By Brendan BradyBeldangi II Camp — THE insulated kingdom of Bhutan, one of the last countries to allow the wider world to penetrate its borders via television and the internet, is often held up as a Himalayan idyll. Nestled between giants India and China, Bhutan was rated the happiest country in Asia by researchers at Britain’s University of Leicester in 2006. According to its own government, the population is 97% happy. In fact, happiness is so central to the Bhutanese government’s ruling philosophy that it measures its progress in terms of “gross national happiness”—a spiritual barometer of sorts—rather than by GDP.
Such metrics however tend to skip over the Bhutanese nationals who reside in eastern Nepal. Their lives in Bhutan took a very unpleasant turn in 1989 when, in response to the country’s growing ethnic Nepali minority, then-King Wangchuck declared a “One Bhutan, One People” policy, granting privileged status to the indigenous Ngalong culture, language, religion and even dress.
The immediate fallout of the king’s declaration has never been documented comprehensively; important aspects remain a mystery. The Nepali Bhutanese who left in the subsequent exodus report that official attempts to impose the majority culture drew resentful protests—some of which became fiery. The state, in turn, cracked down. According to refugees, the army and police launched a campaign of intimidation, violence and even murder to rid southern Bhutan of its ethnic-Nepali population (around a fifth of the kingdom’s total population at that time). Many found their way to Nepal, where camps were established to provide them with basic shelter.
The Bhutanese government has dismissed allegations that it used violence. It maintains that most of those who left were illegal immigrants, recently arrived. Most of the adults who live in those camps today, however, can readily produce Bhutanese citizenship cards. International agencies operating in the camps say that roughly 90% of their residents can prove citizenship. What’s more, the exodus came in one shot and included the old and infirm—people who don’t pick up and move easily—which all suggests that a singular trauma served as the impetus.
Starting last year, after more than 110,000 refugees had idled in camps for nearly two decades, the first waves of resettlement began. Most went on to America, with a remainder going to Canada and a handful of European countries.
This month the 40,000th Bhutanese refugee departed for Newark, New Jersey, in America. The UN, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and resettlement countries all celebrated the occasion as a milestone. The operation is currently the largest resettlement project in the world—and one of the fastest, too, having resettled some 18,000 refugees a year. But its success is depressing too: it is all but certain none of the refugees will be repatriated.
Some had been holding out, still determined to reclaim their property and return to their homeland. “This year I finally lost hope,” said Kissor Adhikari, 42, a resident of Beldangi-II camp whose father is already living in Michigan. “I’ve now applied for resettlement to start a real life again.” Of the 73,000 who remain in the camps, only 18,000 have yet to apply for resettlement. Even that number is fast-dwindling, says the IOM, which notes that it receives 1,000 new resettlement applications every month.
In the meantime, while displaced peoples from nearby Tibet have garnered considerable international attention, their Bhutanese counterparts have largely remained in the shadows. Bhutan is best recognised as the world’s last true Shrangi-La. Residents in Beldangi-II camp would describe their homeland in somewhat different terms.
[Published by Economist.com on December 27, 2010]