What use is Gross Domestic Happiness to Bhutan's 106,000 global refugees?

In Aberdeen, outside a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee called Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

In Aberdeen, a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen sells plump dumplings, Haggis pakoras and greasy north-Indian foods that infiltrate the menus of Nepalese restaurants across the UK. 

Outside The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee. It was the first time I had met a refugee. Let’s call her Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

Landless had flown into London only three months earlier. Before Aberdeen, her “home” was Nepal. Before Nepal, her “home” was Bhutan. Both Nepal and Bhutan didn’t want her, so she was homeless. With the help of the International Organisation for Migration, she moved to Scotland. Some of her friends were moved to America, thanks to the efforts of the IOM. Others to Australia. 

Landless spoke lovely Nepali. Landless liked the churches in Aberdeen. She disliked Scottish weather. She tried replicating Bhutanese dishes in Aberdeen, but failed – the cheese didn’t taste right.

Landless was among the 106,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who had been ejected from Bhutan. Bhutan, nervous about the growing number of Nepali-speaking people within its borders, needed to silence the murmurs of dissent which had begun rippling among these Nepalis. Bhutanese lawmakers had seen what happened in the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim - a Nepali-speaking majority, it was widely believed, had joined hands with India to overturn the monarchy, thus making Sikkim the 22nd state of the Indian union - and definitely didn't want Bhutan going that way. The government, therefore, declared that all Nepali-speaking people in the country should produce citizenship documents from 1958 – 1959 wouldn't do, 1957 wouldn't do – to prove their status as legitimate Bhutanese.

Landless claimed her family had documents from 1957.

“Go back to Nepal,” Bhutan barked to Landless and thousands of others. “That’s where you’re from. You’re not Bhutanese but Nepalese."

“Go back to Bhutan,” Nepal snapped. “That’s where your family has lived for generations. You aren’t Nepalese but Bhutanese.”

Landless was one of the more than 100,000 people herded out of Bhutan like cattle.

Finally, Nepal begrudgingly agreed to temporarily allow Landless and her brethren to inhabit refugee camps there. Bhutan, meanwhile, embraced a concept known as Gross National Happiness – something about measuring her people’s happiness as instead of their domestic product – while Landless and co. languished in shanties. Landless shared her bathroom with three dozen people.

Landless lived in a state of statelessness in a refugee camp in Nepal for a decade and a half. Landless claimed her family still owned acres and acres of fertile land near Phuntsholing, one of Bhutan's border towns. Landless was lying. The land had been redistributed to the Bhutanese – the bona fide Bhutanese who were still living in the country. The land she had left behind wasn’t any longer her land.

In Aberdeen, Landless was living in a council flat with running water. The tap even spewed hot water! And the flat had electricity all the time. Landless and her family had light all the time in Bhutan before darkness shrouded their world.

Some of Landless's distant relatives were still in Bhutan. One was a doctor Bhutan would have good use for, so he was allowed to stay. Landless couldn't speak to him on the phone, though. Landless's cousin was nervous that the Bhutanese government wouldn't like it. 

Landless saw pictures of the 2011 wedding of the king of the country that didn’t want her. The world gushed about the handsomeness of the couple. Bhutan continued talking about Gross National Happiness. The international media paid more attention to it – and the peck on the cheek the king gave his wife – than the displacement of all those refugees. Too much was happening in the Sudan, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Now Bhutan has archery competitions and literary festivals - the most recent literary event took place last August. No one talks about the refugee situation. Everyone talks about the kings with reverence – the good looks of the current king, the fifth king who's popularly known as K5, and the selflessness of the last king, the fourth king who abdicated the throne in favor of his son (and who is responsible for one of the most heartless ethnic-cleansing experiments in the modern world).

The monasteries are beautiful, the kings are good looking, and, oh, there's Gross National Happiness. Didn't the UN declare 20 March as the International Day of Happiness? Newspaper reports said the declaration came from Bhutan's inspiring concept of Gross National Happiness, didn’t they? That was endorsement enough. Life was good.

What were Landless and the other 106,000 displaced former citizens anyway?

Prajwal Parajuly writes about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan – in Land Where I Flee, his first novel, available now in hardback from Quercus Books at £16.99

Bhutanese people of Nepali origin have no means of repatriation to Bhutan. Photograph: Getty Images.

Prajwal Parajuly is an Indian-Nepali novelist. His debut novel, Land Where I Flee, is published on 6 February.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
Show Hide image

Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.