"At Khudunabari camp, on December 22, (year 2003), the Bhutanese officials, having already expressed their security concerns in writing to their Nepalese counterparts, began their briefing. About half an hour into the briefing they were attacked by the people in the make-shift hut, joined by most of the 12,000 people outside who also stormed in.
One Bhutanese official collapsed on the floor after he was struck on the head. The crowd punched and stoned the Bhutanese officials and beat them with bamboo sticks. After three officials were injured and the Bhutanese vehicles damaged, they managed to escape to the Lifeline Hospital in Damak town. In the early hours of December 23 the Bhutanese officials left Damak on the instructions of the royal government which had arranged an Indian security escort from the Nepal border to Phuentsholing. "
- Excerpted from Kuensel (10 July 2004).
In the 82nd National Assembly session held in July 2004, Foreign Minister Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk made a detailed report on the attack on the Bhutanese members of the Joint Verification Team (JVT) at Khudanbari camp on 22 December 2003. Here are some excerpts from the Kuensel news report titled "Assembly calls for proper investigation into JVT attack and action against perpetrators" published on 10 July 2004:
He (Foreign Minister) traced the origins of the camps to January, 1991, when the first group of people claiming to be refugees were allowed to enter Nepal. Bhutan’s attempts to prevent the establishment of camps and facilities that might attract the poor masses in the region were ignored.
It was only in July, 1993, that proper screening procedures for people claiming to be Bhutanese refugees were introduced. Until then the screening of such people were given to the people in the camps who were themselves claiming to be refugees. Once proper screening procedures were introduced there was a dramatic drop in the entry of people into the camps.
He then explained the bilateral process as the two governments met in July, 1993, and established the ministerial joint committee (MJC) that had, over the years, achieved several significant steps towards a durable solution to the problem
The MJC had categorised the people and harmonised the positions of the two governments on each category, established the joint verification team (JVT), and agreed that the solution would be found within the framework of the laws in the two countries.
The JVT started work at Khudunabari camp in March, 2001, and the results of its work was confirmed during the 15th MJC held in Thimphu in October, 2003. Among several significant decisions taken by the MJC, it was agreed that the repatriation of those found eligible would begin in February, 2004.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said that the attack on the Bhutanese members of the JVT took place when the JVT returned to Nepal for the final assignments mandated by the MJC. At Khudunabari camp, on December 22, the Bhutanese officials, having already expressed their security concerns in writing to their Nepalese counterparts, began their briefing. About half an hour into the briefing they were attacked by the people in the make-shift hut, joined by most of the 12,000 people outside who also stormed in.
One Bhutanese official collapsed on the floor after he was struck on the head. The crowd punched and stoned the Bhutanese officials and beat them with bamboo sticks. After three officials were injured and the Bhutanese vehicles damaged, they managed to escape to the Lifeline Hospital in Damak town. In the early hours of December 23 the Bhutanese officials left Damak on the instructions of the royal government which had arranged an Indian security escort from the Nepal border to Phuentsholing.
“What happened on December 22 was a failure of the Nepalese government to honour its responsibility towards the safety and security of the Bhutanese officials,” said the foreign minister. “But we are proud of the courage, dedication, and dignity with which our officials conducted themselves and appreciate the understanding with which their family members endured the constant worry over their safety.”
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuck submitted to the Assembly a detailed report of the actions taken by the government after the incident.
The government was, at that time, pre-occupied with the military operations. On being informed of the attack the foreign ministry issued a press release and the foreign minister called his counterpart on the same day to express his regret over the incident and to explain the withdrawal of the Bhutanese officials. The government had raised the issue with the Nepalese leaders during the 12th SAARC summit in January and the two foreign ministers met again at the BIMST-EC meeting in Thailand in February.
The foreign minister said that he had conveyed to his Nepalese counterpart that the December 22 incident was very serious as the Bhutanese members of the JVT could have been killed. The Bhutanese people were shocked and angered by the incident and could not understand the violent behaviour of the people in the camp when the process had reached the last stage and could only be of benefit to them. He expressed his conviction that the incident was pre-planned and premeditated and not provoked as it had been alleged by groups in Nepal with vested interests. The terms and conditions read out at the camp were not new because copies had been handed over to them as far back as June.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said that he had expressed his surprise and regret that an enquiry, that should have been a normal step, had not been initiated. He requested the Nepalese government to conduct a thorough enquiry into the incident, to punish the perpetrators, and to put in place safety and security measures before resuming work.
“The last time our officials had been lucky to escape with their lives but the same cannot be taken for granted in the future,” he said. Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said that the Nepalese foreign minister had expressed his regret over the incident and also his doubts whether an investigation would be of any use. While there was no communication from Nepal for the next two months the Nepalese media had described the incident as a “minor scuffle” and the international community raised concerns about the stalled bilateral process.
“We have always maintained that we are committed to the bilateral process and the agreements reached during the 15th MJC meeting are a clear confirmation of our seriousness in seeking a lasting solution to the problem,” he said. “If our officials had not been attacked the repatriation would have started in February. We said that, if the international community was interested in helping the resumption of the talks, they should ask Nepal to act on our request to investigate the incident, to take action against the perpetrators, and put in place adequate security measures.”
The Nepalese foreign minister had called on April 5 to propose a ministerial meeting preceded by a meeting of senior officials. Bhutan’s foreign minister responded on April 12. “I made it clear that, given the seriousness of the incident and the strong public concern in Bhutan I would not be in a position to propose a resumption of the process without the Nepalese government investigating the incident, initiating legal action against the perpetrators, and putting in place adequate security measures,” the minister informed the Assembly.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said that the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi had received on May 12 the “Report of investigation of the incident at Khudunabari camp on December 22, 2003”, forwarded by the Nepalese foreign minister. But the report contained a number of factual inaccuracies and fell far short of Bhutan’s requests. “The report states that no individuals could be identified as being responsible for the incident, it alleges that the attack was provoked by the Bhutanese officials, and also calls on the royal government to further relax the terms and conditions,” said Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk. “It seems to be the conclusion of the investigation report that beating up the Bhutanese officials should lead to further relaxation of Bhutan’s terms and conditions under its citizenship laws.”
Bhutanese members of the JVT, meanwhile, had expressed their dismay at the callous attitude of the Nepalese government. Apart from the fact that the terms and conditions had long been known to the camp people who had not complained about them in the past, there had been many tactics to intimidate the Bhutanese officials. They were harassed at the market, they were threatened at night, even with decapitation, and there had been aggressive strikes in front of the office of the Bhutanese verification team.
The foreign minister said that, despite the severe shortcomings and inaccuracies in the report, the royal government had indicated to the Nepalese government that, in the interest of moving the bilateral process forward, the report could be considered positively if Nepal deleted the unacceptable reference to the relaxation of the terms and conditions pertaining to the citizenship laws. The two governments had not only respected each other’s terms and conditions in the past, the investigation was meant to identify and take action against the perpetrators so the issue was out of context. It also sent the negative message that the attack and beating of Bhutanese officials would lead to further relaxation of the terms and conditions of the Citizenship Acts.
Nepal’s foreign minister had said that he understood Bhutan’s view but would need to consult his government. Meanwhile the government changed and he said that the response would have to be given by the new government. The foreign minister said that the government was still waiting for a reply from Nepal and was now seriously concerned about the political and security situation in Nepal.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk informed the Assembly that there were other developments that might have serious implications on Bhutan’s security. A Bhutan Gorkha Liberation Front and a Bhutan Communist Party had been formed, the latter with links to the Maoists in Nepal. The Maoists were recruiting people from the camps and some of them had even taken part in attacks in Nepal. More than 2,000 of them had moved into India and could be close to the Indo-Bhutan border. These people posed a serious threat to Bhutan’s security.
“On our part the royal government will abide by all the agreements we have reached with Nepal to find a lasting and durable solution to the issue of the people in the camps,” said Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk. “This includes our commitment to take back all those people in the camps who have been found to be genuine Bhutanese refugees. In carrying out the discussions and agreements with Nepal we will, as in the past, continue to be guided by our national laws, the
Citizenship Acts, and the resolutions of the National Assembly.”
Many chimis expressed their views and concerns after the foreign minister’s report. They submitted that the Nepalese government’s first report was completely unacceptable. It was not possible that the Nepalese government could not identify and take legal action against the criminals in Khudunabari camp.
On the related developments, including the movement of people outside the camps, several chimis said that it was time for Bhutan to be aware of the implications and take necessary measures to ensure that Bhutan does not face Maoist problems as in Nepal.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Dasho Ugen Dorje, noted that the Assembly had witnessed an outpouring of anger and indignation from the chimis over the assault on the Bhutanese members of the joint verification team and it was clearly a priority issue for the Assembly. The foreign minister had submitted a detailed and clear explanation of the actions taken by the government.
The National Assembly of Bhutan recorded its appreciation and commendation to the ministerial joint committee and the Bhutanese JVT members for their dedication in discharging their work and their loyalty to their nation.
While the relations between Bhutan and Nepal had greatly improved and the bilateral process had made significant achievements in 15 rounds of talks since 1993, the process had stalled at a critical stage, just before repatriation could take place. The next step was not clear because of the instability of the Nepalese government and its preoccupation with the Maoist problem. Under the circumstances it was vital that the two governments thoroughly discuss the issue and make sure that the necessary measures were taken to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again. This must be finalised before the bilateral process resumed.
The Speaker also noted that the government should continue to strictly adhere to the resolutions of the National Assembly, the Citizenship Acts of Bhutan, and the laws of the land.
Reproduced Courtesy of Kuensel.
The complete news report can be found at the following link.