Curfew in Bhutan refugee camp as tension escalates


Kathmandu : Tension mounted in the camps in eastern Nepal housing thousands of refugees as the government Monday clamped curfew following fresh clashes and the death of at least one person.

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The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that administers the seven camps in eastern Jhapa and Morang districts where over 106,000 Bhutanese have been living since the 90s following their eviction from Bhutan, said the local administration imposed curfew a little after 11 a.m. Monday following fresh clashes between armed police forces and camp residents.

Violence began Sunday after a group of camp inmates, advocating redoubling pressure on the Bhutan government to allow the refugees to return home, attacked a camp official, who had been lobbying for accepting the recent offer by the US to settle refugees on American soil.

Hari Bagle Adhikari, secretary of the Beldangi camp in Jhapa, stoked resentment after he spoke to the BBC, alleging some of the anti-resettlement people were armed.

The mob attacked Adhikari and set fire to the camp office.

The situation worsened after the local administration rushed Armed Police Force (APF) personnel to the camp to bring the situation under control.

APF men began firing at the warring refugees. A 16-year-old boy, Narapai Dhungel, was killed on the spot while at least nine people, including two policemen, were injured.

They were rushed to the local AMDA Hospital where the state of one refugee with a bullet wound in his back was said to be serious.

On Monday, angry refugees surrounded the office of the UNHCR in Jhapa, demanding action against the security forces for the teen's death.

Fresh violence erupted when APF personnel tried to disperse them.

The camps have been a boiling cauldron since Washington made its resettlement offer last month and the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, visited the refugees last week to sound their feelings on the offer.

According to the Human Rights Watch that released a report on the conditions in the camps this month, the offer has fuelled greater tension with refugees demanding repatriation in Bhutan intimidating those who want to be resettled in the US..

There are also reports of a section of frustrated refugees planning an armed uprising, like the Maoists did in Nepal.

To add to the tension, on Monday, Bhutan is holding the second round of mock polls, an exercise the pro-repatriation refugees in Nepal are opposing.

At least three parties in exile – Bhutan People's Party, Bhutan National Democratic Party and Druk National Congress – have unified under an umbrella, the National Front for Democracy – and have pledged to start a "long march" back home Monday.

The Front had said that 15,000 refugees from Beldangi would attempt to cross the bridge that connects Nepal with India and make their way to Bhutan. Nepal's local media said the Indian authorities had deployed a large number of security personnel on the Indian side of the Mechi bridge to stop the marchers.

Bhutan began a crackdown on citizens of Nepali origin from the 80s, cancelling their citizenship and forcibly evicting thousands from their homes.

Though Nepal has held 16 rounds of talks with the Druk government, not a single refugee has been allowed to return home so far.

There has been growing concern in Nepal following reports that the camps have been infiltrated by Maoists – members of the new Communist party of Bhutan- Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, that favours staging an armed uprising in Bhutan to unseat the ruling royal dynasty.