Expat Bhutanese activists appeal to UNDP to mediate reconciliation process in Bhutan

Together we are trying to draw attention to the Bhutan refugee crisis while calling for reconciliation between the Bhutanese government and the diaspora.

Suraj Budathoki Oct 09, 2023
Dr. Leong Ying shares his experiences of his recent visit to Bhutan

A year after the Bhutan army arrested Tika Ram Dhimal on 12 December 1990, his family had to get his body from the main hospital in Gelephug town near the Bhutan-India border. Dhimal was a citizen of Bhutan, a Hindu Pandit from the Lhotshampa community who are ethnic Nepalese.

More than 100,000 Bhutanese Lhotshampa, or one-sixth of Bhutan's population, were forced into exile in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to Bhutan's evolving ethnic and political dynamics. Human rights violations were rampant as the then government initiated policies that marginalised the Lhotshampa Bhutanese citizens.

Lhotshampa prisoners, who were in the detention centre with Dhimal and survived and were later released, have told Dhimal’s family of the daily torture Dhimal endured, aimed at extracting a confession about his alleged involvement in the mass protest against the government's "One nation, one people" policy. Under this policy, the Bhutanese government placed cultural and linguistic restrictions upon the Lhotshampa – from replacing Nepali as a classroom language with Dzongkha to forcing all citizens to follow the national dress code of the Driglam Namzha.

PIB members with speakers: Dr. Uzma Gul, Guy Djoken, and Dr. Susan Banki Picture Credits – Peace Initiative Bhutan
PIB members with speakers: Dr. Uzma Gul, Guy Djoken, and Dr. Susan Banki
Picture Credits – Peace Initiative Bhutan

The legacy continues.

Thirty-three years after Dhimal’s death, his son Kamal Dhimal sounded a poignant appeal at a United Nations General Assembly sideline event: “Let the past be a lesson, and let the pursuit of truth be a hope guiding the way toward a more compassionate and just future.”

Dhimal, 40, is president of the Global Bhutanese Hindu Organization in Columbus, Ohio. The organisation aims to provide a common platform to the Hindu Bhutanese/Nepali diaspora to work together towards the preservation and promotion of Vedic Sanatan Dharma through intellectual, spiritual, linguistic, and cultural activities by upholding values of dignity, mutual respect and unity among diverse communities.

Born in one of eight refugee camps in Nepal, 16-year-old Lazza Magar is now a high-school junior in Concord, New Hampshire. She and her mother, Hema Magar, along with Kamal Dhimal, were among the hundred or so persons, including many diasporic Bhutanese and members of the international community, who came together for "Voices of Resilience: Building Bridges for Peace in Bhutan."

Held at the Scandinavia House in New York City on 8 September 2023, the event was hosted by Peace Initiative Bhutan, the nonprofit I co-founded in 2022.

Collaborating for the event were non-profit organisations Team54 Project International and 1000 Shades of Women, both of which work to implement UN sustainable goals. Team54 works in the peace and climate change area, while 1000 Shades works for women's equality globally.

Together we are trying to draw attention to the Bhutan refugee crisis while calling for reconciliation between the Bhutanese government and the diaspora.

The event provided a platform for exiled Bhutanese Lhotshampa to share stories of family separation, including harrowing experiences like the death of loved ones during expulsion and the plight of political prisoners.

Challenges and resilience

There were also stories of resilience arising from situations like facing eviction from the homeland, becoming a refugee, and finding hope in the face of adversity.

Lazza’s father, Bhupal Magar, then barely 23 years old, went from the refugee camp in Nepal to meet relatives in Bhutan before seeking resettlement in the US. While in Bhutan, he was arrested on treason charges.

Magar is one of 37 known Lhotshampa who are considered political prisoners, “convicted under the draconian and vaguely worded 1992 National Security Act,” reports the New York-based rights body Human Rights Watch.  

“Most of them are held separately from other prisoners, in poor conditions, with many suffering physical or psychosocial (mental health) ailments, and are denied regular communication with their families.”

The Nepal Red Cross Society helped Lazza and her mother meet Magar in prison in Bhutan in 2016. They have not seen him since.

He was still incarcerated when Lazza and her mother came to the United States in 2017. Leaving the refugee camp and living far from where Magar remains incarcerated was a hard move.

He was known to support needy families in the refugee camp, helping them build houses, and doing whatever he could for others, Lazza told me.

At the UN sideline event, the teenager called for her father’s release, pleading with the international community and the King of Bhutan to “have mercy” upon Magar. 

In a moving speech, Dr Kumar Gurung, a former Bhutanese refugee and entrepreneur, paid tribute to ”the countless Bhutanese citizens who were forcibly exiled, tortured, killed, and who still remain missing or imprisoned.”

“We stand together in solidarity, seeking justice and honouring their memory,” said Dr Gurung, who launched the Triratna Foundation in Nebraska, US in 2021 as a humanitarian Buddhist volunteer setup.

The scars left by the violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he added, “continue to haunt our collective consciousness.”

We are here to amplify their stories, demand a fair and impartial examination of their cases, and ensure their fundamental human rights are respected, he said.

The strength of a nation “lies in its ability to acknowledge and rectify past injustices. It lies in the courage to confront the painful truths and to strive for a future built on compassion, inclusivity, and justice for all.”

“We recognise that healing our nation's wounds requires open dialogue, compassion, and a commitment to inclusivity,” concluded Dr Gurung. “The path to peace may be challenging, but it is one that we must walk together.”

At the end of the event, we formally invited the United Nations Development Programme to mediate the peacebuilding and reconciliation process, claiming its credibility and impartiality in the process.

On 21 September, I delivered this invitation in person to the Geneva office of the UNDP.

Keynote speaker Dr Gbujie Daniel Chidubem, founder and president of Team54 Project International, emphasised the importance of peacebuilding and reconciliation. He highlighted the transformative power of dialogue and understanding in bridging divides and fostering a future built upon cooperation and goodwill.

Adaptive approach

Other notable speakers who addressed the urgent need for reconciliation, justice, and building positive peace in Bhutan included Ambassador Didi Dior Fall, Dr Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, and Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyay, former Nepali ambassador to India and Bhutan.

Ambassador Upadhyay stressed the need to repatriate the Bhutanese refugees. He said that Nepal “is ready for dialogue” with the government of Bhutan to resolve the issue.

He termed the event “pivotal” in bringing together exiled Bhutanese communities, international thought leaders, and peacebuilders in a collective effort to foster reconciliation and lasting peace.

These powerful narratives and insightful discussions at last month's event created solidarity among our community and hopefully contributed towards cultivating understanding and laying the groundwork for a better future.

Participants adopted five crucial recommendations: seeking “an adaptive approach” to peacebuilding, seeking robust international support, implementing reconciliation initiatives with global involvement, recognising the critical role of trust-building, and pursuing measures to ensure the wellbeing of political prisoners.

Coming together in New York last month underscored and amplified a commitment to peace, reconciliation, and the well-being of Bhutanese communities within and outside the country's borders.

(The author is a Transformative Social Change doctoral student at Saybrook University in Pasadena, California, and is co-founder and president of Peace Initiative Bhutan. By special arrangement with Sapan News )

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