Society and Culture

Refugees blur Bhutan's image

Travelers are welcomed to Bhutan from around the world. There is a quota placed on the number of visitors allowed in per year, nominally to preserve the unique, isolated culture there. 

Jan 25, 2012

- David koppers

Peaceful kingdom or oppressive monarchy? Land of happiness or human rights violator? For much of its existence, Bhutan has sat perched in a world of its own, content in being left to its own devices. Traditional ways of life however have recently come undone. Along with the advances of the 21st century has come the reduced isolation that many nations were once comfortable with. Refugees from Bhutan have come forth to tell a very different story from the one popular in travel books and websites. 
An Internet search of the word Bhutan will lead visitors to a range of travel websites as well as spectacular images of mountain vistas and peaceful Buddhist temples. Only after further, careful searching will you find anything about the forced expulsion of a significant portion of the population. 
For hundreds of years, immigrants of Nepali descent have settled in the farmland composing Bhutan's southern valleys. In Bhutan they are known as Lhotshampa, or "southerners". 
In Dzongkha, Bhutan's official language, the Bhutanese refer to themselves as the Drukpa, or "dragon people". The people of Bhutan, originally of Tibetan origin, number only around 700,000. Increased immigration in the south has resulted in xenophobia. At one point the Lhotshampa were encouraged to intermarry and integrate into Bhutanese society. The policies of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck changed all of that. 
Gross National Happiness is a concept created by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck that has been adopted by much of the world. Countries around the world today are often measured by their Gross National Happiness. Creating a measure for the well-being of the people of your country is commendable, forcibly removing your country's minorities is not. 
Beginning in the 1980s, the king issued a policy in which all people in Bhutan must wear traditional Bhutanese style dress. The use of the Nepali language was suppressed and only Dzhongkha could be taught in schools. This inflamed the divide among the population. 
The 1990s saw a period of violence in which the Lhotshampa protested against government policies. Government forces clamped down on protests by raiding villages and attacking protesters. The Lhotshampa fought back and were promptly branded terrorists. 
News of these events were slow to reach the outside world. Few people inside the country even had televisions at the time. Only recently has the Internet been allowed. Bhutan has carefully crafted the image of itself as a land of peace and happiness. Bad news is suppressed, and to this day, few people know of the seriousness of its human-rights abuses. 
After refugee camps were set up in Nepal, victims of violence in Bhutan began to arrive. Often they were coerced into signing papers stating that they were leaving Bhutan voluntarily, when in fact, they were forced out. Repatriation efforts began after 2000 and since then, thousands of refugees have settled in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. 
In 2008, actor Michael J Fox visited Bhutan. His visit was televised as a journey of optimism to the land of peace. Fox was there as part of a spiritual quest to overcome his Parkinson's disease. His visit to the temples, parks and festivals was indeed, inspiring. He even claimed that his symptoms were reduced. 
Yet, as he talked about the immense happiness that he witnessed, there was no mention of a darker side. Perhaps he too, was kept in the dark. 
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the current king of Bhutan, was wed to Jetsun Pema on October 11, 2011. Their ceremony was the largest media event ever to take place in Bhutan. It proved to be Asia's version of the wedding of Prince Harry to Kate Middleton. 
Both couples are close in age and have much in common in their respective countries. Throughout the media coverage of the event, we again heard of Bhutan as the isolated mountain kingdom of peace and tranquility. For now at least, the current king has done little to change his father's preferred image of his country. 
Travelers are welcomed to Bhutan from around the world. There is a quota placed on the number of visitors allowed in per year, nominally to preserve the unique, isolated culture there. Exorbitant fees are placed upon those who apply for a visa. Tourists should boycott travel to Bhutan until human-rights grievances are addressed. 
Nepali refugees from Bhutan have struggled to adapt to life in their new homes. We can learn a lot from them their stories and what they have gone through in life to get where they are today. This story would not have been possible without them. 
David Koppers teaches Nepali refugees from Bhutan in Aurora, Colorado. 

( Asia Times Online)


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