‘Int’l community should create pressure on Bhutan to free political prisoners and provide them with proper rehabilitation’
Having been born and brought up in Bhutan, RAM KARKI fled Bhutan to India in August 1990 at the age of 19 to escape arrest for his involvement in circulating pamphlets that appealed to people to protest against the violations of Human Rights in southern Bhutan. He was then a student at The National Institute of Education (NIE) undergoing a Primary Teacher Training Course at Samchi Bhutan. Later, Mr Karki and two other fellows exiled Bhutanese Mr Gauri Shankhar Nirola and Mr Bhim Khapangey, rescued the 91 most vulnerable Bhutanese from India to Nepal and established a Bhutanese Refugee camp in Maidhar, Jhapa, Nepal, in early 1991. During his human rights campaign, reached Europe and later sought political asylum in the Netherlands at the end of 2002. Since then, he has been actively campaigning for human rights and justice for the Bhutanese people. Besides founding and spearheading the campaign to release Bhutanese political prisoners through the Global Campaign for the release of Bhutanese Political Prisoners (GCRPPB), Mr Karki is also the coordinator of the only exile-based Bhutanese Think Tank, The Bhutan Watch based in Australia. He holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from Erasmus University Rotterdam. Mr Karki, based in the Hague, spoke to SOUTH ASIA TIME, on the issue of Bhutanese refugees and political prisoners within Bhutan.
How do you define a person as a political prisoner? How many political prisoners are languishing in Bhutanese prisoners? How do you collect your information? How authentic are they?
First and foremost, we Bhutanese refugees are neither the product of natural calamities nor the economic crisis but are political refugees. Bhutanese people felt discriminated against and came to the street demanding human rights and democracy in the country. Bhutan’s supreme law, TSA-WA-SUM, says that anyone who speaks against the King, Country and the government is an anti-national and liable to get death or more commonly, life sentences at the moment. Thus, in this case, all those demanding human rights and democracy are considered the violator of that supreme law TSA-WA-SUM and are liable to get punishment for that.
After the peaceful mass demonstration, the Home Ministry declared that those protestors are anti-national, forfeited citizenship, and must leave the country. Those who resisted were arrested and put on life sentences. Many high profile political prisoners were granted amnesty in due course of time, but some are still serving life sentences since that time.
In due course of time, various peaceful marches and movements were organised from the refugee camps in Nepal, some inside Bhutan and some from Nepal and India. During all these movements, some of the most unfortunate activists were arrested either on Indian soil or inside Bhutan during postering, distributing political literature etc.
All those activists were imprisoned in a separate block of the large chemgang central prison complex of Thimphu, commonly called the anti-national block, where people arrested for violating TSA-WA-Sum live. International Red Cross used to inspect in the past, and every inmate of this block was granted a separate ICRC identity card with a unique number.
Creating a separate block for housing people arrested for engaging in political activities or from the government language for engaging in anti national activities in a large prison complex is itself considered as government recognising them as political prisoners.
Above all, since they were arrested for engaging in various political activities inside Bhutan, they are automatically called political prisoners.
At the moment, we have a details list of 49 political prisoners. But very recently, we have received new information about the existence of another eight political prisoners arrested in the early 1990s and are still serving life sentences in another prison at Rabuna under the Wangdi Phodrang district of western Bhutan. Thus now, a total of 57 political prisoners are on our list.
We have been working to accumulate the details of the political prisoners since July 2019 by connecting with the prisoner’s families, relatives, friends, former political prisoners and other sources. After repeated meetings and field works, we could collect these prisoners’ details. They are all checked and cross-checked by the Human Rights Monitoring team headed by Mr Indra Adhikari at Bhutan Watch before publishing the list in its Annual Human Rights Report 2021 on Bhutan.
As the coordinator of the Global Campaign for the release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan (GCRPPB), you have been calling upon the Bhutanese monarch and his government to release ‘political prisoners’ in Bhutan. What has been the response so far?
So far, there is total silence on all our petitions, but that is not surprising becausethe King of Bhutan has hardly spoken on such issues since the start of this problemback in the late 1980s. There is a long history of ignoring and resisting all the calls from outside to establish human rights and democracy. In this case, despite receiving our appeals repeatedly, it has been ignored. Neither media, whether social media, private or state-owned media, writes anything about Bhutanese political prisoners.
I have seen a tremendously positive development behind the scene, though. ICU admitted political prisoner Mr Damber Singh Pulami (who is sentenced to 43 years prison after his arrest in 2001) was provided with excellent medical treatment after we appealed for his good medical treatment. Now he is back to normal, though still sick in his prison cell at Chemgang central prison.
Six political prisoners were released last April 2022, out of which five were released after completing their jail sentence of 15 years each. One was granted amnesty for his life sentence, which can be seen as a positive response to our call.
Bhutan adopted a new constitution in 2008, and periodic elections have occurred since then. Why do you think the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) is acting so harshly against their citizens (esp Nepali-speaking Bhutanese) demanding openness and democracy in the country?
Though Bhutan adopted a new constitution and declared itself a multi-party democracy, holding general elections every four years since 2008, its TSA-WA-SUM is still the supreme law that supersedes all other laws. The laws in Bhutan give the sole power to speak on the issue of people arrested for violating TSA-WA-SUM to the King, and no elected, or whatsoever people subordinates to the King are allowed to either speak or act on those issues. Doing that is considered a violation of TSA-WA-SUM and is liable for punishment. There is a general feeling that one imprisoned on this issue is the enemy of the King and should be socially boycotted. Even if others became friends with such people they are considered as the supporters of the anti-national and are boycotted. Such people are deprived of citizenship and no objection certificate, which made them stateless and in a miserable situation for the rest of their lives. Thus who dares to speak in favour of them?
Thus inside Bhutan, no Nepali-speaking Bhutanese dares to speak for Human Rights and Democracy in the country and forget about supporting the causes of the people living in exile or supporting the cause of political prisoners.
Another thing is that the democracy in Bhutan has been considered as a gift from the King and he is considered above democracy. People hardly listen to the elected representatives, and in reality, such representatives are just a showcase, and the body they constitute is powerless.
Through UNHCR, western governments helped to resettle nearly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in many countries around the world. Do you expect them to pressurise the Bhutan government so as to ensure freedom and human rights within the Himalayan kingdom?
Yes, of course. I think the international community, including UNHCR and those eight resettling countries, should create pressure on Bhutan to free political prisoners and provide them with proper rehabilitation, ensure Human Rights and Justice to the discriminated Bhutanese citizen living inside the country, restore the citizenship of around 80000 people whose citizenship was snatched for being the relatives of those who fled Bhutan and became refugees, dignified repatriation of all those willing Bhutanese refugees who are longing since decades to return to their home, allow resettled Bhutanese to visit their parents, family members, relatives, friends and other beloved back to their former country Bhutan.
Few thousand refugees are still languishing in refugee camps in eastern Nepal abandoned by the UN agencies. What would you say to the UN and the host government regarding their well-being and right to return to their country of birth?
More than 6500 Bhutanese refugees still live in the Bhutanese Refugee camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of eastern Nepal. Those willing to return to Bhutan must be allowed to return with honour and dignity. Those willing to opt for third-country resettlement must be allowed to go for resettlement. Those willing to stay in Nepal should be provided Nepali citizenship and should be allowed to live in Nepal. Till such permanent solutions are not found, UNHCR must restore its relief supplies and monitorship. UNHCR and other international relief bodies who used to look after the refugee in the camps must come back and look after their basic needs to avoid the possible humanitarian catastrophe in the Nepal camps.
I urge the Nepal Government, UNHCR, countries of resettlement USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway to expedite towards finding the above permanent solutions to the Bhutanese Refugee issue.
You have been approaching various international human rights organisations regarding the issue of political prisoners within Bhutan. What has been their response so far?
We have been appealing to the respective governments of all the eight resettlement countries to urge Bhutan King to release all the Political Prisoners. Almost all of them responded to us positively. They said that they are aware of the issue and use the appropriate forums to pressure Bhutan for their release. We have also informed and requested the former UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to help release Bhutanese Political Prisoners during one of our meetings with her on 5 June 2020. She responded by saying that the issue will be raised in the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review of Bhutan on human rights situation there.
We are in close touch with noted Human Rights bodies like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. They are fully aware of the issue, and we hope we can soon see some positive results.
International Community were alerted, and now many global rights bodies and stakeholders know the presence of Bhutanese Political Prisoners inside Bhutan.
What are your plans? What do you see as the role of the Bhutanese diaspora in pressuring the RGOB to open up its polity and society?
We are entirely determined to work for the early freedom of all our unfortunate brothers and sisters languishing as political prisoners in the various prisons inside Bhutan for decades. Our yearly appeal campaign coinciding with International Human Rights Day on 10 December to the international community will continue. Bhutan King will be appealed more frequently than we used to do before.
We consider the roles of media as the most important towards finding success in our campaign. Thus our attention will also go towards mobilising significant media to cover this issue. Kathmandu-based Kantipur Daily’s Mr Devendra Bhattarai and his team published a comprehensive investigative report on the Bhutanese Political Prisoners Issue with all the facts and evidence in Kantipur and other media. This is the first instance of such exposure on this issue. I sincerely appreciate Mr Devendra Bhattarai and his team for spending months investigating and publishing this rare report. This publication has helped our campaign to a large extent and brought awareness of this issue both inside and outside Bhutan.
In the Bhutanese diaspora, very few among the 130000 Bhutanese knew about the existence of political prisoners in Bhutan before our campaign started. Now we could successfully raise awareness among them about it. On my recent visit to the various states of the USA (where our community lives in large numbers), I was pleased to know that almost all of them know about our campaign. They expressed their willingness to be a part of it in whatever way possible. Wherever I go, our community leaders organised a formal/informal program to know and appreciate the work towards releasing political prisoners from me.
The Bhutanese diaspora can and has been playing a significant role towards creating awareness on the issue of Bhutanese Refugees, Human Rights situations and other matters of concern in Bhutan in the international arena. Being resettled and becoming citizens of the major world countries, former Bhutanese refugees can work towards bringing changes inside Bhutan.
The issue of a family split, for example, parents in Bhutan and children in exile, children inside Bhutan and parents in exile, has created significant social and mental problems among the diaspora Bhutanese. Neither can they visit Bhutan, nor those inside Bhutan get a passport or no objection certificate to travel to see their beloved outside the country. This social problem must end once and for all. Bhutan can gain a lot financially if it allows its former nationals with foreign passports to travel to their country of birth, enabling them to meet all their beloved and go around their place of birth.
The Bhutan government should realise that those 100000 plus resettled Bhutanese have considerable potential to contribute to the development of Bhutan. They can also play the role of goodwill ambassadors to promote Bhutan’s tourism and to help build Bhutan’s image in the western world. But for all these to occur, Bhutan’s government must take the initiative to resolve all the outstanding issues stated above and call for a dialogue with its exiled former citizens. There is a win-win situation for Bhutan and those resettled former Bhutanese citizens.
Finally, on behalf of our campaign, I would like to reiterate our appeal to His Majesty, The King of Bhutan, to release all the political prisoners without delay. Let them have the opportunity to live the rest of their lives with honour and dignity with their beloveds.