Bhutan refugees give 15-day ultimatum to India

By Sudeshna Sarkar,

Kathmandu, May 30 (IANS) Enraged by Indian forces firing on Bhutanese refugees trying to return home and emboldened by the attention generated by the violence on the India-Nepal border, refugee leaders have given a 15-day ultimatum to India whose red-faced administration has invited them for talks.

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A student was killed when Indian border security forces fired on unarmed Bhutanese refugees, including a large number of women and children, trying to get back to Bhutan Tuesday. Tension has been simmering in Kakarbhitta and Panitanki, frontier towns in Nepal and India, following the incident.

“The chief district officer of Darjeeling town in India, Rajesh Pandey, has been asked to start a dialogue,” said Vidyapati Mishra, secretary of the Kathmandu-based Association of Press Freedom Activists, a group of Bhutanese journalists.

“Refugee leaders, local leaders from Nepal’s ruling eight parties, as well as the chief district officer of Jhapa in Nepal, where many of the Bhutanese refugee camps are located, have agreed to sit for the first dialogue Wednesday.”

Over 8,000 refugees continued to sit on the Mechi bridge connecting Nepal with India Wednesday, for the third successive day, demanding that the Indian security forces lift the metal barriers and allow them to continue their ‘Long March’ – the odyssey to Bhutan from where they were say they were evicted 16 years ago.

“The refugee leaders have given a 15-day ultimatum to the Indian government,” said Nirmala Adhikari, a refugee from the border town of Kakarbhitta.

Her brother Narad Adhikari is general secretary of the Druk National Congress (DNC), a Bhutanese party in exile that is among the three parties organising the Long March.

Besides the DNC, Bhutan People’s Party and Bhutan National Democratic Party are staging the march under the banner of the National Front for Democracy.

Adhikari, along with 37 other refugees, mostly women, were arrested by the Indian police Tuesday while staging the march. Nirmala said though the 28 women detainees had been released, Adhikari as well as nine men were still under detention.

“At the talks, the refugees will place three demands formally,” she said.

“The Indian government has 15 days time to broker an understanding with the Bhutan government and persuade it to start talks with the refugees for their repatriation.

“India will be asked to lift the obstructions and allow the refugees to return to their homeland from where they were unjustly evicted.

“India has to bear the cost for the medical treatment of the dozens of people injured in firing by its security forces and pay compensation for the dead student.”

Nirmala said the march and the sit-in would continue.

Over 106,000 Bhutanese refugees, who have been living in closed camps in Nepal since the 90s when they were forced to leave their home due to a crackdown on non-ethnic Bhutanese by Thimphu, stepped up their drive to return home this week.

The immediate catalyst triggering the march was the decision by the Bhutan government to hold a series of mock elections in preparation for the real thing next year.

It was like waving a red rag before the refugees who have been stripped of their rights to vote due to their Nepali origin.

The anger was also fuelled by the recent offer by the US to resettle the refugees on American soil. Many refugees feel this will encourage Bhutan to evict more ethnic Nepalese citizens.

There were fears that India, Bhutan’s biggest trade partner and donor, would side with Bhutan and try to stop the refugees from crossing into India.

The fears were justified when Indian border security forces beat up the marchers, and then fired teargas shells followed by bullets.

A high school student, 20-year-old Shah Bahadur Dewan, was killed in the firing, and over 80 protesters were injured.

Nepal’s home ministry urged the refugees to return to the camps, a call that went unheeded.

The seven refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal have become a tinder box since the US resettlement offer pitched the pro-repatriation group against those who want to leave the camps and go to the US.

Two refugees were killed in the camps this week after Nepal police fired to stop the battle.

The deaths have left Nepal red-faced too with the home ministry announcing the formation of a commission to probe the violence.