The NI Interview
Howard Davies visits Nepal where he meets an exiled
human-rights activist from neighbouring Bhutan.
photo by Howard Davies
Ratan gazmere has a gentle manner which masks the harshness of his experiences at the hand of Bhutanese authorities.
Bhutan is a small country of barely 700,000 people nestled in the eastern Himalayas. The Buddhist nation is sandwiched between China, India and Nepal and has been ruled since 1972 by the hereditary monarch King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. There is no written constitution or bill of rights and opposition parties are banned. Politically and economically Bhutan lives under the shadow of its vast neighbour India, which has a strong influence over all aspects of life including defence and foreign policy.
Most of the country’s civil servants and teachers are Hindus of Indian origin. However, the majority of Bhutanese are Buddhists who survive as subsistence farmers and herders.
In 1989 the Government stepped up its ‘Bhutanization’ campaign, requiring all citizens to wear the national dress on official occasions. The Government also banned the Bhutan Peoples Party, which had been set up to represent the interests of the Nepalese minority – known in Bhutan as the Lhotsampa. Ethnic Nepalese make up nearly half the country’s population.
Ratan recalls the effects of the changes. ‘Simple farmers suddenly had to wear the national dress. One man was fined for not wearing the clothing while ploughing his fields.’
According to Ratan the new laws were part of a ‘one nation, one people’ policy to consolidate power in the hands of the Ngalongpas, the ethnic group of the royal family who total around 15 per cent of the population.
Ratan says the ethnic makeup of Bhutan only became an issue in the late 1980s when the King decided to make it one.
Shortly after the ‘Bhutanization’ laws came into effect Ratan joined with some colleagues to produce an underground pamphlet questioning the divisive policies of the Government. ‘We had to publish secretly because we knew they wouldn’t accept open opposition.’
Then in October 1989 the police searched Ratan’s home and discovered a letter to King Jigme from the leading opposition politician Tek Nath Rizal. He was immediately arrested. ‘That was all the evidence they needed to take me into custody. I was held for 26 months.’
Ratan was driven to the police station in the capital, Thimpu. ‘The first night I was tortured. They bound my arms, then placed lengths of wood on either side of my upper legs. A policeman stood on the ends of the wood to crush them. The pain was excruciating. Then they beat the backs of my knees and the soles of my feet.’
On several occasions during the three months he spent at the police station Ratan tried to get his wife, Gauri Giri, to pass on word of his arrest to Amnesty International. Gauri, pregnant with their first child, would bring him food in a ‘tiffin box’.
‘Once I scratched a message with my thumbnail on a piece of cigarette foil and stuck this to the bottom of the tiffin box,’ Ratan recalls. Nine years later he and Gauri describe the incident quickly, laughing and overlapping one another as they remember their daring. But beneath the laughter, the memory of fear remains.
Ratan was later locked in solitary confinement in Rabuna, a notorious military prison. The memories are painful and difficult. He was restrained by leg irons or handcuffs for much of his imprisonment. ‘I was placed in a small, dimly lit cell. A blacksmith came and shackled my ankles. At night they handcuffed me to the bed. They tortured me only on the first night, but all the time I spent in prison was a kind of torture.’
Eventually Gauri discovered that Ratan was being held in Rabuna. She went with a friend and brashly demanded to see him. Prison authorities simply shrugged their shoulders and denied any knowledge of her husband. She didn’t see him again until 1991 by which time her son was nearly one year old.
Ratan’s case was eventually taken up by Amnesty International and conditions began to improve in the prison. He was released in December 1991, shortly before an Amnesty delegation arrived in Bhutan.
The Government’s persecution of the Nepalese minority increased during Ratan’s imprisonment and tens of thousands fled their homes. Soon more than 100,000 Lhotsampa had streamed into UN refugee camps across the border in Nepal.
Meanwhile, human-rights advocacy work in Bhutan became impossible. Finally, Ratan and his family joined the exiles in July 1992. ‘It was a hard decision but we could do nothing in Bhutan with the constant harassment and threat of re-arrest. Now I can campaign for human rights and for the repatriation of the refugees.’
A visit by Britain’s Prince Charles briefly focused the media’s attention on Bhutan. The Government refused entry to many of the journalists who wanted to accompany the Prince. So Ratan brought the excluded journalists, keen for a story, to see the refugee camps.
He is also campaigning for the release of political prisoners including Tek Nath Rizal, the outspoken opposition leader and democracy campaigner. Tek Nath was abducted illegally from his exile in Nepal and turned over to the Government of King Jigme.
Despite condemnation by the European Parliament and Amnesty International, repression continues. The Government has targetted the Sarchop ethnic group in the east of the country, arresting Buddhist monks and teachers. And recently more than 200 Bhutanese civil servants with family members in the refugee camps were fired as suspected ‘security risks’.
Nonetheless, the fight for a democratic constitution and legalization of political parties continues. Ratan remains optimistic. ‘In the long term,’ he says confidently, ‘you can’t crush popular discontent with repressive measures.'
Howard Davies is a UK photographer and refugee activist.
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