Bhutan's ethnic cleansing

Bill Frelick examines the plight of Bhutan's stateless ethnic Nepalese. Read also Michael Hutt's

Bhutan’s image as an otherworldly and harmonious kingdom was rocked on 20 January by coordinated bomb blasts in the capital, Thimpu, and three other locations. The bombs caused minimal damage but generated political shockwaves at a time when the Himalayan state is struggling to transform itself from an autocratic monarchy into a democracy. The second-round of Bhutan’s first-ever elections, scheduled for 24 March, will test whether its embrace of democracy will include its entire people. The answer may determine whether change ultimately will be ushered into Bhutan by the ballot or the bomb.

Although Bhutanese police initially listed Nepal-based exile groups as their top bombing suspects, their suspicions were based more on their knowledge of historical grievances than forensic evidence. A hitherto unknown group, the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, claimed responsibility, saying that Thimpu’s changes were cosmetic and would not benefit all Bhutanese. Though such bombings are never justified, the alarms they sound should not be ignored. This salvo should warn the government to be inclusive in its experiment with democratization. To start, it needs to address a blot on Bhutanese history that remains unresolved.

In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat. The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.

After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people, first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. “The army took all the people from their houses,” a young refugee told me. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”

Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered to resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees. Processing has been slow to start, and the first refugees are not likely to depart until March.

After 17 years of deadlock, the coincidental synchronization of elections in Bhutan and resettlement of Bhutanese refugees to the United States plays into the fears of some refugees, who believe the US is conspiring with Bhutan to keep ethnic Nepalis from repatriating and asserting their rights. These refugees insist that return to Bhutan is the only acceptable solution and they are increasingly intimidating refugees who want to accept the US offer - through beatings, burning huts, and death threats.

Even if the Bhutanese government were to respect their right to repatriate under international law, its treatment of the ethnic Nepalis who still live in Bhutan suggests that the basic rights of returnees cannot be guaranteed.

A Bhutanese government census in 2005 classified 13 percent of Bhutan’s current population as 'non-nationals', meaning that they are not only ineligible to vote, but are denied a wide range of other rights. An ethnic Nepali non-national living in Bhutan told Human Rights Watch, “they don’t ask me to leave, but they make me so miserable, I will be forced to leave. I have no identification, so I cannot do anything, go anywhere, get a job.”

The militants should not deny their fellow refugees the choice of going to the United States or remaining in Nepal. But a genuine choice between resettlement, integration in Nepal, or return to Bhutan can only happen if Bhutan allows refugees to return and restores their rights. Bhutan should make citizenship available to all people with legitimate claims, including the refugees who can trace their statelessness to the events of the early 1990s.

If Bhutan aspires to be truly democratic, it should choose a path of reconciliation with the disenfranchised ethnic Nepalese inside and outside its borders. If instead it deliberately excludes many of its people, it may strengthen the hand of the militants and discover that simply holding elections will bring neither real democracy nor peace.

Bill Frelick is Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch and researched and edited Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India.
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An army with lead boots

Last Friday morning, within a few hours of the street massacre in Nice, I arrived in Paris.

Last Friday morning, within a few hours of the street massacre in Nice, I arrived in Paris to report on the way France was responding to the attack. Even before my report went out on that night’s BBC News at Ten, reports of the attempted coup in Turkey were coming in. By Saturday morning, I gave up asking senior French politicians for interviews because British interest in Nice was fading. By Sunday three policemen were dead in Baton Rouge. The next day an Afghan attacked railway passengers in southern Germany and was shot dead. New events crowd in on us constantly, overlaying and obliterating whatever happened yesterday, or this morning, or tonight.

But not, understandably, in France. Nicolas Sarkozy says that France is now at war. So does Le Figaro, which was calling on Saturday for a “pitiless response”. “Merah, Charlie, Bataclan, Magnanville and now Nice . . . How many savage murders and blind massacres before our leaders admit that Islamic fanaticism is engaged in a struggle to the death against our country and our civilisation?”

As Le Figaro’s editorial director whipped himself up into a frenzy of imprecision in his editorial, I was reminded of a television interview I once did with Margaret Thatcher at the height of the IRA’s terror campaign. I was never an admirer of hers but on this occasion I thought she was magnificent. “War?” she said as the camera turned over. “War? This isn’t a war. These are criminals, murdering and injuring decent people. We’ll find them and the courts will put them in prison, and there’s an end to it.”

It worked. A lot of other things had to be done, including addressing the serious grievances of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and changing the whole basis of life and society there. Yet after its appalling early mistakes the British government stopped declaring war and demanding pitiless responses. On the contrary: life went on as close to normal as possible throughout the IRA’s bombing campaign. There’s no doubt that some shameful things happened in secret, but the basic principle – that a civilised society should remain true to its values even when it’s under attack, and perhaps especially when it’s under attack – was maintained; and the IRA was eventually beaten.

There are dangerous characters in any country and they require monitoring and infiltrating. The Bataclan attackers in Paris last November were a disciplined group with a clear plan. But some of the worst incidents in Europe have been the work of deranged loners. Le Figaro called Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the mass murderer of the Promenade des Anglais, “a soldier of the caliphate”. Bulls**t: he was just a sad, nasty little character with a propensity for violence against women, who had stopped taking his medication and wanted to validate his craziness. No doubt the Afghan teenager who was shot dead on the German train after going berserk with an axe was deranged, too, but that didn’t make him a soldier in anyone’s army. Attacking people in the street is a horrible, vicious fashion, just like storming on to a university campus in America and shooting people with an ­assault rifle, or stabbing children to death in Chinese schools. You have to take proper precautions and eventually, with luck, the fashion fades away.

However, the security authorities have to get their act together. This is where the French system has fallen down. According to the right-wing president of the Nice regional council, there were only 45 policemen on duty at the 14 July celebrations. No significant roadblocks had been set up, and it was pathetically easy for Lahouaiej-Bouhlel to steer his lorry round the concrete barriers and get on to the boulevard.

The previous week a government commission under a centre-right politician, Georges Fenech, reported that France simply wasn’t very good at defending itself against terrorism. The commission recommended the establishment of a single national counterterrorism agency, in place of the six competing and, by all accounts, mutually hostile intelligence organisations. Fenech said France’s inadequacy was like equipping an army with lead boots. Yet directly after his report came out, the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, rejected the notion of overhauling the intelligence services.

As many as 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France since the start of last year. “Something bad seems to happen every six months,” said a woman I filmed outside the Bataclan, “and we don’t know how to stop it.” France feels itself uniquely targeted. Yet the British example shows that Fenech was right and that it is possible to stop terrorism. After the 7 July 2005 bombs in London, an inquiry showed – in terms remarkably similar to Fenech’s – that intelligence about the culprits hadn’t been shared properly. Regional counterterrorist units were set up across Britain and the Security Service, MI5, opened up to the other agencies to a remarkable extent. The long rivalry between MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was defused.

Now, once a week, MI5 and MI6 hold a meeting with GCHQ and the police at MI5’s headquarters, at which they share intelligence and agree what action to take on it. Extremist groups have been infiltrated with great success. As a result, Britain hasn’t suffered a mass-casualty terrorist attack since 2005, though 40 plots have been foiled in that time – including seven in the past 18 months. Sometimes, of course, we’ve just been lucky: a car bomb was planted outside a London nightclub in 2007 but it was so poorly assembled that it didn’t go off.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who despite his last-minute radicalisation would certainly have been picked up under the British system, rented his white lorry, drove it past the inadequate police check-points, and murdered 84 people who were just out to enjoy themselves. Forget about pitiless responses and declaring war on abstract nouns: what is required is proper, joined-up policing. That’s how a civilised society protects itself best.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He tweets @JohnSimpsonNews

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt