11/07/2008, 00.00
NEPAL - BHUTAN
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Nepal, Bhutanese refugees ask new king for end of exile

by Kalpit Parajuli
For more than 120,000 refugees, the coronation of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel brings new hope for a possible return home. Doubts and confusion remain about the decisions that the young new sovereign will make. Activists warn that the monarchy is at risk, and threaten popular revolt.

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - Bhutanese refugees in Nepal are looking with hope, but also with some fear, to the coronation of the new monarch of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. More than 120,000 people - driven out by the previous monarchy - are living in exile in refugee camps in Nepal. The king had expelled them because he considered them irregular immigrants, since they were of Nepalese ethnicity. The rise to the throne of 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the son of Jigme Singye Wangchuk, is seen as a sign of hope for a possible return home.

S. B. Subba, president of the organization for human rights in Bhutan, says that the election of the new monarch is a source of "happiness" in the refugee camps, which are seeing a "rebirth of hope," but that it is necessary to "wait and see" what decisions the new king will make, because "the monarchy is the sole cause of our suffering." He also reiterated that the king "can make inroads into the minds and hearts of the people only if he permits citizens in exile to return home."

But doubts are being expressed by Teknath Rijal, one of the leaders of the struggle on behalf of refugees: "I will follow attentively the decisions of the new king," the activist says, "in order to understand if he will revise the policy of his father. The time has come to face all unresolved questions."

The coronation of the young king has been followed with great interest by television stations and internet sites all over the world, because of the sumptuous costumes and the magnificence of the ceremony, while the country welcomes the new sovereign with celebration. The Bhutanese refugees have been excluded from the event, having spent the last 17 years confined to the refugee camps set up by the United Nations in eastern Nepal. Most of them belong to the ethnic group of the Lhotshampas, of Nepalese origin, who from 1977-1985 suffered the discriminatory policies of the monarchy, which never granted them Bhutanese citizenship and forced them into exile. "If he does not take the question into hand," warns Teknath Rijal, " the monarchy will be at risk. The king of Bhutan could suffer the same fate as the king of Nepal," deposed by Maoist guerrillas, while the country has been turned into a democratic federal republic.

The view of Vampa Rai, coordinator of the committee for the repatriation of refugees, is more cautious. Rai expresses the hope that "the new, young, and modern king, educated at Oxford, may ease their return and promote the values of democracy."

The new course in Bhutan was promoted by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 2006, when he decided to abdicate; he remains the architect of the new democratic process, in which openness toward the outside is carefully calibrated to avoid losing the country's identity and spiritual values. The country is marked by various problems, including the situation of the young population, among whom crime, unemployment and drug use are widespread. At the time of leaving the throne to his son, King Wangchuk promised, beginning in 2008, to begin changes toward a constitutional monarchy, and create a parliament.

Bhutan, nestled between India and China, has a population of 2.3 million. Buddhism is the state religion, and public expression of any other religion is prohibited. Christians are about 0.5% of the population.

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