Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Unhappy in Bhutan

BHUTAN'S substantial population of Nepali origin might be forgiven for some cynicism over the Himalayan kingdom's fixation with gross national happiness (GNH).

GNH was conceived by the country's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk as a societal indicator more meaningful than simply measuring economic conditions through gross domestic product. It is overseen by the government's GNH Commission, established two years ago to replace the planning commission, and is quantified through the GNH Index.

The index is based on 72 questions covering nine categories, ranging from psychological well-being to ecology and community vitality. Respondents are not categorised by ethnicity.

Bhutan's official population of Nepali origin is about 140,000, presuming that those professing to be Hindus in the 2005 census are a reliable indicator. If you add to that more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese who have been forcibly expelled from Bhutan since 1987 and sequestered in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, then the community accounts for at least one-third of the country's population. And most cannot be too happy.

The Bhutanese government says those expelled were illegal residents who threatened the country's national identity, pointing to neighbouring Sikkim's influx of ethnic Nepalese and its 1975 annexation by India.

Many of the displaced say their families have lived in Bhutan for generations, and that the contentious 1985 Citizenship Act leading to their exodus is a deeply discriminatory law rooted in ethnic nationalism.

Those of Nepali origin remaining in Bhutan generally stay quiet, but others maintain that they are still being pressured to leave.

Talks between the Bhutanese government in Thimphu and the Nepali government in Kathmandu that tried to resolve the issue were unproductive and effectively abandoned. But from late 2007, third-country resettlement of these displaced people emerged as a durable solution. This initiative is led by an informal core group of eight countries and has so far seen more than 37,500 refugees from Bhutan leave the camps, with 74,600 remaining. While many have expressed an interest in resettlement, a small number may wish to stay in Nepal.

Thimphu has meanwhile remained steadfast. 'As of today, not a single refugee has been able to voluntarily repatriate to Bhutan,' said Ms Nini Gurung, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu.

Some in Bhutan's ethnic Nepali community resisted the expulsion by establishing in 1990 the Bhutan Peoples' Party, which agitated for political reform and remains active. This group also spawned a militant wing that mounted a steady stream of small-scale attacks, though this effort at armed resistance seems to have been short-lived.

The issue involving ethnic Nepalese centres on southern Bhutan, where this population is concentrated. Around the same time, there was also unhappiness pervading the eastern region, although sources say this appears to have been resolved through Bhutan's first war in its modern history.

Beginning in the early 1990s, several tribal secessionist groups fighting in north-east India established base camps in eastern Bhutan for training purposes and for safe refuge between cross-border raids.

Thimphu came under pressure to act from New Delhi and from the weary local population, which in 1998 appealed to the King for assistance. Constrained by the army's weakness, the government tried to address the issue through six years of negotiation while building up its military strength.

In December 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) launched Operation All Clear after its forces expanded by about one-third to 9,000 personnel. Deploying about 6,000 troops, the army captured 30 militant camps within two weeks. Nearly 500 tribal rebels were reportedly killed while 11 from the RBA died. A number of prisoners were handed over to India.

'Every couple of moons, there are reports that the camps have resurfaced in remote areas (of eastern Bhutan) but these remain uncorroborated,' an Indian intelligence source said of the current situation.

'Generally speaking, the camps have disappeared but some individuals - stragglers or cross-border hunters or those who married locally - remain.'

This campaign - successful by Bhutan's standards - has doubtless bolstered Bhutan's GNH Index.

But it is unclear just how the prospect of refugee resettlement may affect the happiness index.

Nov 15, 2010
Unhappy in Bhutan
By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer