04/28/2010, 00.00
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Bhutan takes the spotlight in South Asia, but forgets about its Nepali refugees

by Nirmala Carvalho
For the first time in its history, the small Himalayan kingdom is host to a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit. Whilst opening up to the world, the country has not solved the problem of 80,000 Nepali refugees stuck for the best part of 20 years in camps. Karma Duptho, a Bhutanese dissident in exile, tells AsiaNews about the refugee situation. “We are less hopeful that repatriation will take place any time soon,” he said.
Timphu (AsiaNews) – Issues related to climate change and natural disaster prevention are the main items on the agenda of the 16th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) currently under way in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. The theme of this year’s meeting, “Towards a Green and Happy South Asia”, coincides with the 25th anniversary of the organisation, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

For the small kingdom perched on the top of the Himalayas, the 2010 SAARC summit represents a key moment in its history. In fact, it is the first time that Bhutan plays host to the association and is a further sign of its opening up to the rest of the world after decades of voluntary isolation.

Still, the country has many problems to solve, not the least the presence of 80,000 Nepalis held in refugee camps on the border with Nepal. Between 1977 and 1991, then Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck expelled the Nepalis as part of a policy of Bhutanisation, whose ultimate aim was the creation of a Buddhist state free of foreign influence.

AsiaNews spoke to Karma Duptho, secretary of the Druk National Congress, an exiled Bhutanese political movement in India.

“The SAARC summit will provide a window to show Bhutanese culture, the country’s natural beauty and the sense of hospitality of its people. Unfortunately, there is no hope for repatriation for the refugees. Recently, the government said it wants to take back the refugees but it is only a delaying tactic. For demographic reasons, the Government of Bhutan wants to readmit only a small number.”

“Bhutanese refugees have written to SAARC leaders on several occasions, asking to go home. There is nothing new in that. Sadly, no one has listened to them; no concrete action has been taken. One of SAARC’s principles is that of non-interference to avoid international scrutiny. We are less hopeful that repatriation will take place any time soon. Yet, we are proud that our country is hosting for the first time the SAARC summit and this on its 25th anniversary. We are happy that foreigners can visit our country and get to know its people.”

“On the other hand, we realise that the international community has accepted that repatriation will occur only after 2010 when 80,000 people will be resettled in Western countries. Some 30,000 refugees have already found a home in the West. Recently, the Government of Nepal has issued 8,000 more travel documents” for the refugees.

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See also
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India and Pakistan talking again but without a specific agenda
Democratisation in Bhutan all for show, exiled Bhutanese dissident says
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