06/06/2006, 00.00
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Bhutanese celebrate King Jigme's reign as 110,000 refugees protest

by Prakash Dubey
Whilst the king is praised and commended on the 32nd anniversary of his reign for setting the country on the path of democracy and modernisation, 110,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin, forced into exile, are forgotten.

Thimphu (AsiaNews) – Last Friday the Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, celebrated his 32nd year on the throne. During the ceremony he was warmly applauded for leading the country towards the goal of democracy. But not all is well in the mountain kingdom for some 110,000 refugees who complain about their fate.

King Jigme is famous for saying that the "gross national happiness is more important than the gross national product", noted health worker Aum Dorjee, who credits the monarch with moving the country from a "medieval phase towards modernisation." What is more, "thanks to the king services have improved, roads built, literacy reached 60 per cent with 135,000 pupils attending schools, and employment grown," he said.

Only Tibetan-Bhutanese adhering to Tibetan Buddhism have however profited of the changes; Bhutanese of Nepali origin who follow a different Buddhist tradition have been left out. For the latter King Jigme's regime is one of despotism since all 110,000 of them are stuck in refugee camps in eastern Nepal bordering India.

"Their only sin is that they are of Nepalese ethnic background and don't adhere to Tibetan Buddhism," explained a Bhutanese refugee now working as a fruit trader in Nepal. "In eighties after being in the country for a century they started demanding equality with ethnic Tibetan-Bhutanese because they, too, were contributing to the its development," he said. "Over a century ago their forefathers migrated to Bhutan to work in agriculture and clearing forests. But that was their doom. In 1990 they were forcibly elbowed out of the country. India did not come to their rescue; instead, they were pushed into Nepal, the land of their ancestors."

Only international aid has enabled the refugees to survive. "But their life is truly pathetic," said Father Varkey, a Catholic priest who works for the Jesuit Refugee Service. "Foreign aid workers come year after year and find that refugees who came as children have become adults. They also find much suffering."

"Let us pray that Bhutan, Nepal and India assume their responsibilities and allow these people to carry on a dignified life," he said.

Shivendra Poudel is one of the refugees. He is pessimistic about a possible return to Bhutan, at least until the political situation does not change. "For this reason, we are protesting June 2. For us the king is a despot."

Last Friday more than 6,000 refugees crossed the Mechi bridge, the no-man's land that connects Nepal and India, to stage a sit-in shouting slogans against the Bhutanese king.

"We are not against the monarchy," Poudel said. "We'd like to celebrate June 2 as well, but we are stateless. He [the king] threw us out. We are without a homeland. And all we can do is protest against our status."

"Many of us have lost all hope," he lamented. "The desire for justice might even lead to violence, especially among the young. Should this happen, King Jigme would be the lone culprit. How ironic that would be for someone who claims to adhere to Buddhist principles of peace and non violence."

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See also
Bhutanese PM in Nepal, deaf to appeal by 50,000 refugees
Only university graduates to run for office in Bhutan's first 'democratic' elections
Nepal, Bhutanese refugees ask new king for end of exile
Nepali nationalists call for vice-president’s resignation
Bhutan takes the spotlight in South Asia, but forgets about its Nepali refugees


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