Before my family was expelled from Bhutan, in 1992, I lived with my parents and seven siblings in the south of the country. This region is the most fertile part of that tiny kingdom perched between Tibet and India, a tapestry of mountains, plains and alpine meadows. Our house sat in a small village, on terraced land flourishing with maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes. That was the only home we had known.
After tightening its citizenship laws in the mid-1980s, Bhutan conducted a special census in the south and then proceeded to cast out nearly 100,000 people — about one-sixth of its population, nearly all of them of Nepalese origin, including my family. It declared us illegal immigrants, even though many of us went back several generations in Bhutan. It hasn’t let any of us move back.
The enormity of this exodus, one of the world’s largest by proportion, given the country’s small population, has been overlooked by an international community that is either indifferent or beguiled by the government-sponsored images of Bhutan as a serene Buddhist Shangri-La, an image advanced by the policy of “gross national happiness,” coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s.
Bhutan even helped inspire the United Nations last year to declare March 20 the International Day of Happiness — a cruel irony to those of us who were made stateless by the king, who was an absolute monarch when we were expelled.
Many of our ancestors were recruited from Nepal in the mid-19th century to cultivate the arable land of southern Bhutan. We are known as Lhotshampa — literally, people of the south. The Drukpas, the Buddhist elite, and the Hindu Lhotshampa had coexisted, largely in peace, until 1989, when the king introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy imposing Drukpa social norms on everyone. The edict controlled the smallest details of our public lives: how we ate, dressed and talked. The Nepali language was banned in schools, and Hindu pathshalas, or seminaries, which teach the Sanskrit scriptures, were closed.
Protests demanding an end to the absolute monarchy and persecution of the Lhotshampa beginning in summer 1990 were quashed, and repression — including torture, sexual assault, evictions and discriminatory firing — intensified. As part of the government’s campaign of intimidation in the south, my school was suddenly closed. That day, the headmaster summoned us to an assembly, announced that we were to collect our belongings and told us to go home at once. I passed my final months in Bhutan not completing the fourth grade, but helping to rear our animals.
One winter day in 1991, my mother was in the kitchen, my father was shaving and my siblings and I were gathered for snacks. It must have been noon — I remember the buzzing of bees leaving for their routine forage — when uniformed officers burst into the house and seized our citizenship documents, birth certificates and other papers. They accused my father of waging war against the government. They ordered him to put on his bakkhu, the Drukpa national outfit, which was still wet from the wash that morning, and then dragged him out, kicking him and slapping his face. He was taken with dozens of our neighbors to a high school that had been converted to a military camp.
My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell. They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chilies in his cell just to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.
Not knowing when we’d be back, we set our animals free and left open the doors and windows of the house. We walked in spring showers to the border with India, through forest and valleys. At the border, the Indians, who wanted nothing to do with us, piled us into trucks and dumped us at the doorstep of Nepal.
We were among the 90,000 Bhutanese refugees who flooded shelters in eastern Nepal at that time. The population grew to more than 115,000, as people kept trickling in and children were born. My parents, a brother and I have called these shelters our home for 21 years.
The original seven refugee camps have shrunk to two, but almost 36,000 people continue to live in misery here. More than 80,000 have been resettled in other countries; 68,000, including my wife, most of my siblings and extended family, have moved to the United States. I expect to be able to join them very soon.
Helping us, though, is not the same as helping our cause: every refugee who is resettled eases the pressure on the Bhutanese government to take responsibility for, and eventually welcome back, the population it displaced.
Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, two years after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne to his eldest son. To live up to its promises of democracy and its reputation as a purveyor of happiness, the government must extend full civil rights — including citizenship and the right to vote — to all of the Lhotshampa still in its borders. It also must allow those Lhotshampa it expelled to return.
Instead, Bhutan has steadfastly ignored our demands; multiple rounds of talks between Bhutan and Nepal over the status of the Lhotshampa have yielded little progress.
The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to this calamity. The United Nations must insist that Bhutan, a member state, honor its convention on refugees, including respecting our right to return.
Other countries bear responsibility, too. Nepal, impoverished and internally divided, is already home to large numbers of Tibetan refugees and other stateless peoples, and has not welcomed the Lhotshampa, even though we share an ancestry. Nor has it adequately sought help from other countries to manage its refugee problem. India should use its influence to pressure Bhutan to do the right thing; it should then reopen the roads it created to accommodate the exodus of refugees — but this time to allow our safe return.
But until the world looks behind the veil of the Shangri-La, I have no hope of retracing my path home.
Vidhyapati Mishra is the managing editor of Bhutan News Service, a news service for Bhutanese refugees. He wrote this essay from the Beldangi II refugee camp.