Dilli Ram Dhimal, 73, sits cross-legged on his bed in a bamboo shack in Goldhap, a camp that once housed some 5,000 Bhutanese refugees in southeastern Nepal. In a month he will arrive in America, a citizen of the New World. He stares at me through eyeglasses thick as a magnifying glass. He must be half-blind. He is dressed in a Nepali-style kurta shirt and baggy pants. His full beard is white and his brown skin is gnarled and wrinkled from decades of laboring in his rice paddy. He once owned six acres of paddy and a wooden house in Lali, a small village in the southeastern lowlands of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Dhimal’s father and grandfather were both born in Bhutan. As a young man he had worked on building the road to Thimphu, the kingdom’s capital in the mountains to the north. “I can remember when the king rode a donkey,” Dhimal says in Nepali, the only language he knows. “Now he rides in a car over the roads we built.”
Dhimal describes the day in June 1992 when Tshring Togbe, the district magistrate, arrived in Lali accompanied by Bhutanese soldiers. Togbe called the villagers to assemble and then announced over a loudspeaker that they had seven days to pack up their belongings and leave the country. He spoke to them in Nepali. When a few of the peasants protested, an army officer shouted, “This is a hunting ground, and we can take you like monkeys.”
Dhimal, his wife and five young children decided to leave. They had heard of people being killed in neighboring villages. He thought he would return in a few weeks, when things settled down. Before trekking toward the Indian border, he released his cattle.
By 1992 an estimated 80,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry had been pushed across the Bhutanese border into Indian territory. There, Indian army trucks immediately transported them to the Mechi River and pushed them across the border into Nepal. These refugees constituted at least 15 percent of Bhutan’s estimated population of 550,000.
Stranded in the open on the Mechi River bank just inside Nepal, the refugees were not exactly welcomed by their ancestral compatriots. The government in Kathmandu deemed the refugees citizens of Bhutan and requested assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Eventually, seven refugee camps were built in the southeastern districts of Jhapa and Morang, where the UN’s World Food Program fed them a daily ration. But the government of Nepal declined to issue work permits to the refugees. And so there the Bhutanese refugees languished for nearly two decades.
By 2007, because of natural population growth, approximately 108,000 refugees lived in the seven camps. In that year, the US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, brokered an agreement to resettle them in several Western countries. Astonishingly, more than 60,000 Bhutanese—many of them peasants like Dilli Ram Dhimal and his family—have already been resettled abroad. The vast majority, more than 50,000, have gone to the United States, with the rest resettling in Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Britain.
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By any definition, what happened in Bhutan in the years 1989–93 was ethnic cleansing. The Bhutanese government denies this and has refused to repatriate any of those forcibly expelled.
By all accounts, the problem began when the royal family was startled to learn from a government census in 1988 that the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas (literally, “southern people”) of southern Bhutan were threatening to become a majority. In response, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck promulgated a series of edicts that he said would preserve Bhutan’s cultural heritage. He defined this national culture, however, as Drukpa—the culture of the descendants of migrants from Tibet who practice Mahayana Buddhism and speak the Dzongkha language. The Drukpas have certainly been the dominant, ruling ethnic group in Bhutan for hundreds of years, but up until the 1980s Bhutan was a multiethnic society that included the Sharchops (also originally from Tibet), the Lhotshampas and more than a dozen other linguistic, ethnic and religious groups.