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My Turn: Bhutan and the truth about ‘Gross National Happiness’

For the Monitor
Published: 5/21/2019 12:10:21 AM

Almost every nation rushed to hail Bhutan when its first constitution was adopted in 2008, which instituted a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It was good news, especially for those who fought and bled for it. Bhutan became the youngest democracy emerging from an authoritarian regime. In 2016, we graciously welcomed the new prince, and since then the world continues to give a free pass to Bhutan while barely verifying its commitment to democracy and human rights.

After the advent of democracy, the international community called Bhutan the Last Shangri-La, the Youngest Democracy and Happy Nation, to name a few – but internal systemic mistreatment of its citizens is yet to change.

Bhutan’s signature policy of “Gross National Happiness” – which promotes happiness more than domestic products – is another alluring factor for Westerners who are irked by the perpetual greed of capitalism and instantly believed in whatever was emanating from deep Himalaya.

This is exactly what Bhutan wanted, and we all became its victim. We overlooked the most important issue in Bhutan as if we were detained by selective amnesia. Still, we do not dare to ask hard questions straight to their faces regarding forcible expulsion of Lhotshampas and the ongoing constitutional suppression of cultural and religious beliefs of the non-Ngalong population.

What happened in Bhutan in the early 1990s is still largely unknown in the West. While the world’s attention was captured by the Rwandan genocide, Iraq invading Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the World Trade Center attack, Bhutan swiftly cleared one-sixth of its population, especially the Lhotshampa population, making them non-national. International human rights organizations called it a textbook definition of “ethnic cleansing.”

More than 130,000 Lhotshampa (ethnic Nepali) who lived in Bhutan for generations were expelled forcibly. Some of them signed “voluntary migration” forms under duress, stating that they were willingly surrendering their property to the government. Subsequently, the government stripped them of their citizenship and forced them to leave the country.

At that time, I was a second-grader in Samrang Primary School in the southeastern part of Bhutan. I barely knew of the political developments then, but my parents knew and were very concerned about our safety. My dad was tortured at his work and was offered two options: leave the country or face oppression. We opted for the first, the safest one, and left our hard-earned properties, land and dozens of domestic animals behind on March 5, 1990. What did I do to be persecuted at the age of 9?

My 20 years of refugee life, injustice, trauma and hopelessness continue to torture me even after my resettlement. Where is reparation? Where is justice? Who is responsible for it? What about healing?

I am still unable to find any apposite reasoning behind my eviction. My great grandfather came to Bhutan when he was 4 years old. Both my grandparents were born in Bhutan in the early 1930s. Both my parents were born in Bhutan and possessed government-provided ID cards. We had arable land and a “Tharm” number, which the government provides to those who are nationals or possess Bhutanese identity cards as evidence of their Bhutanese nationality.

A census that targeted only six southern districts in 1989 declared my family F1 (Genuine Bhutanese) as we had all the required documentary evidence to attest to our nationality. But in 2016, former prime minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, falsely stated my parents’ name and the year I left Bhutan, and blatantly misrepresented my nationality, when responding to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who called for an amicable solution.

Barely giving any proof, he alleged that I was found non-national or not a Bhutanese. How dare he declare a 9-year-old kid non-national, whose family members were born and had lived in Bhutan for three generations. How can he claim those Bhutanese refugees are non-nationals when they have their Bhutanese identity cards?

Bhutan is lately getting global traction with the United Nations General Assembly adopting March 20 as an International Day of Happiness. But the question is, is Bhutan genuinely a happy nation? Or is it just to hoodwink or divert the international attention from the ethnic cleansing, human rights violations and the continued suppression of the minority populations in Bhutan?

Thousands of families have been separated since their eviction in the 1990s. Many became American citizens, but Bhutan does not allow them to visit their families who are still in Bhutan. Thousands of children are born stateless. The Lhotshampa language is banned, their culture, tradition and costumes are proscribed under the “one people, one nation” policy. Christians cannot register their organization and erect a church, which is outlawed by the Religious Act of Bhutan.

Bhutan’s constitution protects and promotes Buddhist heritage only, and the rest is discouraged and ignored. More than 80,000 Lhotshampas, whose families chose to stay after the peaceful demonstration, remain stateless in Bhutan.

Those who go against or conspire to go against king, country and people from inside or outside the border face penalty of death or life imprisonment. Therefore, no one dares raise their voice against the authority.

So, help me locate happiness in Bhutan. Most Bhutanese are unaware of Gross National Happiness and what it means to them and the nation in general.

Bhutan relentlessly preaches mantras of happiness, and we agree without confirming. We need to break this deafening silence for the sake of humanity and ask Bhutan to come out of its golden coating. It is imperative that the U.S. government first help reunite Bhutanese American families, conduct congressional hearings on Bhutan, and formulate policies in line with the American commitment to human rights and democracy.

(Suraj Budathoki, a U.S. Refugee Congress delegate for New Hampshire and a graduate of Norwich University, lives in Manchester.)

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