Bhutanese refugees brace for Indian crackdown


Kathmandu : Bhutanese refugees, who are planning to start a march to the kingdom from Nepal on the day Thimphu holds a mock election, say they fear Indian authorities may stop them while they enter that country on their way to the Druk kingdom.

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At least three organisations of Bhutanese refugees languishing in closed camps in eastern Nepal for 16 years have pledged to take part in the march on May 28, when Bhutan holds the second round of its mock election.

The National Front for Democracy, Druk National Congress (DNC) and Bhutanese Movement will stage a 'voluntary return to homeland' programme on the same day to protest the breakdown of repatriation talks between Nepal and Bhutan and renewed efforts by donor countries to resettle the refugees in third countries.

The protesters said that they fear the Indian authorities will stop them when they try to cross the river between Nepal and India, media reported here.

"India and Bhutan have agreed to ban refugee activities in India, and Bhutan has requested New Delhi to use maximum force (to prevent the refugees from crossing into Bhutan)," Nepal's official media Friday quoted Narad Adhikari, general secretary of DNC's foreign cell, as saying. "But we will not stop the campaign."

They have also announced their plan to hold protest meetings on the day in Kathmandu as well as in New Delhi.

The media Friday quoted refugee leaders as saying that officials from India and Bhutan had held meetings in Darjeeling and Phuntsholing towns on April 30 and May 1 respectively to discuss the protest and how to stop it.

Officials of India's Border Security Forces and Bhutanese home ministry reportedly attended the meetings.

The protesters have sent a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to allow them to cross the Mechi bridge that links eastern Nepal with India, from where they plan to head towards Bhutan.

Bhutanese of Nepali origin were forced to leave Bhutan in the 90s after the Druk government issued a new citizenship law and conducted a new population census that cancelled the citizenship of thousands of ethnic Bhutanese.

Nearly 150,000 Bhutanese were forced to flee their homes and go to India across the border. However, Indian authorities took over 80,000 of the fugitives to Nepal where they have been living since then, in seven camps administered by the UN High Commissioner for refugees.

Bhutan refuses to take them back, calling them anti-nationals and terrorists.

While India, which has considerable influence on Bhutan, being its largest donor and trade partner, refuses to mediate, saying it's a bilateral issue between Bhutan and Nepal. It has however prevented the refugees from heading towards Bhutan, a move that is criticised by human rights activists.

Recently, the US said it would offer a home to over 100,000 refugees living in the Nepal camps.

The offer, despite its generosity, has sparked fresh tension in the camps as well as in Bhutan.

People who prefer repatriation to Bhutan fear if the refugees are settled in third countries, the Druk government will feel it can get away with such atrocities and begin a fresh crackdown on ethnic Bhutanese still living in Bhutan.