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Reflections on the Lhotsampa Experience

Narad Ghimirey


as presented to the

Silhouettes of Bhutan Conversations Session

Global Village Festival

Akron, Ohio

September 13, 2014


            The history of the Lhotsampas in Bhutan traces back to the year 1624 A. D.  According to the history of Bhutan, in this year Bhutanese ruler Sabdrung Ngawang Namgyel took about 200 Nepalese as workers by signing an agreement with the then-ruler of Gorkha, King Ram Shah.  According to the agreement, Sabdrung Ngawang Namgyel would grant permanent settlement to those people and treat them as equal to other citizens of Bhutan.


            These people spent their blood, sweat, and toil in the land of Bhutan and made the land fruitful.  The following generations of these people dwelled far and wide, especially in the southern, eastern, and lower central regions. 


            Around the year 1948 a political party named Bhutan State Congress was founded under the leadership of Mahasur Chhetri in order to seek human right and democracy.  In February 1952 the then ruler of Bhutan, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk ordered Mahasur Chhetri to be put in a leather bag and thrown into the Sunkosh River.


            In 1958 King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk introduced the first Citizenship Act in order to minimize the population of Nepali speaking people (Lhotsampas).  Later in 1987-88 the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, introduced the Second Citizen Act of 1985.  According to this act, any Bhutanese who could provide the Proof of Certificate of Origin (CO) of 1958 would be considered real citizens of Bhutan.  As such he categorized the Nepali speaking people in seven categories of citizenship status: [name them].


            This CO was followed by promulgation of Drig Lam Namza, in 1988-89.  This was a traditionally religious etiquette and stipulation of monastic order.  This act made mandatory for all citizens; therefore, citizens, irrespective of their age-old traditions, culture and religion, were compelled to follow the dress code of Drukpa Kagyuga religious culture and adopted as national costume by the ruling dynasty.  In the same year, learning of Nepali language was withdrawn from the school syllabus and Dzongkha was made compulsory. 


            The Citrizenship Act of 1988-89, the Drig-lam-Namza and the removal of Nepali language from the school syllabus hit the feelings and curtailed the human rights of the Nepali speaking people (Lhotsampas).  So some of the learned and conscious and intellectuals, namely Tek Nath Rizal, raised voice against such discriminatory and cruel policies.  Rizal was put in prison for several years and tortured inhumanely.


            In June 1990 a political party called Bhutan People's Party referring to the Lhotsampas, was founded with 13 points which collectively stressed human rights and democracy.  The BPP also organized a rally movement in September 1990.  The then government of Bhutan, King Jigme Sigye Wangchuk, with the initiation of the Home Minister, Dago Tshering, suppressed the rally movement and ordered the army to open fire.  The rally was launched in the southern districts which were dwelled by the Lhotsampa Nepali-speaking people.


            From the following days of the rally, the government sent its army to the Lhotsampa dwelling areas to arrest the leaders and to threaten the innocent villagers.  The Royal Bhutan Army entered the houses of the Lhotsampas and tortured them physically and mentally.  To escape from prosecution the leaders followed by the innocent villagers fled their homeland, leaving behind their homesteads.  Some people were forced to sell their homestead to the government at very nominal prices.


            After that, we, the Nepali speaking people called Lhotsampas, came to Nepal, crossing the Indo-Nepal border, to seek political asylum.  In the refugee camps we lived almost twenty years facing difficulties and hardships. 



Narad concludes with the following personalized account of these events:


            I was born on 1st January 1973.  The country where I was born was Bhutan, a small landlocked country situated near Mount Everest on the Asia continent.  At the age of 7 my schooling life started in primary school in the remote village of Lalai.  It was one of the educational institutes established by the government of Bhutan.  I belonged to the Lhotsampa community, which consisted of the southern Bhutanese who spoke Nepali.  Bhutan was a land of diversity.  Different ethnic groups of people lived together like Nglung, Scarchops, Daya, and Drakpa until 1989.  Then the Bhutan government adopted a policy of One Nation One People  and started to suppress the rights of the Lhotsampas.  The Bhutanese government imposed army rules and compelled poor illiterate farmers to wear gho and kira, the national dress of the northern men and women.  The Lhotsampas were forced to speak the difficult Dzongka language, the national language of Bhutan.  Southern Bhutanese people protested against the policy and demonstrated in a peaceful rally in 1990.

            The government of Bhutan was a monarchy, so any demonstration by the southern citizens was considered a great crime.  As a result the government circulated a warrant, which was an official notice stating the people living in the southern part of Bhutan must leave the country within twenty four hours.  The girls of southern Bhutanese were raped, people who were accused of being involved in the peacful demonstration were murdered.  The Lhotsampas became helpless as the "guardian" became a "tyrant."  They had no choice except to leave the country.  On 16th June 1992, I, along with my parents, four brothers, sister, and grandma left the country at 11:30pm in order to save our lives.  All the efforts and hard toil done by our ancestors and ourselves for the development of that country went in vain in the instant we left.

            Desperately, with sorrow and regret, having lost our farm and all of our belongings, we moved into India.  The Indian police arrested hundreds and thousands of exiled Bhutanese, put us in trucks, and transported us into Nepal.  The Nepal goverment accepted us helpless Bhutanese as refugees and distributeded us to seven different camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of Eastern Nepal.  I was 17 years old when my parents left Bhutan and and began a languishing 22 year life in the camps.  During the refugee camp stay, many political efforts were made by the United Nations, Nepal and Bhutan, but talks and negotiations were fruitless.   Bhutan refused repatriation, Nepal said were Bhutanese -- not Nepalese -- citizens, and neither country would give on its position. 

            Different organizations provided support for the immediate needs of the refugees.  The WFP provided food, the Save the Children Fund (SCF) provided medical support, the Luthern World Federation LWF and Red Cross provided logistic support, and CARITAS provided education.  All of these organizations, along with the United Nations, appealed to the government of Bhutan to take back its innocent people but the monarchy denied the appeals.  Then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, along with International Office for Migration (IOM) started re-settlement to third countries.  Since 2005 the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, and Netherland have accepted Bhutanese refugees for resettlement into their countries, with more than 75,000 going to the United States.  I was given the opportunity to choose the country into which I wished to migrate.  I chose the United States of America with lots of dreams and expectations.

            I reached the USA on 11th December, 2012 when we flew into the New York International airport.  I often wondered why we moved here, how we could start all over again in a new country.  I was warmly welcomed by the IOM representative and moved to Ohio.  Ohio is turning out to be one of the best states in the United States of America.  At the beginning it was hard to acclimatize to the new foreign land.  I received support from the International Institute of Akron, a refugee re-settlement agency. 

            Though I was registered, I was confused at the beginning and struggled a lot.  I now realize how coming here was good for my future and the future of my family.  After going through various ups and down, I started a job on 24th February 2013 at Steere Enterprises in Tallmadge, Ohio.  A job provides income and a means of survival in this country.  Many refugees from the camps have emigrated here for their own different reasons.  Even though we are improving our lot in life, there are problems we face.  Many people of different ages come to me to share their problems and sorrows.  I note that the elderly people, especially those over 60 years of age, get frustrated with the challenges of language and transportation, which limits their socializing and ability to find work.  Nevertheless, it is time now to think about the future of our people as a whole and not dwell on regrets about what might have been had things been different.  It is especially important that all of us contribute to the future of our youth, so they can make their way in this new world. 

            Lastly, the younger generation is finding it easier to acclimate to this new foreign land.  They learn English in school.  I am adjusting here because I have come here to work because it is neccessary for me to work at any job I can get in order to provide for my family.  Now at this juncture, we must all help each other.  We all made it safely through a horrendous ordeal, but we have found a place we can call home.  We may be cold, wet. or exhausted, and even hungry, but our families are together and we are ok.  We need to be thankful for our good fortune, learn our new culture and language, and follow the wisdom of rules. 

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