Bhutan Crowns New King: Refugees Barely Remembered

On November 6th, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan officially crowned a new King, who was appointed almost two years ago. The fifth Dragon King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is an Oxford-educated 28-year-old and the eldest son of the fourth and previous Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. His coronation ceremony was attended by political heavyweights from neighboring India-including President Ms. Pratibha Patil and entertainers from Bollywood.

His Majesty, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck: Image by grassvalleybrent, used under a Creative Commons License

While Bhutan celebrated the coronation, the country and King Wangchuck barely remembered 100,000 ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese driven out by his father during the 1990s and now living as refugees in Nepal. In his message to the nation after assuming the throne, the new King promised to shield the country from “outside influence” but did not mention the refugees.

The region’s media was quick to pick up on the glaring omission. Taipei Times, India’s The Statesmen along with many others mentioned the refugee issue in their report on the coronation. Bloggers are also busy discussing the Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal.

Bhutan News, a non-partisan blog, informed just days before the coronation that the “refugees are in a state of flux”. Blogger Narayan Sharma expresses frustration over the long-overdue process of creating an environment where refugees can safely return to their homeland and blames Bhutan’s regime for the delay.

“Refugees’ hope of return has been lessened presently as the Druk regime has now the possibility to further procrastinate the issue with the new-found alibi of people’s representatives needing to decide the issue.”

Bibek Bhandari, a journalism student, wrote about the coronation and the refugee question for SAJAforum, mentioning the long history of ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan and that they were not exactly recent migrants.

“Approximately 103,000 Bhutanese Lhotshampas–descendants of Nepalese who moved to the southern lowlands of Bhutan in the nineteenth century–have been confined to several refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal since 1990. They have been forced to leave the country by the former monarch in the early 1990s during a campaign to impose compulsory national dress and ban the Nepalese language.”

Some bloggers are also discussing whether the recent decision to resettle the refugees in a third country will do any good and how moving to yet another foreign country might affect them.

At 510Report Adelaide Chen writes about the Bhutanese refugees resettled in Oakland, California who are trying to adjust to their new life in America by getting an education and learning English.

“Kharel and her sister are among the seven students from Bhutan attending the GED class several nights a week. She knows some of the other refugees, because they lived in the same camp for 17 years. Among the refugees from Bhutan that have accepted an offer to come to the U.S., few have expectations they will return to their homeland again.”

Maureen Sieh also writes about the refugees’ struggle to adjust to a new land. This time it is about those Bhutanese who have been resettling in Syracuse, New York.

“Hari Adhikari was a leader in one of the refugee camps. Now, he's helping Catholic Charities resettle some of the people he worked with in the refugee camps……He asks people if they have any problems with their apartments, budgeting and any other concerns they might have. He tells them that there are agencies here to help them, but they also have to be able to help themselves find jobs.”


  • Wangchug

    Once again, Nepal lashes out at Bhutan with Dull fangs. I find it humorous that when there is a media lull in Nepal, there is the first impulse to attack Bhutan. Bhutan had a ruler who had almost force the power unto the people, Nepal has a ruler who power had to be wrested away from in violence and protests.

    “approximately 103,000.” These figures are ludicrous, and seem to change with ever fervid and illogical attack by the Nepalese media. Bhutan sticks by the facts that there were only 4000 ethnic Nepalese who left, half of whom were forced by the other half which were dissidents in a immature “if we can’t stay, then why should you.” impulse.

    the rest were all poor Nepalese from surrounding areas who wanted the free aid that was being given to the 400 refugees. Poor screening meant that in less than one year the numbers ballooned to 100,000. Bhutan does not have the manpower to expel a seventh of their population!

    These claims are grounded in irrationality.

  • I think you article needs to straight its facts first.

    The first settlement of nepalese in bhutan wasn’t in the 19th century, it was from the early 1900s. There were more and continuous flow of settlements after the development plans began in 1961. The source of the illegals was from this wave.

    The refugees weren’t legal citizens that were ‘driven out’ because they refused to wear the gho and kira. Why would they be wearing the gho and kira in the refugee camps then? And teaching Dzongkha in those schools? Something is clearly not right with this picture.

    The so-called refugee crisis in southern bhutan is a problem created by politically-minded activists of nepali origin, like the problems they created in Darjeeling, Sikkim, Kalimpong and North Bengal. In Assam and Meghalaya, they were brutally chased out by the locals before their numbers became large enough to pose a real threat.

  • Ashang

    I have gone through almost every news article that was published in the wake of the Coronation ceremony and found only few did mention the refugee issue and they were almost a footnote at the end of a litany of praises and appreciation shrouded on the actions of our far-sighted monarchs.

    There are, as always, a spate of articles, written by half-baked journalist based in Nepal, who did not even have the professional ethic to get their facts right in the first place. A good many of them are blatantly aimed at creating discords of all hues and to misinform the general mass. A number of reports are pock-marked with factual errors and may be this has led to not many people in the international arena taking any note of the issue any more.

    Bhutan, as a nation, is in a far more stable and better position than it ever was. And there is a renewed sense of national fervour. In spite of all the ill-efforts being put into, we are becoming more convinced in our conviction that this issues, which was brought about on the so-called helpless refugees by the politically and radical-charged actions of their brethren in the early 1990s, will linger on with no possible and immediate respite.

  • tshering

    Refugees are no more issue for Bhutanese.The refugees should ask their leaders who had earlier brainwashed them to leave the country to help them find homes. Those who are rich like Bhim Subba, R B chhetri and all will stay rich whether they are in Bhutan or in Nepal. It is the poor farmers who suffered in the middle and the blame largely goes to both the leader and the led among the refugees. By the ways, refugees really made nepal government lot of dollars in the name of aids from donor agencies and of course space for poor people from india and nepal also ate much of the left over pies of the refugees. It is time to curse the luck and your own stupidity.

  • Nepal has become a cheap dustbin for the Bhutanese to dump their frustration about the refugees. Guess what – Nepalese media, politicians, political parties, everything are a subject of dislike. Unable to get their arguments across the Bhutanese are crossing limits as far as screwing up historical facts and interpreting history their way.

    The bottom line – forced expulsion of the nepali speaking southerners is a carefully planned state strategy to depopulate and minimize the southern population to 25% of the total population. The Bhutanese regime hopes to fan away potential troubles from the southerners by keeping their population under control. Maintaining a demography in which the northerners have an upperhand is uppermost in the regime’s plans. Bhutan’s statistics shows that its population was 1.2 million in 1971 when it joined the UN. Now it is a little over 600,000. Where did half of the popualtion go? It may be approprite to reflect here that some papers reported the southern Bhutanese constituting almost 50% of the Bhutan’s total population. Guess the links!

  • James Shelton

    The important issue here is not who created the refugee situation, but how are all stake holders, including the NGO’s and donor nations, going to rebuild hope, security, sustainable production, and economic well being for these refugees.

  • This is simply misleading trying to cover up the real cause that actually caused the problem. The issue, who created the refugees is important, for without knowing the reasons for its cause, no solution can be worked out. Stakeholders, NGOs, donor nations, rebuilding hope, security, economic well being etc are elements that came up after the refugees have been created. Had Bhutan not evicted its citizens in the manner it did, the talk would have been straight. No refugees, no issues that James is raising.

    It is important to hold Bhutan responsible and accountable for violating the rights of its citizens who came from different ethnic and cultural stock. The real stake holder is the governemnt of Bhutan and the real place for rebuildng hope is Bhutan. It is where the ramp meets the road.

  • Carrie

    After reading the comments from the Bhutanese readers it makes me wonder if these people are really Budhists, there is not a single word of sympathy for refugees. They may be from Nepal but shouldn’t someone be concerned about their future. They are people like us who strive to have their own home and earn their living.Once UNHCR recognise them as refugees the whole World accept them as refugees just as UN recognise Bhutan as under developed countries in need of aid and assistance from developed countries to uplift the life of Bhutanese. One can’t accept or not accept the rules of UN only when it suits them or only to benefit them. UNDP office in Bhutan is there to assist Bhutan in development of the country and UNHCR is there in Nepal to look after the refugees.

  • Carrie,
    Maybe you should start by wondering about the basis upon which the UNHCR ‘recognized’ the refugees to be Bhutanese citizens in the first place. If the claim was that they were refugees and they left it at that, i think the whole world, Bhutan included would be a part of the solution in finding support for them. But UNHCR has pronounced them to be citizens of Bhutan and they have absolutely no basis for that except the words of the refugees themselves. According to the UNHCR there has been absolutely no illegal immigration in our region and this is absolutely laughable. The open unmanned borders in South Asia is leading to demographic problems even for a large country like India which is being flooded by Bangladeshis in the north east. The UNHCR therefore overstepped their mandate as well as their capabilities by making judgements about the citizenry of undocumented people.

    They therefore turned a humananitarian matter into a political problem for Bhutan. So before we start talking about the humanitarian issues I think it is important for the UNHCR to either withdraw their baseless claims or defend them. So far their only defense has been the claims of the refugees themselves. And that’s hardly a neutral source of factual information.

  • Conscious Citizen

    UNHCR should not be blamed for recognizing the ‘Bhutaneseness’ of the Bhutanese refugees. The UNHCR is a responsible international body. It has a strict screening process in place that qualifies only those with valid proof of Bhutanese identity as refugees. Citizenship identity cards, tax receipts, land ownership documents are some of the documents they look into to determine the originality of an individual seeking refugee status. These criteria may not be what the Bhutanese government would have liked, but among the international organizations that is a common practice. UNHCR has the experience and expertise to do what it is doing interntionally.

    And yes, no one but the refugees themselves are the living proofs of the ethnic cleansing. When they can do that with their own life stories, what more is required?

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.