Gross National Reconciliation in Bhutan

It is possible now to build a peace and reconciliation process in the world’s ‘happiest country’

Members of Peace Initiative Bhutan at the West Wing in Washington DC last month. All photos: PEACEINITIATIVEBHUTAN.

Bhutan’s much-touted happiness rating rests atop a bed of pain of more than 100,000 refugees evicted from their country. I know, because I am one of them.

I come from a working class family that lived in Bhutan for generations, with no interest or involvement in politics. My community, known in Bhutan as Lhotshampa, traditionally lived in the south of the Himalayan country.

In 1989, Bhutan conducted a national census and revoked our citizenship after retroactively implementing the country’s 1985 Nationality Law. The policy of ‘national integration’ and ‘revocation of citizenship’ catalysed our community’s large-scale exodus.

One night, the coal mine office at the Bhutan-India border where my father worked as a clerk was attacked and ransacked. The next day, security personnel picked up my father and severely beat him.

They questioned his patriotism and nationality and tried to get him to confess to the destruction and reveal who was behind it. My father, born to a simple farming family, had no clue. After this traumatic experience, he made the hard decision to leave the country.

On March 3, 1990, we were among the people of Bhutan who fled the country for safety. I was nine years old. We were sent to India, and from there taken in trucks to Timai, a refugee camp in eastern Nepal, where I grew up.

The United States Refugee Resettlement Program helped me relocate to America in 2009. Two years later, my family joined me and we are now well settled. But together with all of us who were traumatised by statelessness, want to heal the pain of dislocation.

Those who left Bhutan felt compelled by the threat to their lives, identity, culture, and language. In some cases, the state pushed them out through its crackdown on human rights and political activists, including some who were exiled and members of political parties accused of engaging in violence.

The violence has decreased over the years, but this does not mean that the threat is gone, nor that there is positive peace.  Many Lhotshampa citizens are still missing, others have been killed, and close to 50 political prisoners are serving life sentences in Bhutan’s prisons.

The King recently released six political prisoners, and commuted a life sentence.

Till last year, approximately 6,300 Bhutanese refugees were still languishing in two remaining refugee camps in Nepal. Many of the over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in eight western countries have not been able to return to the land of their birth with which they have an intense attachment.

The Peace Initiative Bhutan started in 2020 by families who are divided between Bhutan and the countries they have been resettled in.

Its goal is to end the polarisation and distrust between people back home in Bhutan and overseas. Peace Initiative Bhutan currently functions under the auspices of Global Citizens Circle, founded in 1974 in the USA which was formed during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Peace Initiative Bhutan is not interested in ‘defeating’ the government in Thimphu. We want a ‘win-win’ solution which we know will not be easy or quick. But it is possible through a sustained, holistic peace-building and reconciliation process, in which remorse, apology and forgiveness will play a critical role.

The process, rooted in restorative rather than retributive justice, centres on fairness and justice which are prerequisites in addressing conflict. This was central to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa.

The past years have seen a growing realisation among people in Bhutan and abroad about the futility of the conflict. The suffering of divided families is underpinned by the urge to visit their birth country and meet loved ones.

Western education has also led to a visible shift in the thinking amongst exiled families from Bhutan, even as new thinking is evident among politicians back home.

This shift in perception and attitude makes it possible to find a pragmatic and peaceful resolution to the decades-old, seemingly intractable conflict. The disputing parties have a shared goal in making Bhutan genuinely happy and prosperous.

Since the conflict, Bhutan has transitioned into a democracy with general elections every five years. It adopted its first Constitution in 2008 and established an independent judicial system. A silver lining to the conflict was also the formation of political parties who are now participating in the democratic process.

According to two United Nations’ triennial reviews, 2015 and 2018, Bhutan has met the criteria to graduate in 2023 from the category of least developed countries (LDCs) and rise above the poverty index.

Many overseas people from Bhutan are outstanding in the fields of academia, entrepreneurship and literature, yet consider themselves Bhutanese first.

This provides a great opportunity for Bhutan to have an international profile on a scale greater than its physical area and 600,000 population.

The diaspora wields considerable soft power to the home country, to garner international support and solidarity in Bhutan’s favour.

I have spoken to many Bhutanese American business owners who want to contribute to Bhutan's economic development, its education sector, and in other fields, besides directly helping their own family members who are still in Bhutan.

Many are eager for an opportunity to improve their relationship and reconcile differences with the country of birth.

Bhutan is one of the few carbon-neutral countries in the world, and it has a ‘happiness' policy that is maturing, devoted to enhancing the wellbeing of its people.

An opening to the Bhutanese in exile will also improve Bhutan’s ranking in the World Happiness Report, which it had a central role in establishing.

Last month, 17 young Bhutanese American professionals representing Peace Initiative Bhutan and other non-profits  visited Washington D.C and called on Congress and the Biden administration to help foster peace and reconciliation in Bhutan.

The delegates met with the Deputy Director South and Central Asian Affairs under the US Department of State and Director for South Asia Regional Affairs National Security Brian Luti at the White House and asked for their continued support and engagement with Bhutan.

Finding common ground is crucial for conflicting parties to come to a meaningful dialogue. The common ground in this situation lies in the desire to fulfil the aspirations of genuine gross national happiness in Bhutan.

Dealing with trauma means facing the fact that we have been harmed in some way. When we separate the action from the person who harmed us, we can help rehabilitate them and create new connections.

We need to learn to hate the game, not the player. Or, hate the sin, not the sinner.  We are all against injustice, and there are many ways to seek justice. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the world go blind."

Reconciliation needs collaboration. Community agencies, local organisations, religious leaders, politicians, the King of Bhutan, and businesses, all can play essential roles in this process.

Combining realism with hope may help us move toward a more peaceful future. We at the Initiative believe it is time for representatives of the Bhutan Government and the Bhutanese diaspora to sit down to discuss the future, focusing on agreement and accommodation.

Suraj Budathoki is founder-member of Peace Initiative Bhutan and a doctoral student in Transformative Social Change at Saybrook University, California. 

[email protected]

This is a Sapan News syndicated piece

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