Tim Fischer's Bhutanese blind spot

Bold Bhutan BeckonsFormer Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer is a great Australian who injects positive energy into almost everything he touches. This month he takes up his appointment as Australia's Ambassador to the Holy See. As a result, he's had to step down from many of his positions, including co-chair of the Australia Bhutan Friendship Association.

Through his personal relationship with King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, he has nurtured the feudal Himalayan kingdom in its necessary adjustment to the demands of the modern world. In other circumstances, such a tiny undeveloped country might have become a failed state, or been swamped by a powerful neighbour and gone the way of Tibet.

Wangchuk ended the absolute monarchy in 1998, in favour of what Fischer calls 'an enlightened, democratic constitutional monarchy'. He has avoided the violence that finished the monarchy in neighbouring Nepal, and threatens to do so in other small nations such as Tonga. Last year he abdicated in favour of his son, as part of a timely transfer of power to the next generation.

Championing the cause of Bhutan's political sustainability, Fischer has also worked to help it to maintain its cultural integrity. His efforts have been bolstered by the interest of westerners fascinated by aspects of Bhutanese culture. An example is the 2003 Australian co-produced feature film Travellers and Musicians. Foreigners are particularly taken by Wangcuck's concept of 'gross national happiness', which identifies a wellbeing that transcends materialism.

However there is a dark and little known aspect to Bhutan's attempts to preserve its culture, which could be more precisely termed 'purification'. In fact Human Rights Watch last year called it 'Bhutan's ethnic cleansing'.

From the late 80's Bhutanese authorities began intimidating and physically abusing ethnic Nepalis who lived in Bhutan. The king introduced laws that stripped the ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and provided for confiscation of their land and expulsion. Today about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese live in seven refugee camps inside Nepal. Many have been there for nearly two decades.

'The army took all the people from their houses,' a young refugee told Human Rights Watch. 'As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.'

Unfortunately Tim Fischer's close links with Wangchuk appear to have blinded him to such collateral damage of Bhutan's prosecution of its gross national happiness. He is co-author of a 368-page book on Bhutan's history and prospects which is about to be published by CopyRight Publishing in Brisbane. The table of contents and index are on the website. The publisher confirmed to Eureka Street that the text does not mention the ethnic Nepali Bhutanese expelled from the country.

The full title of the book is From Jesuits to Jetsetters, Bold Bhutan Beckons - inhaling Gross National Happiness. Fischer is gracious in his portrayal of the Jesuits' role in building the country, particularly in education. He says they 'did not try to convert Buddhists to Christians, but rather to motivate students to having an enquiring mind'.

Perhaps the enquiring mind developed by Fischer's own Jesuit education will lead him to visit the Jesuit Refugee Service during his time in Rome. While the Jesuits have continued their role in education in Bhutan in recent years, they have also worked with ethnic Nepali Bhutanese in the refugee camps on the Nepali side of the border, for much of the past two decades. Fischer's enquiries at the Jesuit Refugee Service could prove very fruitful.
Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.



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Existing comments

Read more about the Bhutanese refugees some of whom are now being resettled in Australia: http://www.bhutanese-resettlement.info/
Miriam Battersby | 19 January 2009

Gross National Happiness is explicitly religious, and aims to strike a better balance between the spiritual and the material. The second of its four pillars is preservation and promotion of cultural values, which mitigates against religious diversity—particularly the large Hindu Nepalese minority. (Christians are 1 percent of the population and must practice their religion at home.)

The US International Religious Freedom Report 2007 found that the Bhutanese Government barred non-Buddhist missionaries and restricted non Buddhist religious buildings and festivals. Proselytism is prohibited. There was no reported religious violence or overt discrimination but societal pressures toward non-Buddhists are reflected in official and unofficial efforts to impose the dress and cultural norms of the Buddhist majority on all citizens.

Of course, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was befriended by Tim Fischer, It is to be hope that the new King, Jigme Khesar might change some of his father’s decrees.

Brian McKinlay | 19 January 2009

on the 4th Para, the text 'Travellers and Musicians' should be written as 'Travellers and magicians'
Dochu | 19 January 2009

Greetings Eureka Street,

There appears to be a misunderstanding as in fact on pages 336 and 337 of Bold Bhutan Beckons, I write in specific terms about the Nepali Saga and make the point it is work in progress and 'On balance' the right thing was done. The reality is that a Congo or Sudan saga has been avoided, by the decisive actions of the Fourth King. Co-author Tshering Tashi and I suggest people read the whole book and then pass judgement, go to www.CopyRight.net.au to order early copies. Alas there are five copies using the word meddlesome re the Jesuit Order, several thousand using the more correct word adventurous! Diplomatic caution has prevailed but one of the five will be presented to the Provincial General as a courtesy on Thursday, one to the PM, none of the five will go to Rome but yes I go on the 29th Jan 09 and will happily call on the key Jesuit Refugee Service HQ.

- Tim Fischer AC
Tim Fischer | 19 January 2009

I think many Western journalists have been misled by the subtle propaganda of the people who want a GREATER NEPAL. They have persuaded or forced many of the Southern Bhutanese to flee to Nepal They have also persuaded many landless labourers from India, Nepal etc. to join them and plead that they have been thrown out by the Bhutanese! After all in the UNHCR camps they will enjoy full meals without working for them.

Unfortunately many Western journalists have been gullible and accepted the Nepalese version of events open-mouthedly! Did you also check with the Bhutanese?
cuthbert lethbridge | 21 January 2009

So, the forced expulsion of 100,000 is ok because they were not slaughtered in a civil war! Curious justification of 'ethnic cleansing'. These people have been forgotten for many years but now there is a small program for resettlement in Australia for people who were effectively stateless in many cases. JRS has been involved for many years helping these people and those still supporting this 'expulsion' would benefit from reading through the JRS research and reports.
Kerry Murphy | 23 January 2009

as a cousellor working with the newly arrived Bhutanese, persecuted and expelled from Bhutan and living in refugee camps in Nepal for the last 18 years I am appalled at this oversight and seeing Bhutan through rose coloured glasses Mr Fischer
miriam clark | 09 February 2009

I am also appalled at the gullibility of so-called social agencies. It seems to be very easy to fool these people! As one who has lived in a neighbouring country for 40 years and still has contacts in Bhutan, West Bengal etc. I find it amazing that people wont research the other side! The leaders of this agitation are adherents of a GREATER NEPAL/GREATER GORKHALAND--and have coerced these people to leave Bhutan in the first place. Read Barbara Crossette's book on the Himalayas for another view on this matter.
cuthbert lethbridge | 10 February 2009

Dear MrFischer,

It would have been good if you could have studied and known the feeling and reality of Bhutanese Refugee before you publish the book.

Following facts to be noted:

The remoteness of Bhutan, manipulability press, publicity and information media and Bhutan's policy of isolation is largely responsible for Bhutan's untarnished image outside. The events, incidents and historical facts have remained mostly unreported. Thimphu’s jealously guards its image and the little it has allowed to leak to the world media has been through the eyes of carefully vetted journalists and academicians. However, it has been proved beyond doubt that Bhutan is home to communities other than the Rulers of western Bhutan. The first ruler of Bhutan, Shabdrung Jigme Ngawang Namgyel and King Ram Shah of Gorkha (a kingdom of Nepal then) had met and established a perpetual friendship between the two kingdoms between 1624 AD and 1628 AD. Accordingly the people were taken to Bhutan to defend and work for development of Bhutan in an around that period. More carpenters, sculptors, metal casters and painters joined during the reign of King Shah Malla - from Kathmandu. Shabdrung (Jigme Ngawang Namgyel) again visited Gorkha in 1640 AD during the reign of King Dambar Shah and added more people to Bhutan. It is reported that by around 1900 AD Bhutan had an ethnic Lhotsampa population of about two hundred thousands.

Wangchuck concept was not for “Gross National Happiness” rather we call it ‘Gross National Sadness”. If we refer to the history, Bhutanese Nepalese (Lhotsampas) are the real builder of the nation. Bhutan (our Mother) is still missing us. Imagine how it can be GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS.
The government has undermined the validity of the Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985 and its own weaknesses to activate the law in totality by surrendering to the extreme and to place the ethnic Lhotsampas as the real trouble shooters to pocket its own nefarious design of ethnic cleansing in the name of cultural preservation.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and his son King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s government of Bhutan have arranged well-calculated drama of ushering the country towards a democratic system of governance. And election of the people’s representatives to betray the international community defining democratic system of governance in Bhutan has been completed in 2008.
These evicted citizens of Bhutan today may be resettled totally in third countries or remain in the refugee camps in Nepal, their fight for freedom in Bhutan and restoration of their identity will not be over rather it will improve with added stamina, knowledge, strength and justice until brutal regime eliminated from Bhutan.
Kamal Dahal | 12 March 2009

Mr Fisher and some of his accomplices may know that there are over 130,000 stories on the other side if they wish to cover them as well. That's a good source for writing books. As part of his practical research, I also ask Mr Fisher to spend a week or so during the months of May, June or July in a village in southern Bhutan with no air condition, but working outside in the scorching summer heat with the 'gho' on. Putting yourself in the villager's shoes, try your freedoms of press, speech, and criticism of the government.

And why not, you can try openly practising your Christian religion. Try peaceful assembly. You will not feel a taste of the real Bhutan unless you have practically researched these. I do not think re-writing, re-wording, re-sentencing and re-producing papers and documents fed by the government, in the form of a book is proper research.

Mr Fisher's actions reminds me of the stories that is stilled gossipped in the backyards of Aborigine's homes in Australia. The Australian government started talking about preserving Aborigin culture but not before destroying them completely. Now that the Australian government is running some projects working with the Aborigines, it wants the credit for reaching out to preserve some ones' culture. Its your story both ways. Why not let the Aborigins rule you and preserve your culture?

To folks who link the issue of the southern Bhutanese to the Greater Nepal issue, I must say, you have no idea of what is going on. You know that in the geopolitics of this region only two 'Greater' things can happen or is possible. One - "Greater India" and two - "Greater China". There are historical evidences. India has become became 'Greater' when it annexed the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim in 1975. China became 'Greater' through the annexation of Tibet in the 1950s. Each of these 'Greater' powers have laid claims to thousands of square miles of land belonging to other countries even today. Chinese border incursions are common in Bhutan and the saga of 'shifting borders' is common in Nepal's southern border.

Nepal is too weak to have that notion of "Greaterness' anytime, any day. She is a victim of the geopolitics of the region, wherein big powers partucularly India accuses her of harbouring such an ambition. In reality, it could be a ploy on the part of India to hide its own past actions and hidden intentions of a regional expansion in the future. The Bhutanese refugees are the scapegoats of this interplay of politics between the titans.
Rp Subba | 12 March 2009

The NGOs and International Agencies working with refugees have as much responsibility as any other party involved for creating the problem of the "Bhutanese refugees". It is a story of good intentions gone bad. They provided support and housing by setting up camps, ration etc in an impoverished region where millions of impoverished economic migrant Nepalis are roaming the plains of India (covering the region between Bhutan and Nepal including Darjeeling which is the Greater Gorkhaland area mentioned by another commentator).

The problem was that those claiming to be refugees were never screened or checked to see if they were really refugees or were part of millions of opportunistic migrant Nepalis working in neighbouring india. By the time screening process was started the numbers were close to 100,000. Right after this procedure was set up the numbers tapered off.

Anyway, here is a recent story about "Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement" to illustrate my point. In June 2008, a delegation of Bhutanese cultural performers were leaving for the USA to participate at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC and were all dressed in the national dress. They were passing through New Delhi Airport to board a flight to New York connecting through Munich. Incidentally a group of "Bhutanese refugees" were also heading to the US for "re-settlement" on the same flight.

But strangely these "Bhutanese refugees" who were allegedly forced to wear the Bhutanese national dress before they fled Bhutan did not recognise the nationality of this large group of Bhutanese performers dressed in their national dress. Some of the "refugees" asked (in nepali which some of the bhutanese understood) where the group came from. The "refugees" later explained that they were heading to the US for resettlement.

I'm sure genuine refugees could have been helped, and the problem of 100,000 refugees would have been solved long time ago if only the NGOs and UN Agencies had done their jobs properly and without prejudice. The problem is now further compounded by Christian Missionary organisations that seem intent on entering Bhutan and saving the souls of the "heathens" who live a godless life.

What i wrote above is just the latest incident of inconsistencies in the Refugee story. There are many others such as BBC interviews in the "refugee" camps and conflicting translations about how they came to the camps, interviews of asylum seekers in Europe claiming to be from Bhutan saying they travelled on buses from places in Bhutan that actually had no roads etc. Sikhs claiming to be Bhutanese refugees. I'm sure if one were to research all sides early on these inconsistencies would have been apparent to the inquisitive mind.
thinley namgyel | 10 June 2009

When the Nepalese immigrants discovered they outnumbered the Sikkimese, they INVITED India to annex Sikkim. Too bad for the Sikkimese who mourn the loss of their country. Mindful of history, Bhutan could not let illegal immigration continue unchecked. Greater Nepal or Gorkhaland is a fact as the recent elections in India showed.
Pema | 11 June 2009

When the Nepalese immigrants discovered they outnumbered the Sikkimese, they INVITED India to annex Sikkim. Too bad for the Sikkimese who mourn the loss of their country. Mindful of history, Bhutan could not let illegal immigration continue unchecked. Greater Nepal or Gorkhaland is a fact as the recent elections in India showed.
Pema | 11 June 2009

I also wonder if the ex-Ambassador mentions the testy issue of the Shabdrung. Another of Bhutan's problems that is swept under the carpet. The last king married four sisters from a family who descend from one of the Shabdrungs and that was meant to sort it. However, the current incarnation of the Shabdrung, a six year old child, is held in what amounts to house arrest in Bhutan and the previous incarnation never dared to go to Bhutan (having been born in India). No doubt the Bhutan fan club will deny all this - I have heard them tut tutting about it many times - but the fact remains that the Shabdrung lineage is suppressed in Bhutan as everyone falls for a monarchy that only came into being in the early part of the 20th century - watched over by none other than the British, then colonisers of India. Dark clouds indeed.
SueB | 14 July 2009

Again we find this tired taking up of straws to beat the Bhutanese government with.

Bhutan is now a modern state--no need for medieval Shabdrungs at all. Many of these so-called incarnations have been pushed forward by their parents anxious to secure a better life for their children and themselves.

Good luck to the Government and citizens of Bhutan, their wise line of kings and to the "Bhutan fan club" -- Thank you for keeping the faith.
cuthbert lethbridge | 29 July 2009

resuming fear from greater nepal cannot be justified by forceful eviction of tens of thousands of people who have prospered the country for centuries. This is what we call 'little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. Mr lethbridge i reckon you are blind folded by the royalist concept of GNH. If you really want to understand what GNH actually is, please study bhutanese youth who has the proof of their birth in bhutan but they still cant call them bhutanese. To conclude realism is misled by people like cuthbert lethbridge and Fischer. Is this all what your research has seen. Better to be full of ignorance than to be educated like mr fischer.
Depp | 13 July 2010


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