SydWest Multicultural Services, Blacktown, 12 February 2016.

Address by PAUL POWER, Chief Executive Officer, Refugee Council of Australia

The resettlement to Australia over the last eight years of 5500 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal has gone largely unnoticed by many Australians. And for the best of reasons. There have been no mischievous politicians trying to drum up negative publicity about the arrival of Bhutanese refugees. This new community has settled well and I cannot recall a single incident involving any members of the community which has attracted widespread negative attention. When community members have appeared in the media, it has almost invariably been to share their experiences as refugees or to be praised for notable achievements in education or community service.

Probably all of us in the room here today have, at some stage, heard fellow Australians express surprise that Australia has received refugees from Bhutan. “Are you sure you mean Bhutan?” they ask. “Isn’t that the country famous for Gross National Happiness?”

It is fair to say that the people of every nation gild the lily when presenting their country and people to the rest of the world. There are many in Australia who wish that our nation was as committed to the “fair go” as we often claim to be. But there are other nations which take inflated claims about themselves to another level entirely – like the quite undemocratic “Democratic Republic of Congo” or North Korea’s claim to be the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea”, a country where the people have no say, there is nothing even vaguely like democracy and the republic is run as the personal fiefdom of the president.

And, of course, there’s Bhutan’s claim to gross national happiness and all the references to it as a modern Shangri-La, a mythical serene kingdom in the mountains. To try to maintain this myth, Bhutan has adopted North Korea’s approach to tourism, carefully restricting travel to a limited range of places where tourists are in the care of trusted guides.

The lies Bhutan tells about itself would be scoffed at by the world if more people knew about the experiences of Bhutan’s Nepali-speaking minority. This is one of a number of reasons why this book, “The Lhotsampa people of Bhutan” is so valuable.

I’d like to commend Dr Venkat Pulla for his work in putting this book together. I’d also like to acknowledge those who co-authored chapters of the book – Prahlad Dahal, Asmita Dhittal, Sarjoh Bah, Devika Rai, Jennifer Woods, Narayan Gopalkrishnan and Om Dhungel.

Together they have explored the historical background to the oppression of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, the terrible events of the 1980s and 1990s which saw more than 100,000 people forced out of their homeland and the challenges and achievements of the Bhutanese refugee community since then.

It is extraordinary and shocking that a nation can get away with expelling one-sixth of its people and somehow keep its international reputation largely intact. The Government of Bhutan should be known not for Gross National Happiness but for Gross National Hypocrisy.

This book chronicles what happened to Nepali-speaking Bhutanese under the rule of Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is a classic case study in ethnic cleansing – discrimination based on ethnicity and religion which results in the stripping of citizenship, the denial of a people’s right to practise their culture and the brutal crushing of dissent. The book records: the prohibition on teaching the Nepali language and the closure of schools; people being punished for not wearing the traditional clothing of the ruling Drukpa elite; the arrest and imprisonment of people involved in peaceful protest; people being forced at gunpoint to sign so-called “Voluntary Migration Forms”; the rape of women by soldiers; the seizing of crops; and the confiscation of land. And, after 100,000 people were forced out of their country, the names of localities were changed so that the Drukpa elite could claim that they always belonged to them. No gross national happiness, just gross violations of human rights.

Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were banned from forming organisations or political parties and their freedom of speech was restricted. Writing, speaking or protesting about injustices was regarded as treason, punishable by death. And, as has happened in so many other nations where similar ethnic cleansing has occurred, there was no independent judiciary to protect the rights of the oppressed.

The book also chronicles how those forced out of Bhutan have survived and, in many ways, thrived despite all that happened to them in their country of birth. Life in refugee camps in Nepal was difficult and often bitter. However, the refugees involved in managing the camps, and the NGOs and international bodies which assisted them, put a strong emphasis on education. This enabled the refugee community to increase standards of literacy and education impressively. All those associated with this education transformation should be very proud of what they achieved.

After 16 years of disappointment with Bhutan’s refusal to negotiate a resolution with Nepal and other nations, the common dream of returning to Bhutan died and the opportunity to resettle to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and the United Kingdom emerged. Since 2008, more than 100,000 people have been resettled, including many young people who were born as refugees in Nepal.

As the book records, the resettlement experience has been very positive – not universally positive, of course, but very positive for the majority. The time spent on education and community development has paid off handsomely in countries of resettlement. That said, settlement in a new country is also an unsettling experience for communities and families, with younger family members adjusting much more quickly and wanting to associate themselves strongly with the new culture and older family members worrying about the pace of change and about the maintenance of culture and values. Less than eight years after the first Bhutanese refugees were resettled in Australia, all indications are that the Bhutanese community is handling these challenges as well as or better than most new communities.

This book is also an exploration of human resilience. A trap for people and organisations involved in providing support to newly arrived refugees is to underestimate people’s capacity to get on with their lives despite past traumas. Those of us who have never faced such persecution can view those who have through the lens of the needs we have identified in our consultation and research or from the perspective of the support services we have to offer. All too easily we can forget that the people we see in front of us have experienced far more than we have – and survived. In many cases, against all odds, people have somehow managed to thrive.

From the contacts I have made in the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese community and the friendships I have developed, I have often been surprised about the extent to which many in the community are prepared to look positively on the country they have lost and maintain associations with people connected to the current government of Bhutan. In many other cultures, grudges are held for generations, even centuries. But I know from discussions with Nepali-speaking Bhutanese friends and even from Facebook that many have friendships with Bhutanese of Tibetan origin and are happy to associate themselves with the achievements of Bhutan. Perhaps the extent to which people are prepared to let go of the past is a significant factor in the resilience and successes of the Nepali- speaking Bhutanese in Australia. The chapter on the spirituality of the community in Australia is particularly relevant to this point.

However, this does not mean that the past should be forgotten or that we can gloss over the suffering today of stateless Nepali-speaking people in Bhutan today or people who are treated as second class citizens because of their language and culture. We should take every opportunity we can to draw attention to abuses still occurring in Bhutan and call on the international community to take action. And we should never fail to challenge the gross national happiness myth whenever we hear it promulgated.

It gives me pleasure to launch “The Lhotsampa People of Bhutan” and to encourage you all to read it and learn more about the experiences of this vibrant new community in our midst. Congratulations to Dr Venkat Pulla and the co-authors – Prahlad, Asmita, Sarjoh, Devika, Jennifer, Narayan and Om – for producing such a valuable publication.