En route to the famous pilgrimage site of Taktshang, also known as Tiger’s Nest, Paro. Photo: Linda Pannozzo
Man passes through the present with his eyes blindfolded. He is permitted merely to sense and guess at what he is actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can he glance at the past and find out what he has experienced and what meaning it has had.
— From Milan Kundera’s Nobody Will Laugh
For a couple of hours in the winter of 2014, I was transported from my seat at a round table in Halifax’s Keshen Goodman Library back to the lush sub-tropical hills of southern Bhutan. Narayan Dhungana had gathered together three other members of the Bhutanese refugee community and translated (from English to Nepali and vice versa) as they recounted stories about what had happened to them in the early 1990s when they fled Bhutan. They were stories they mostly wanted to forget. What they told me that day confirmed what I had read on the subject and also corroborated what I discovered for myself when I was stationed in Bhutan for nine months in 2010-2011.
This piece is about telling their story, and mine, and trying to make sense of it all.
By the time Narayan Dhungana was born his family had been in Bhutan for three generations but they would soon learn that they had just outworn their welcome. The tiny land-locked Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China had become home to roughly 150,000 people of Nepali descent, roughly 25 per cent of the country’s population, most of whom lived in the south and were called the “southern people” or Lhotshampa.
In the summer of 1991, when the betel nuts hung low in ripe orange clusters, Narayan’s father Tika Ram remembers how the district administrator or Dungpa called all the villagers to a meeting and told them they had seven days to leave the country.
The village of Danabari, nestled in the dense sub-tropical jungles of the southern district then called Sarbhang, was built by the Lhotshampa. Narayan’s family had transformed eight acres of tangled jungle into terraced fields of rice, ginger, banana, oranges, and the lucrative betel nut. In a cultural activity dating back thousands of years, chewing the sliced nut wrapped in a betel leaf along with lime paste and other spices for flavouring results in a mild euphoria as well as an unsightly red residue that stains teeth and lips. In Bhutan they called the small mouth-sized package doma and the summer when three-year old Narayan, his parents, and five siblings ranging in age from one- to 10-years-old fled the country along with tens of thousands of other Lhotshampa, they remembered the pain and chaos of having to leave everything behind — their house, their belongings, their livestock, and all they produced including their beloved betel nut.
“We really felt sad because the year we left, people were already coming to buy our betel nut,” says Narayan.
Narayan’s father was also forced to abandon his cows, except for one that he chose for the long journey on foot into India and eventually to Nepal, where he and his family would languish in one of seven refugee camps set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for the better part of two decades before being offered re-settlement elsewhere in the world.
The expulsion of Narayan, his family, and a tide of 95,000 others would mark the culmination of tensions that had been building in Bhutan for years. It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly whole villages in southern Bhutan were emptied during that period of unrest. Through government resettlement programs, some of the villages were eventually resettled by northern Bhutanese families (Drukpa), while other villages remain depopulated to this day, the forests, and elephants, reclaiming the once-cultivated fields.
For reasons we will return to, the circumstances under which the Lhotsampa fled Bhutan are still shrouded in mystery.
Michael Hutt is a professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the University of London and author of the book Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan.
Hutt says that tensions between the Nepali south and Drukpa north began in the early 1950s when a political protest movement called The Bhutan State Congress had arisen calling for equal rights. He describes how it didn’t succeed in mobilizing the mostly deferential farmers of the south, and with most of its demands including land reforms being at least partially fulfilled by the 1960s, the movement became marginalized.
Other reforms included the establishment of a National Assembly in 1953, which included Lhotshampa representation, the freeing of serfs in 1956, and the construction of a road linking Thimphu with India. 1 In fact, some refer to this period as a “short-lived honeymoon” between the “state’s desire to assimilate the Nepali population and its recognition of that population’s distinct cultural heritage.” 2
In fact, according to Hutt, for more than half a century there was little contact between the Nepali south and the Drukpa north but from “1952 onwards the two halves of Bhutan were brought much closer together.” 3
In 1958 the country’s Nationality Law granted citizenship to all the settlers of Nepali descent and also allowed for the those coming after to apply for naturalization. Nepali as well as English and Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan) were taught in the southern schools right up until 1990. By 1991 the redistribution of power within the country was evident in the civil service where nearly 40 per cent of the positions were held by Lhotshampas. In the 1980s there were also policies put in place to help assimilate the Lhtoshampa with the Drukpa: school children of different backgrounds studied together and there were cash incentives for Lhotshampa-Drukpa intermarriage.
But by the mid-1980s the mood of inclusiveness shifted dramatically and belonging was no longer something to be taken for granted. Neither was citizenship.
In 2010, the same year Narayan and his family were on their way to start a new life in Halifax, my husband, seven-year-old daughter, and I were on our way to Bhutan. We were to spend nine months there, I as a senior researcher for a Nova Scotia-based NGO, Genuine Progress Index Atlantic, studying food security in the south eastern district of Samdrup Jongkhar for a project inspired and informally led by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (Buddhist teacher and filmmaker). The Initiative was at least partially funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). It contributed more than $460,000 dollars to GPI Atlantic to run the project over a period of 3 years. 4
The IDRC (using text provided by GPI Atlantic) describes the project this way:
The purpose of the Initiative is to raise living standards in Samdrup Jongkhar province beginning with food security and food self-sufficiency, while fully protecting and enhancing the natural environment; strengthening communities and stemming the rural-urban tide; and fostering a cooperative, productive, entrepreneurial and self-reliant spirit that will break the culture of dependence and endemic poverty that have characterized the region.
And here is where I came in:
Researchers will profile existing conditions in Samdrup Jongkhar; pilot, test and evaluate local participatory development initiatives; and finalize a development strategy and action plan for the region.
After two days of travel we landed in Guwahati — the “city of eastern light” and the ancient capital of Assam, India. It was nestled between the foothills of the Shillong plateau and the banks of the great Brahmaputra river — its waters melted from a glacier on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas.
The three-hour drive through the dusty, chaotic sprawl of India made our entry into Bhutan even more striking. It was there, at the border, that everything changed abruptly: the pace, the temperature, the landscape, the soundscape — everything.
The pancake flat plains of Assam gave rise to verdant sub-tropical jungles of Bhutan, home to 600,000 people, compared to 27 million in Assam alone — 340 people per square kilometer compared to Bhutan’s average of 17.
Unlike most borders, the one between India and Bhutan seemed less a political construct than a topographical reality. The dense and impenetrable forest rose up almost immediately, and would continue to rise, albeit gradually, until reaching the Himalayas in the north. But the differences were not only physical ones, they were myriad and had a lot to do with the choices the isolated country had made while its neighbours were racing willy nilly toward modernization and development. Differences that were palpable.
By 2010 I had some small sense of what made Bhutan unique — I had been reading whatever material I could lay my hands on and I already knew it had been a kingdom, ruled by kings since the early 1900s, but was now a consitutional monarchy governed by it’s first elected representatives — a fledgling democracy.
I also noticed (with delight) that the fifth and current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, looked a lot like Elvis and that the current government and especially its prime minister at the time, Jigmi Y. Thinley, was a huge supporter of something called Gross National Happiness (GNH), a term coined in 1972 by the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck as an alternative to western-style development placing societal and environmental well-being above profits.
The country was about the size of Switzerland with about nine per cent of its population. Climbing mountains was prohibited out of respect for local spiritual beliefs and Bhutan was the last nation on earth, in 1999, to allow television into the country. Travel to the country was limited by the prohibitive cost to do so—US$250 per day per person, a portion of that a tax to fund government programs.
Going to Bhutan was like being transported back in time. The high-end tourism it depended on was attracted to the promise of Shangri-la — a mystical and harmonious earthly paradise — and a public image the government also worked hard to curate.
But some information was getting harder to bridle. Like the fact that tens of thousands of people, not far from where we were to be stationed, fled the country during a period of unrest in the early 1990s. What I didn’t know is that it would affect my work in the country and that when back in Canada, I’d eventually meet some of those who had fled.
After receiving the A-OK and the requisite stamps and documents at the border crossing, we walked into the fresh, cool night air and officially crossed the border by passing under an ornate archway painted with a dragon and garuda.
The dragon — druk in the country’s national language — made sense because in Bhutan it was ubiquitous: a white scaly druk holding jewels appears on the yellow and orange national flag; Druk Gyalpo, or dragon kings, have run the country for a century; the national anthem translates to mean “The Kingdom of Druk;” and the country’s only airline is Druk Air.
But why the garuda?
In both Buddhism and Hinduism the garuda is a mythical bird — fierce and predatory and of such enormity — with a wingspan of many miles—that it’s said a human could hide in its plumage without being noticed. When its wings flap they are capable of creating hurricane-force winds.
Legend has it that in the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche, a figure born miraculously from a lotus flower, flew to Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a tigress, bringing Buddhism with him. For three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours, he meditated in a cave inside a rock-face about 900 metres above the Paro valley floor. It is here, perched on a series of precipitous granite ledges, that a group of monks more than 300 years ago built the monastery called Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest — a holy pilgrimage today. Guru Rinpoche later went on to take the form of a garuda to subdue a demon that had escaped from Tibet and was hiding inside a big rock in a place now known as Gomkora in eastern Bhutan.
Given how ubiquitous it is, the garuda could well be one of the best examples of what anthropologists call cultural diffusion: when cultural items — objects, ideas, styles, or religion — spread from one culture to another. Some say the garuda spread from Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, where it originated, to Bali in the span of 15 centuries. Apart from Bhutan, its image can be found in a number of countries, including Tibet, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bali.
I would soon learn that even though the garuda was proof that Bhutan was shaped and influenced by other cultures in ancient times, it was not something the modern nation wanted or encouraged. It wasn’t even something visitors to the country wanted. For me the garuda at the border came to symbolize the powerful forces within and outside Bhutan that wanted it preserved, against all odds, and at all costs.
If the garuda had its way, it would stop time.
By the 1980s, Bhutan’s mood of inclusion had turned sour and it was replaced with a more “essentialist ethnic vision.” 5 It began to promote its unique identity with a policy that became known as Driglam Namzha, or the way of conscious harmony. But in practice it was an enforced code of conduct that included compulsory dress, language, manners, architectural style, and official etiquette.
According to Hutt the enforcement of the code among the Lhotshampa began in 1989, and interviews with Nepali refugees in the camps reveal that the code was enforced through harrassment, assaults, imprisonment, or fines.
Narayan recalls that it was the pressure to follow the code and the disrespect towards Nepali culture that led to the dissent among the Lhotshampa. “They asked us to cut our hair and change our dress and we were denied to study Nepali in school.” This led to what Narayan calls a “revolution.”
The resulting protests and dissent among an unhappy Lhotshampa populace were used by the Bhutanese government to justify an expulsion. Kelly Greenhill is the author of the book Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy. Greenhill has studied more than 60 forced migrations in the world since the early 1950s, and she says that unlike the vast majority of migrations, the one that took place in Bhutan was not intended to influence the behaviour and decision-making of the state into which the migrants fled, but she says there was no doubt that what occurred in Bhutan was “strategically engineered.” 6
In 1988 the government began a Census, a process it claimed was to identify Bhutanese nationals and illegal immigrants. Lhotshampa refugees interviewed later in the camps by Hutt said the process was “designed to strip them of the citizenship they had previously been granted and reduce the size of the ethnic Nepali population of Bhutan.” 7
For a Lhotshampa to be recorded in the census register they had to produce a tax receipt dated 1958 — the same year Bhutan’s first Nationality Law was enacted — which was in many cases a difficult task since tax receipts nearly three decades old might not have been kept or were often in other relatives’ names.
Lhotshampa were also required to produce a Certificate of Origin proving where they were born. Lhotshampa were categorized into one of seven categories — from F1, a “genuine Bhutanese citizen” to F7, a “non-national (i.e. migrant or illegal settler).
According to Amnesty International, at the beginning of the census there were very few who had been registered as F7, but over the course of a couple years and more rounds of census surveys, people found themselves downgraded. 8
Narayan’s parents, who had Bhutanese citizenship, were downgraded during the Census. “Our parents were born in Bhutan but were categorized as F7 because their marriage happened in India,” says Narayan. “My mom had no one in Bhutan because her parents died when she was seven years old and she was working in someone’s home. During the marriage she went to her uncle’s house in India and her marriage happened there.”
By 1990, the Bhutanese government reported that the various census surveys had detected more than 100,000 illegal immigrants — F7s. According to Amnesty International, the government failed to make known in advance what would happen to those who fell into that category.
Hutt observes that “a struggle over historical truth commonly arises when people become refugees.” 9
In this case, pinpointing how and when the Nepalis had come to settle in southern Bhutan is not only crucial to their claims of citizenship, it is hotly contested. According to Hutt and others, in the 1860s there was a mass migration of over-exploited and indebted “peasant farmers” from the hills of eastern Nepal into neighbouring countries. British plantation owners imported tens of thousands of these farmers into Sikkim—as labourers for Darjeeling’s burgeoning tea industry. Nepali immigrants also immigrated to northern Assam and southwestern Bhutan to work as farmers. 10
Hutt acknowledges that this time frame is disputed by some Nepali historians who say there was an appreciable and permanent Nepali presence in Bhutan starting in the 17th century. Bhutan disputes this claim, however, as does Hutt, who argues that based on the weight of historical evidence — particularly the official accounts of British envoys into the region — there probably wasn’t a Nepali community in southern Bhutan before 1865. 11
Another bone of contention is the question of when the movement into Bhutan slowed down. Hutt and others say it subsided after the 1930s, while Bhutan maintains it continued well into the 1980s, with much of it being illegal.
Narayan’s grandfather, who died in Halifax in 2015, told him that their ancestors originally came from eastern Nepal and were hired as labourers in Bhutan to build houses, stupas, and roads, and eventually decided to settle there. But when Narayan’s family was in Goldhap, the refugee camp they called home for two decades, he says his uncle travelled to the place in Nepal where his ancestors were to have come from but “no one would claim us as their relatives.”
Looking back, the “revolution” that Narayan described was very likely reminding the Bhutanese government of another revolt that took place just a few years earlier in another Buddhist Kingdom bordering it on the west. One that didn’t end so well.
Prior to 1975, Bhutan and the small country of Sikkim, bordering it on the west were the only two Buddhist kingdoms in the subcontinent—ruled by kings with a national culture based on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. 12
Sikkim’s growing Nepali-speaking population — as a result of immigration and a high birth rate — demanded greater representation and formed an anti-monarchy party, which led to internal strife and the inabiltiy of the ruler to maintain control. As a result, Sikkim lost its independence and was annexed by India, which feared that in the chaos China could act on its claim to the small country. Today the Nepali-speaking population represents the vast majority of the population of the Indian state while the original Sikkimese are only a small minority. Many argue that if Bhutan didn’t expell the growing Lhotshampa population, it would have been the next Sikkim.
Narayan and his family and friends who gather to meet me at the Keshen Goodman Library recount painful stories of rape and torture at the hands of Bhutanese officials and being forced to sign papers renouncing their citizenship. While allegations like these, also made by Bhutanese refugees in the camps and reported by Hutt, have been denied by the Bhutanese government, they have been corroborated by human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Through tight controls — of the media and the population — Bhutan has managed to maintain a sanitized collective memory of that period. Foreign journalists are not allowed into Bhutan (and if they are there in that capacity, what they are reporting on must be pre-approved). Bhutanese who talk about it run the risk of being “black-listed” and foreigners who do, risk being deported.
During my field research I was not allowed entry into certain villages — my whereabouts were fairly tightly controlled — but I was told in confidence that in some of them there was physical evidence of the expulsion: stone foundations where the wooden structures once stood, the rickety skeletons of long-abandoned houses, and the still-standing but completely empty infrastructure to support a sizable population (i.e. hospitals, schools, post offices). At one point I was warned not to ask any more questions relating to the explusion.
In the final report I submitted for the project, I included some of the information I obtained from interviews and reported the hardship faced by the Lhotshampa who remained. For many, their depopulated villages were reclaimed by the jungle, their houses and fields overun by wild elephants. But the Bhutanese project directors decided that some of the information I reported was too politically sensitive and that the report could only be published after all references to Lhotshampa and the expulsion were removed from the report, something I refused to go along with. I was told that western interference (like mine) could affect the country’s sovereignty and security.
While my report remains conspicuously absent from the IDRC’s project site, GPI Atlantic agreed to post the 300-page uncensored version on its Web site.
In 2005 the UNHCR, which had been excluded from the unsuccessful negotiations between Nepal and Bhutan over repatriation, released a statement which read in part: “We can’t keep them eternally in the camps. It’s inhuman and criminal to leave them there and it’s incumbent on all parties to put an end to this protracted situation.”
Today, not one of the refugees has been allowed back into the Bhutan. For its part, the Bhutanese government claimed the UNHCR failed to screen individuals who originally entered these camps to verify whether they had any ties to Bhutan.
By 2015, roughly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees had been resettled all over the world — about 6,500 in Canada, 5,500 in Australia, 1,000 in New Zealand, and a few hundred each in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. But the vast majority — nearly 85,000 — found homes in the U.S. There are still several thousand refugees in the remaining two camps. 13
Starting in 2009, Bhutanese refugees started arriving in Halifax. When refugees first arrive, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) steps in to deliver resettlement assistance, including help with finding accommodation, accessing health care and other services. But after that first year, ISANS no longer keeps track of their numbers, their success or whether they stay here or not.
But Narayan and his brother Rupesh, who both ran a group called Druk Atlantic Youth, had been keeping track. He kept an informal record of all the Bhutanese families that were arriving with their contact information. He says that by 2016 there were roughly 120 families, or more than 600 refugees living in Halifax, but these numbers are now on the decline.
For Narayan’s family, the experience of being a refugee in Halifax depends on the generation.
For Narayan and his five siblings, the future has always been hopeful and wide open. He just graduated from Business Administration with an Accounting major from Mount Saint Vincent University and is looking for entry-level accounting work. He’s also now a father of a three-month-old boy named Maulik (meaning precious in Nepali). His two brothers have married women in Nepal who they are trying to sponsor and bring to Canada. His three sisters have married, and live in Halifax, New Brunswick, and Ontario.
But for Narayan’s parents, the experience of leaving behind the only homeland they ever knew is still a painful one. His father chose Canada for resettlement — afraid of all the stories of suicide among Bhutanese refugees in the United States — and for the most part, Narayan tells me, they “really love” Halifax.
Narayan says that despite this, his parents are considering relocating to Guelph, Ontario, following in the footsteps of one of their daughters and the 20 or so other families who moved there from Halifax this year to be closer to the US, where the vast majority of Bhutanese refugees — and some of their relatives — were resettled. “Three more families are moving to Guelph in the middle of September,” he says. “The youth are frustrated here because they cannot find a job,” Narayan says. Not even low-paying, menial jobs. “We lost two people so far in Halifax — both of them suicide. One was 26 years old and the other was a senior, aged 70.”
In the late 1990s, in what seemed like an attempt to erase the past, the Bhutanese government introduced new spelling conventions and in some cases new names for many of the place names in southern Bhutan. For instance, Narayan says the district of Sarbhang, where his family lived, was renamed Sarpang and his village of Danabari was renamed Chuzagang and resettled with Bhutanese from the north.
It’s as if the place where Narayan’s parents spent more than half their lives is officially gone, along with any faint hope they might have had of ever returning.
If they could just get their hands on a garuda, I know where they’d be flying back to.
Linda Pannozzo is the author of two non-fiction books — The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Fernwood, 2013) and About Canada: The Environment (Fernwood, 2016). She is a freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia.
- In 1962 a 175-km paved road linking Thimphu, the country’s capital with Phuntsholing, at the southwestern Indian border was completed. ↩
- Hutt, M., 2003. Unbecoming Citizens. Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 128. ↩
- Hutt, p. 145. ↩
- Full disclosure: I never received a salary for any of the work I did in Bhutan. In exchange, travel and living expenses for the three of us were covered, which amounted to a total of roughly $20,000 over a period of nine months. ↩
- Hutt, M., 2003, p. 164. ↩
- Personal Communication with Kelly Greenhill, January 26, 2016. Her 2010 book was published by Cornell University Press. Greenhill is a research fellow at the International Security Program at Harvard University and an associate professor at Tufts University. ↩
- Hutt, M., 2003, p. 153. ↩
- Amnesty International 1992 report cited in Hutt, pp. 155-156. ↩
- Hutt, p. 25. ↩
- Hutt says that the Gorkhali empire in Nepal had begun “a campaign of conquest and expansion” that required revenue. Revenue that was generated by subjecting the peasant farmers to high levels of taxation and rents. He writes: “The new elites in some districts [in Nepal] used the peasants’ growing indebtedness as a pretext for enslaving them or wresting ancenstral lands from their control. Many responded by migrating eastward, usually to locations where environmental conditions approximated to those of the places they left behind, and where the same modes of cultivation could be employed.” Hutt, p. 23. ↩
- Hutt, p. 38. Note: The article linked to titled “Bhutan: A Kingdom Besieged” was written by Jigmi Y Thinley, who became the first elected prime minister of Bhutan, strong advocate of Gross National Happiness, and supporter of the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative. ↩
- Tibet, located to the north of Bhutan, was also incredibly unique in that it was a Buddhist theocracy, governed by Dalai Lamas. Prior to the 1900s, Bhutan was also a Buddhist theocracy but this system of governance was replaced with a hereditary Buddhist monarchy when Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the first hereditary ruler of Bhutan in 1907. ↩
- http://www.unhcr.ca/news/resettlement-of-bhutanese-refugees-surpasses-100000-mark/ ↩