JAIGAON, India (Reuters) - In a small hotel room on Bhutan’s border with India, a nervous group of men gathered to tell their stories -- stories they said they would be too scared to relate in the country they call home.
They are tales of dissent, of imprisonment, of discrimination. All talked under assumed names, and asked for details that could reveal their identities to be withheld.
They are men like Harilal, a former engineer imprisoned for four years in 1991 after taking part in pro-democracy protests led by the ethnic Nepali people of southern Bhutan.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis fled the country after those protests, while those who stayed behind face widespread discrimination, according to global human rights groups.
“My wife’s father was beaten, imprisoned and ultimately evicted because of me,” Harilal said. “I can’t educate my children, and I can’t get a job.”
“But I can’t leave either. My brothers work inside Bhutan, and if I leave the country, they will start evicting them also.”
The isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is preparing for its first ever democratic elections in 2008, democracy which is being forced on a reluctant people by a benign and far-sighted monarch -- at least according to the government.
That version of events angers people like Wangdi, thrown out of school after his father was jailed for taking part in another pro-democracy rally in eastern Bhutan in 1997, this led by ethnic Bhutanese from a different branch of Buddhism to the government.
“If people participate in protests, the whole family is punished,” he said. “It is very sad that people like my father were jailed, when the government is saying no one has asked for democracy.”
True, many if not most Bhutanese appear to love the king.
Former monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck carried his country into the modern world, introducing free healthcare and schooling and bringing safe drinking water to remote villages before abdicating in favor of his son last December.
But modernization and democracy come on the government’s terms, or not at all.
“At that point in time, Bhutan was not ready for democracy,” said Agriculture Minister Sangay Ngedup of the 1990 protests.
“The seeds of democracy had already been sown, and if they failed to realize that, they had shut their minds up,” said Ngedup, who is also the former king’s brother-in-law and favorite to be prime minister after next year’s elections.
The problem is partly ethnic. Fearing a country of 600,000 people was being overrun by Nepali immigrants, the government took drastic steps in the 1980s.
A census classified people into seven categories.
At the top, F1, “genuine” Bhutanese. At the bottom, F7, non-nationals. Married to a foreign woman, your wife and children became F4. Married to a foreign man, F5.
The Nepali language was banned in schools and books burnt. The protests that followed became an excuse to evict illegal immigrants as well as tens of thousands of people who had been in the country for generations.
“It is our biggest fear, as a small country, is a concentration of illegal immigrants growing and creating all kinds of problems,” Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuk told Reuters, arguing that most of the exiles had been illegal immigrants.
Ethnic Nepalis had helped overthrow the Buddhist rulers of neighboring Sikkim, annexed by India in 1975.
These days ethnic Nepalis have to obtain security clearances, called No Objection Certificates, to get jobs or schooling. Any involvement in the protests, or relatives in exile, brings problems, dissidents said.
Refugee leaders say tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis from southern Bhutan were not allowed to register for a mock election held last month as a rehearsal for next year’s vote.
“Simply because they took part in the 1990 protests or they have relatives living in exile, their voting rights were denied,” said Narad Adhikari of refugee group Global Human Rights Defense.
“Denying their voting rights is denying their citizenship.”
REFUGEES PONDER AMERICA OR ARMED REVOLT Not far away, in eastern Nepal, more than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin languish in refugee camps.
Last year the United States offered to take 60,000 of them, a gesture which divided camp dwellers. Some of the younger refugees are tempted to take up the offer, others are scared, or reluctant to give up the dream of returning home.
“We will lose our culture in America,” said 40-year-old Kailash Gurung in Timai camp.
After 17 years in camps, a new generation of refugees is angry.
The Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) was born in the camps of Nepal, with the encouragement of Nepal’s own, powerful Maoist movement, whose success in gaining political recognition after a 10-year insurgency was a big recruiting tool.
Its militant wing, the Bhutan Tiger Force, was blamed for a bomb which exploded in the southern Bhutanese border town of Phuentsoling last December, wounding four people.
The BTF and another armed group claimed responsibility for explosives left in the same town after last month’s poll. The explosives were defused.
“The Bhutanese are the only people in South Asia who have not taken up armed struggle,” said Gurung. “But our young people are so frustrated. If the government does not change its voice, we have to do something.”