Brutal purge of Bhutanese

Last updated 12:00 14/09/2011
ROBERT KITCHIN/Manawatu Standard
FIRST-TIME VOTERS: Lucky Rai, left, and Phampha Gautum, from Bhutan, will vote in New Zealand this year, for the first time.

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Bhutanese refugees Lucky Rai and Phampha Gautum have never voted before – their own country would not let them.

They are keenly looking forward to this year's New Zealand general election, so they can exercise franchise for the first time in their lives.

Bhutan was an absolute monarchy when the women lived there. To paraphrase British writer Terry Pratchett: "One man, one vote. The King was the man and he had the vote – the only vote."

So no suffrage. Added to this, both women are Hindus of Nepalese descent, who lived with their families in the south of Bhutan. The King had decided (with his solitary vote) that he wanted one people, one country, so the Nepali community would integrate with the rest of the country, by becoming Bhutanese Buddhists.

Step one was banning the use of the Nepali language. It could not be taught in schools in the south of the country, where most of the Hindus lived. The Nepali people wrote petitions and marched in protest – peacefully. Their protests were ignored.

Then they were told they had to abandon their Hindu dress, for the national dress of the country's Buddhist Drukpa people. Men had to wear the knee-length wrap-around gho, and women the kira, an ankle-length dress. They could not observe their Hindu festivals either; the country was to be Buddhist.

Changing religion was not something the people wanted to do. They were Hindu; their religion defined who they were, what they did, how they prayed, what they wore, what they ate and how they treated each other.

"And then, they told us we had to marry with Buddhists. We can't do that, that is no good for us," Mrs Gautum says.

Things turned ugly. Citizenship was confiscated, jobs disappeared, people were jailed and tortured in jail – hung upside down, beaten on the soles of their feet, refused official inspection or private visitors.

A census was held; people were asked to authenticate their identity using documents from 1958, which few people had. Those without the correct documents lost their citizenship cards. There was a plan in the early 1980s to convert southern land near the boundary with India from small farms to forestry, forcibly shifting the farmers to the north.

Mrs Rai, who came from a 100-house village, Pugli, in the Samchi district, fled in September 1990. Her family went to India, with just what they had. Mrs Gautum's husband was imprisoned for two years; they left in 1992, also going to northeast India.

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They could not stay there. Both families went through refugee camps, and were resettled in New Zealand under United Nations refugee resettlement arrangements. Mrs Rai arrived in Palmerston North in 2008, but was not eligible to vote in the general election that year. Mrs Gautum arrived here in January 2010.

Meanwhile, there have been some improvements in Bhutan. The Red Cross got access to inspect Bhutanese prisons in the early 1990s. In 2008, democratic elections started – anyone who was a citizen of Bhutan could vote. This did not improve matters for the estimated 80,000 Nepali-descent Hindus still in the country, with no citizenship cards.

"And they still won't open higher-level jobs to women. It's male dominated," Mrs Gautum says.

This interview was interpreted with help from Sudarshan Adhikari, president of the Bhutanese Society in Palmerston North.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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