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May 31, 2010

Smiling Unhappy People from Bhutan

Quality of life and quality of the economy don't necessarily go hand in hand. Lest there be any doubt, keep in mind that the cleanup costs associated with the BP oil spill will actually add to the Gross National Product (GNP) of the United States in 2010. Talk about a flawed system of accounting.

It's one reason why a group of Vermonters is promoting an entirely different indicator for measuring the nation's actual "wealth."  As Andy Bromage reported for Seven Days in April, this week Champlain College is playing host to the first-ever national conference on the "Gross National Happiness Project," which proposes replacing the GNP with Gross National Happiness, or GNH. Based on a model officially adopted by Bhutan in 2008, GNH measures more human-oriented indicators of national wealth, such as the citizens' physical and psychological well-being, their use of time, level of education, quality of life, and so forth.

But this week's conference, which runs from June 1-3, features a keynote speaker who is making a lot of Bhutanese living in the United States, including the 500 or so Nepali refugees from Bhutan currently living in Burlington, very unhappy. Karma Tshiteem is secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission. As an official representative of the Bhutanese government, Tshiteem's presence has been described as a "slap in the face" to refugees who fled Bhutan under the fear of imprisonment, torture and death.

Allies of the local Bhutanese community are planning to protest his presence, starting at 8:15 tomorrow morning.

Harka Khadka is a representative of Burlington's Bhutanese community who works part time as an educational liaison at Edmunds Middle School. Khadka, 34, was among 300 or so ethnic Nepalis who came to Burlington in 2008 after fleeing persecution from the Bhutanese government. His grandfather had been arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration against government bans on the use of their native language, as well as the closure of schools, burning of textbooks, and other forms of repression. One such government rule requires all Bhutanese to wear the compulsory dress of Bhutan, a long, woolen garment traditionally worn by people in the north, which is hot and entirely impractical for those living in the south.

"We thought we should be allowed to practice our own traditions and culture," says Khadka. "Our schools were turned into jails, and people in the village were put into prison." 

Khadka's grandfather was arrested and imprisoned for about a month. After his release, Khadka says that he and other villagers were forced to sign a document swearing that they would leave the country voluntarily. Those who didn't sign could be killed, he says.

"People were asked to smile, and they took the picture of the people who were signing the paper," Khadka adds. "After my grandfather signed the paper, he was tortured in the prison. It was intolerable for him. He was already 70 years old." Khadka, his parents, and great uncles all left the country together and came to Vermont in August 2008. Those who didn't sign the papers weren't allowed to leave. Others who didn't were, in fact, killed.

What's it like for Khadka to see Champlain College hosting a representative of the Bhutanese government? "It's ridiculous," he says. "We feel very insulted."

Khadka points out that he believes GNH is a good idea in the United States, but says that in no way does the Bhutanese GNH gauge the true level of happiness of its people. "There is no Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, and there never was in the past." A large percentage of the population is very poor and live on infertile land, he says. Many Bhutanese can support themselves for only three months a year. 

Bhutan remains one of the most closed societies in the world, allowing little foreign travel and very little outside media. Since 1991, more than one-sixth of the country's population has sought asylum elsewhere.

Despite their outrage about Tshiteem's presence, however, many members of the local Bhutanese community are reluctant to participate in Tuesday's protest. "We have been told, before leaving the country, that we cannot participate in any political activities in the United States," says Khadka, who claims he was told this by representatives of the U.S. government before leaving Bhutan. As a result, he's not encouraging any other Bhutanese to participate, either. 

Claims of any such restriction couldn't be independently verified or refuted on Monday, as all federal offices, and most private law firms, are closed for the Memorial  Day holiday. And while an advocate for refugees and asylees said privately that he thought such a ban was unlikely, he nevertheless advises anyone who's not yet an American citizen to "exercise caution" about what kinds of political activities they engage in.

That said, Khadka notes that about a dozen Bhutanese friends are coming to Vermont from as far away as Georgia to participate in tomorrow's protest.

Are the VT Bhutanese refuges Hindu or Buddhist?

The ones I've met are Christian.

Nan, the Bhutanese I met in this country didn't mention religion as a reason behind their persecution. They describe themselves as "Nepali-speaking Bhutanese" who say they were targeted for "ethnic cleansing" — their term — both for ethnic and political reasons.

The Bhutanese refugees are Hindu in majority with some Buddhist and Christain. Their persecution is more affiliated to human rights violation.

Support Justice, Human Rights and your Local Neighbors!

Bhutan's refugees need your support!

Did you know that last week many academic types and consultants gathered in Burlington to discuss Happiness in Bhutan? Have you ever heard of the country of Bhutan? Bhutan is a very tiny Himalayan nation nestled between India, China and Nepal. Bhutan’s population is only about 650,000 people – about the size of Vermont. So, it is only fitting that Vermont academics and consultants decided to invite a Minister of Bhutan’s government to Burlington to discuss Happiness. These academics and consultants are very Happy with Bhutan.

The Bhutan government has bought their favor. These Vermont academics and consultants are as happy as clams. They have been paid retainer fees, consultant contracts, travel expenses, and research grants. This is their way of life and they are happy. This is all part of Bhutan’s major public relations campaign. First came a beautiful spread in National Geographic. Everyone that read the article wanted to visit Bhutan at once! Then came the PBS movie about Bhutan. It made Bhutan sound like Vermont’s sought after Utopia!! Later came commentaries by academics that had visited Bhutan (a totalitarian state – that the USA does not have diplomatic relations with). Bhutan was painted as heaven on Earth!

Did you know that Burlington is home to about 500 Bhutanese refugees? Why would Burlington be home to 500 Bhutanese refugees when everyone in their country is supposedly Happy? Happy is a relative term and a state of mind that the Bhutan government would like for you to always feel, regardless of reality and the truth.

About 20 years ago the government of Bhutan decided that they would like the population to be more ethnically pure. The King of Bhutan wanted a race of people consisting of a religious and ethnic purity that mirrored his own family background. In order to eliminate 20% of their “undesirable” citizens, the King ordered persecution, jailing, torture, rape and killing of the ethnically Nepali/Hindu citizens of Bhutan. The Nepali speaking minority was prohibited from speaking their native language. They were forced to wear the clothes and costumes of the King’s background. After prolonged persecution the Nepali minority was forced under duress to renounce their citizenship. The government forced them from their farms and businesses and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the country. This is akin to the USA government trying to expel all USA citizens of Irish, German and Italian descent!!

20% of Bhutan’s citizens were ethnically cleansed from the country. They ended up in rural Nepal in refugee camps - 130,000 Bhutanese citizens.

For 20 years these people have fought with the government of Bhutan – trying to regain their property and citizenship. All of these people are patriotic Bhutanese citizens – but they are not HAPPY.

Last week in Burlington the academics and consultants gathered to praise how HAPPY Bhutan is. They think Bhutan is a wonderful place and they ignore the plight of the 130,000 Bhutanese citizens (refugees) that were ethnically cleansed from Bhutan.

Please write to Champlain College and protest this meeting. Show your disgust with Bhutan’s government and the academics and consultants that refused to acknowledge the gross national human rights abuses that are perpetually committed by the Bhutanese government.

Holding this conference was a huge insult to the 130,000 Bhutanese refugees (citizens) of Bhutan that were exiled from their homeland.

Using a social model of the current Bhutan government as a template for a progressive society in the USA, is a lot like using Hitler's master race philosophy as a model for a new America! It was shameful that this conference was held and the idea for this conference was born in the USA by supposedly progressive academics! SHAMEFUL!

Stand up for human rights and dignity! Denounce the doublespeak of the current Bhutan government! Force them to repatriate every Bhutanese refugee and force them to pay for the damages the Bhutan government has caused.

Read more:

Thanks, Damian, for the info... I am surprised by the organizers, especially Peace & Justice Center, not really knowing the situation. A simple internet search reveals all kinds of reasons this should have raised red flags, and not from polarized activists... check out what the US Department of State has to say about Bhutan:

NOT a place where anyone who values human rights would be "happy" to live.

Two weeks ago, while waiting at the local Social Security Office, a couple with a young girl (about 6 years old) sat down next to me in the waiting room. During the next 30 minutes the woman talked in a soft melodic voice, almost without stopping. It was very soothing to me. I asked the man what language his wife was speaking. He told me it was not his wife. He was with Lutheran Social Ministries, and he was helping her to resettle in Phoenix, and that she was from Bhutan. She was telling him how her husband died of a heart attack prior to leaving for the US. He proceeded to tell me almost the same story as told in this posting. He was an asylee in 2005. He added that there was little hope for assimilation for the woman, but the little girl and her younger sister would have a future here. They had no future in Bhutan, and India and Nepal would not let them remain. Shame on Champlain College.

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