DAMAK, NEPAL – Suspecting Maoist infiltration in their ranks, security forces have tightened restrictions and surveillance on the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, making it difficult for them to find work, even as geopolitical intrigues are impeding their return home. The refugees of Nepalese origin who fled Bhutan in 1990 never had a problem finding work – when they weren’t on the dole – in their host country, but their problems started in July when members of Bhutan’s National Assembly accused them of joining Maoist outfits.
The fallout of the allegation: victimization of the refugees. "The victims are people like us scrambling for survival while those with terror links, if any, remain untouched," declares Pawan Acharya, a young refugee who teaches in a private school in Damak, some 500 kilometers (310 mi.) southeast of the capital Kathmandu.
Acharya says lately his school proprietor has been asking him to find another job as the police have started inquiring about his activities. Refugees are embargoed from working outside the seven camps in eastern Nepal.
Acharya adds, "Till recently refugees did not face restrictions but now we no longer have that liberty." Though the police do not enter the camps, they keep a close watch on the refugees outside. After dusk, a refugee who comes under suspicion can expect to be locked up for the entire night.
Vinay Thulung, a crime branch official monitoring the refugee camps, says police surveillance over the movement of the refugees, especially the younger lot, has been stepped up because "some of them manifest extremist tendencies and connections."
The authorities believe it is possible the rebels – who want to overthrow the monarchy and establish a communist dictatorship in Nepal – could exploit the refugees’ growing frustration.
Clearly, the refugees are a desperate lot. Their hope of returning to Bhutan has waned with each passing day as the Nepal-Bhutan talks remain deadlocked. The two countries have held some 15 rounds of negotiations, without success.
Though officials like Thulung concede that Maoist influence is "negligible" among them, Nepal has been in a state of panic since July 25 when the Bhutan weekly Kuensel, quoting the speaker of Bhutan’s National Assembly, Ugen Dorje, said over 2,000 refugees had joined the Maoist guerrillas.
Though the Nepalese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Durga Bhattarai, denied the Bhutanese claim immediately, he held out a warning, "If the refugee problem is not resolved, their joining the Maoists may become reality."
Human rights activists and refugee leaders have ridiculed the Bhutanese allegation. Describing the charges as "wild," Tek Nath Rizal, a Bhutanese rights activist, accuses Bhutan of playing another "trick" to forestall repatriation.
Rakesh Chettri, another refugee leader, admits Maoists may have a token presence in the camps, but he is quick to add that apart from some stray cases, nobody has any concrete evidence on the extent of the penetration.
Chettri too alleges that Bhutan has whipped up the issue to indefinitely delay the refugees’ return.
"The Bhutanese oligarchy intends to scare Western powers and India, which caught in the quagmire of terrorism, have developed a pathological hatred for any community or ethno-religious minority charged with extremism," declares Chettri.
His logic: once these powers are convinced the refugees are seeking comfort from the Maoists and could, therefore, jeopardize Bhutan’s stability on return, the refugee crisis would linger indefinitely.
Chettri says the West and India should appreciate that despite their travails, the over 100,000 refugees are queuing up to get dole instead of taking up arms.
The talk of Maoist infiltration actually began in June when Nepalese security forces arrested one Chandra Bahadur Prasain near Damak for possessing a revolver, some rounds of ammunition and Maoist literature.
Prasain was subsequently remanded in custody for three months on charges of being a Maoist and is reported to be in custody to date.
Thulung, the government official, says Prasain has confessed his association with a little known outfit named the Bhutan Communists Party-Marxists-Leninists-Maoists (BCP MLM).
Prasain had stated the BCP cadres didn’t intend to create disturbances inside Nepal and their actual target was Bhutan.
Subsequently, a series of raids took place in the refugee camps on June 3-4, netting half a dozen suspects. Most of them were released after interrogation.
One of those arrested, Dilli Ram Rijal, is a teacher at a school for the refugees run by the aid agency Cartias-JRS, which has run schools for the refugees since 1992. Rijal, who remained in police custody for three days, says the police grilled him about his job and activities in the camps.
"They found nothing on me. But I still carry the scars of false charges on my psyche, though nearly three months have passed," he says.
A senior government official claims the police recovered a bunch of BCP pamphlets and papers during the raids, which has led them to believe the BCP has erected a network in the camps, enrolling over 400 cadres.
The official says the group is in an "embryonic stage" but it could grow gradually. "The security forces cannot take chances; after all, the Maoist movement in Nepal began as a whisper in 1996, but today they are big," he argues.
Another official claims the stern steps have yielded the desirable result and the BCP influence is on the wane now. "We sent across the message that nonsense would not be tolerated. The refugees would not be allowed to misuse our hospitality," says a Royal Nepal Army official.
Thulung claims over a 100 suspected pro-Maoist refugees have fled the camps.
But camp insiders reject the allegation. The UNHCR’s Refugees Coordination Unit (RCU), which coordinates ration distribution among the refugees, says only 17 refugees have escaped. "We have cut off the 30 kilograms [66 lbs.] of rice, vegetables and other facilities which they got everyday," says RCU supervisor Khag Raj Sharma.
Robert Cutina, a senior Cartias-JRS official warns that though the refugees have refrained from taking up arms for more than 14 years, despite their hopelessness and statelessness, they are bound to be susceptible to "extremist temptations."
He says their demands are quite simple – they want to return to their homes in Bhutan. "The recent restrictions on refugee movement outside the camps is preventing them from getting constructively engaged," points out Cutina.
Misko Mimika, the head of the UNHCR office in Damak, warns that funds for the refugees have dwindled and they are facing economic hardships. Nepal must either provide them work permits or ensure repatriation, she says.
Savitri Basnet, a refugee woman teacher, alleges Nepal is not interested in their repatriation because it could dry up the yearly $15 million which it garnered in direct aid for the refugees and more millions in indirect aid.
Amal Raj, the South Asian field director of the aid agency JRS, concedes that "geopolitics of the region" are preventing India from taking notice of the refugee crisis. India won’t like Bhutan, its protectorate, to get sucked into the whirlpool of terrorism like Nepal because it would eventually jeopardize its own security.
Actually, none of the concerned powers wish to end the deadlock. "They are sure the international community will keep on feeding and caring for the refugees. So there is no need to bother," remarks Raj.