreement on the basis of which the refugees in category II will be treated as category I, this development cannot be taken without skepticism.

On the aspect of the basis for verification of the refugees, there was a difference of opinion between the two governments. The Nepalese side proposed that they begin field verification of refugees from one of the camps and move on to other camps. The Bhutanese team denied the proposal and insisted that the verification should begin on the basis of the list of 3000 people prepared by the UNHCR supposedly submitted to both the governments. Nepal expressed disagreement on the list and stated that the list was not authentic.

The JMLC also discussed on the possibility of third party intervention. According to the Nepalese Foreign Minister, the meeting discussed about a referral point and that the Bhutanese side has taken it positively.The Foreign Ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet in New York at the fringes of the UN Summit and in Thimphu in November 1999 before the SAARC Summit.

It is observed that the bilateral talks have only been ceremonious discussions which does not show any light at the end of the tunnel. The talks continue to be dominated by Bhutan’s obstinate position on the issue and its concession regarding category II is nothing but a diplomatic way of reiterating its old stance only. The bone of contention in the proceedings of the bilateral talks is the categorisation of the Bhutanese refugees into four categories, which the JMLC agreed upon during its first meet in October 1993. The categories include - Genuine Bhutanese who have been forcibly evicted; Bhutanese who have migrated; Non Bhutanese people; and Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. These categories, a maneuver of the Bhutanese government, have been condemned by the Bhutanese refugees who assert that there should be only two categories - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese if there is any. When the Bhutanese Foreign Minister, well after making its concession on category II refugees, places the so called list of 3000 people as a basis for verification and does not hesitate to term the Bhutanese citizens in camps in east Nepal as thieves, embezzlers, rapists and arsonists, [From the interview given to 'The Kathmandu Post' on September...1999 by the Bhutanese Foreign Minister] Bhutan's real motive behind is not hard to imagine. Hence, if the Bhutanese refugees are to get justice, it is extremely important that the international community intervened in the problem.

Bhutanese Groups Demand Independent Verification Body

Concerned Bhutanese Groups on Bilateral Talks [CBGT] comprising AHURA Bhutan, CEMARD, PFHRD Bhutan, and SURE Bhutan held a press conference in Kathmandu on September 12, 1999 in a bid to call on the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to heed to the statement issued by the Chairman of the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission during its 51st session in Geneva in August 1999. They called on Bhutan and Nepal to establish an independent and impartial verification mechanism that will involve both the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and also the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They also stressed that refugees' representatives must be included in any negotiation or decision that affects the fate of the refugees.

Nepal Raises Bhutanese Refugee Problem At The UN

The Nepalese Prime Minister H.E. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, addressing the 54th General Assembly of the United Nations on September 31, 1999 appealed to the international community for continued support and understanding in the creation of conducive environment for the resolution of the Bhutanese refugee problem. The Prime Minister also stressed that the international community provided support for the sustenance of the Bhutanese refugees until they are repatriated to Bhutan. This was the first time the Nepalese head of the government had made statements about the Bhutanese refugees at the international forum.

The Bhutanese refugees have commended the Prime Minister's initiative and and have taken this move as very significant. It is hoped that the Nepalese government will continue to pursue resolution of their problem more strongly by involving the international community.

Meanwhile the Nepalese Foreign Minister Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat held talks with the Bhutanese Foreign Minister Mr. Jigme Y Thinley at the fringes of the UN Summit in New York. Dr. Mahat also met Madam Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva on October 14, 1999. He apprised her of the situation of Bhutanese refugees and thanked the UNHCR for continued assistance to the Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal.

US Department of State Releases Report on Bhutan

The US Department of State has published its country specific annual report on International Religious Freedom for 1999. The report released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 9, 1999 has unfolded Bhutanese government's policy of discrimination against the Nepali-speaking people of majority Hindu stock and forcibly expelling them on grounds of religion.

The report highlights on many of discriminatory practices adopted by the royal government including the 'One Nation One People Policy' which imposes the Drukpa etiquette and traditional values on all Bhutanese, thus depriving the other ethnic group particularly the southern Bhutanese or the Nepali-speaking people the right to enjoy their culture and the freedom to practice their religion.

The report states that 'the ethnic Nepalese were subject to discrimination by the authorities in the late 1980's and early 1990's when many were driven from their homes and forcibly expelled from the country. The root cause of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political; however, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion was also a factor'.

The report also throws light on the discriminatory National Assembly resolution of July 1997 compelling the involuntary retirement of civil servants who are family members of ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese refugees resident in the camps in east Nepal. The report on Religious Freedom also points out that the Bhutanese government have been resettling Buddhist citizens from other parts of the country on lands in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in east Nepal.

Digitalised Documentation Of Bhutanese Refugees

AHURA Bhutan had been undertaking the task of Digitalised Documentation of Bhutanese refugees since January 1999 with objectives to authenticate the refugees' Bhutanese nationality and to promote their right to return. As of October 1999, more than 50% of the refugees' information have been documented and it is envisaged that the report in digitalised form will be released for intensive international advocacy by March 2000.

Presently, besides the usual collection of information and documentation, the collected information are being verified by competent senior Bhutanese citizens resident in the camps in east Nepal.

US Delegate Visits Refugee Camp

The Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration of the United States, Ms Julia Taft, visited the Bhutanese refugee camp at Goldhap in eastern Nepal on October 9, 1999. She made general observation of the camp and met with the UNHCR representatives in Nepal.

The Bhutanese refugees view this visit as a positive indication of the US concerns on the problem of the Bhutanese refugees. It is anticipated that the government of the United States will take practical steps towards bringing an and just resolution of this decade long problem.

Bhutanese Refugee Support Groups Meet In Geneva

Representatives of Bhutanese Refugee Support Groups including BRSG Ireland, Lutheran World Federation, Jesuit Refugee Service, DanChurch Aid, SCF and OXFAM held their annual follow up meeting in Geneva on September 24, 1999. The reviewed on the situation and discussed ways and means to strengthen international advocacy on behalf of the Bhutanese refugees. The BRSG delegates visited the office of the UNCHR and the diplomatic missions based in Geneva. It is learnt that the UNHCR has expressed willingness to provide technical assistance in the resolution of the problem and that it will denounce any solution that does not incorporate international human rights norms and principles.

Bhutan-Nepal Talks

A four member Nepalese delegation led by Foreign Minister Ram Sharan Mahat was in Bhutan on November 5, 1999 to extend invitation to the Bhutanese government to attend the 11th SAARC summit to be held in Nepal. During his meeting with the Bhutanese King on the occasion Dr. Mahat informed him about developments in the eight Bhutan-Nepal bilateral talks on the resolution of the Bhutanese refugee problem.

He also held talks with his Bhutanese counterpart Lyonpo Jigme Thinley and reviewed on the progress made and discussed on the possibilities for the resolution of the problem.

Talking to the refugees in Beldangi refugee camps following his meeting with the Bhutanese authorities, Minister Mahat said that they have progressed a step ahead from the eighth bilateral talks held in Kathmandu in September but declined to disclose the outcome of the talks. He said that the verification of the refugees shall begin soon. The Nepalese media reported the minister to have said that he hoped the date for refugee verification will be fixed during the meeting to be held in Bhutan in a month or two.

The Foreign Minister was accompanied by Royal Nepalese Ambassador to Bhutan Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, Foreign Secretary Murari Raj Sharma and Joint Secretary at the Foreign Ministry Lila Prasad Sharma.

Until the end of December 1999, there has not been any indication of the date or likelihood of the next bilateral talks.

Tek Nath Rizal Released

TN RizalTek Nath Rizal, the founding father of the Bhutanese freedom movement, along with 200 other prisoners including 40 political prisoners, was released on December 17, 1999 on the occasion of the National Day of Bhutan. The official weekly Kuensel of December 18, 1999, stated that " In a Kasho to the Home Minister this week, His Majesty explained that, although he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for subversive and treasonable acts against the Tsawa Sum , Tek Nath Rizal was being granted the royal pardon because he had not physically carried out acts of violence and terrorism and he had served 10 years in prison."

Tek Nath Rizal, an Amnesty International’s "Prisoner of Conscience" had been in prison since 17 November 1989. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Thimphu High Court on November 16, 1993, for violating the National Security Act of 1992, which was passed two years after Rizal’s incarceration. Three days after this, His Majesty the King ruled over the court’s verdict and had declared that Rizal would be released upon finding a solution to the Bhutanese refugee problem. However, the Amnesty international, in its press statement on December 21, welcoming Rizal’s release stated that the organisation had always argued that linking the release of Tek Nath Rizal to a process over which he had no control is unfair.

His crime was to advocate for human rights and fundamental freedom of the southern Bhutanese people. Rizal, as a Royal Advisory Councilor, had submitted a petition to the King apprising him of the sufferings of the southern Bhutanese people resulting from an unfair census exercise and the census officials’ abuse of power during the census carried out in Southern Bhutan in 1988 and had appealed to him to consider amending the 1985 Citizenship Act of Bhutan such that :

    • It could no longer be implemented retrospectively to revoke citizenship of people who under earlier legislation would qualify as Bhutanese nationals;
    • Children born out of any Bhutanese citizens automatically acquire Bhutanese citizenship;
    • It allows non-national spouses of Bhutanese citizens to acquire Bhutanese citizenship in the shortest time possible.

The appeal was viewed as seditious and Rizal was charged with treason and imprisoned. Rizal was coerced to sign a document which barred him from attended public functions and meeting more than three people at a time. He was deposed from his public service, released from the prison and ordered to leave the capital within 48 hours. Thus, he came into exile in Nepal and started a human rights movement only to find himself abducted to Bhutan to be entrapped in the brutal clutches of injustice.

His release has been welcomed by all Bhutanese people both within and outside Bhutan. However, as per the move of the Royal government, there are two schools of thought among the Bhutanese community. First, it is seen that Rizal’s release is directly associated with the resolution of the Bhutanese refugee problem as had been declared by the King in November 1993. Hence, this release is viewed as positive move towards resolution of the refugee problem. But in contrast to the likelihood of such a move, it is also opined that Rizal’s release is only a ploy of the Bhutanese government to appease the international community.

Soon after his release, Rizal has made a bold statement from Thimphu that he would continue to struggle for the cause of the Bhutanese people. He declared that he now intends to seek an audience with the King of Bhutan and make two specific requests. He said that he will appeal to the King to release all political prisoners currently detained in Bhutanese jails and to repatriate all the Bhutanese citizens living as refugees to their ancestral homes and hearth in Bhutan. Until the time of writing this update, there has not been any news of response from the Bhutanese monarch.