By Aletta André
Bhutan recently held its second round of general elections. Is the government in Thimphu serious about extending full citizenship to the Lhotshampas who remain in the country?
There had been a minor celebration that afternoon at Raj’s house in central Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. A few relatives had gathered to eat cake together – the remains on small plates were still visible in the kitchen when I joined them for dinner in the evening. The reason for their shared joy was a small, off-white card, resembling that issued by any bank. Only this one had the name and picture of Raj’s uncle Vivek on it, and the essential letters CID: Citizenship Identity Card.
Vivek had been stateless for more than 20 years. As many other ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, he says he lost his Bhutanese citizenship during the uprisings of the early 1990s. Two of his brothers and his parents were amongst the estimated 80,000 people who left the country at that time. They are in the US now, after having spent two decades in a camp in Nepal. For Vivek, missing his close relatives was just the beginning of his troubles. Soon after they fled he was registered by census officials as ‘F5’ (a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman), and until now all attempts to revive his citizenship had been in vain.
As a result, Vivek had no access to any government job, his children had no access to higher education, the whole family needed a special road permit to travel through the country, he was denied a loan and he lost the right to his family’s land and property in south Bhutan. Time lost cannot be regained, so the kitchen celebration was a bitter-sweet one – even more so because some of those present were still waiting for their luck to turn around. Like five-year old Anuj – Raj points him out: “He is my nephew, born stateless. Both his parents have a CID now, but he does not. We don’t know why.” Such cases highlight how arbitrary the nature of the granting of citizenship in Bhutan can be, with the power to do so still vested solely with the King.
Change, or at least the promise of it, seemed to be in the air for Bhutan’s stateless ‘Lhotshampas’ – southerners, as the ethnic Nepalis are often called, after the region where most are settled. Vivek’s was not the only CID issued to them in the recent years in which Bhutan has developed as a democracy.
~ Aletta André is a freelance print and radio journalist from the Netherlands. She has been living in and travelling around South Asia since 2008 and can be followed on Twitter @alettaandre or on email@example.com.
~ This report was supported in part by the Postcode Loterij Fonds for journalists by Free Press Unlimited.