On March 14, California District 17 Representative Ro Khanna, introduced House of Representatives Resolution 228 (H.Res 228) into the United States Congress. The resolution, sponsored by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, recognizes the Kingdom of Bhutan as responsible for the oppression and forced eviction of more than 100,000 Bhutanese citizens during the late 1980s and 1990s because of their identity, culture, language, religion, and political opinions.
Throughout his 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden made promises to revitalize our country’s commitment to advancing human rights around the world. But the thing about human rights is that you can’t cherry-pick the most politically topical and newsworthy campaigns to fight. When it comes to the repression, torture and abuse of citizens, the world exists in black and white. There is no such thing as a “less significant” case of systematic persecution when you are the one being persecuted, despite the lack of mainstream media coverage that the situation might receive.
After three years of the Biden administration, it’s fair to say that the initiatives proposed by President Biden and his team have barely moved the needle on human rights. Repackaging existing actions is not the same thing as establishing new and sweeping initiatives that protect democracy, advance civil liberties, and implement real consequences for human rights abuse.
And this is not just a forward-looking proposition. In order to truly establish a binding policy for supporting human rights, we must not only punish those who are presently found to violate these inalienable liberties, we must also look back and hold those in the past accountable to any atrocities committed under their watch.
Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom that is paradoxically known for its consistent high ranking on the annual Gross National Happiness index, has a dark side that often goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. The Bhutanese government has a long history of repressing its citizens, especially those who dissent against its policies or question its authority. Bhutanese Americans, refugees, and political prisoners are among those who have suffered under this oppressive regime.
Since the late 1980s, tens of thousands of Bhutanese citizens, primarily of Nepali origin, have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution and discrimination by the Bhutanese government. Many of these refugees have spent decades living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, with no clear path to resettlement or citizenship. Political prisoners in Bhutan, who have been jailed for peaceful activism and opposition to the government, and have been subjected to torture, forced confessions, and countless other horrific human rights abuses. Many have been held in prison for years without trial, in clear violation of international law, for their “crime” of speaking out against the government, and, at times, for simply demanding that the government fulfill its fundamental obligation to provide basic human rights to its citizens.
As a leading advocate for human rights in the global community, it is incumbent upon the United States to stand up for the rights of all those persecuted in Bhutan, and condemn the action of the Bhutanese government, or we face significant risk of repeating the sins of our past. We must demand that, heretofore, the Bhutanese government respect the fundamental human rights of its citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, and association. We must also support Bhutanese Americans and refugees in their efforts to overcome the language barriers and cultural adjustment obstacles that they face in the United States and worldwide.
It is an abhorrent and unconscionable practice to strip a nation’s minority of its citizenship, as the Kindgom of Bhutan continues to do to the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas, simply because they are viewed as a threat to the dominant culture. When the government suppresses a minority culture, and expresses those discriminatory perspectives pervasively, this inevitably leads to prejudice, political repression, and violence, as it has for years against the Lhotshampas. H.Res 228 is asking the United States to declare that the Royal Government of Bhutan is responsible for this clear and present political, cultural, and ethnic oppression, and is urging for an unconditional release of all political prisoners with due restitution and reparations.
While it is true that the United States has provided safe haven to native Bhutanese expelled from their homeland (including more than 15,000 Bhutanese Americans who live in the Rochester area), those who have settled here are still overcome with depression and anxiety for those who continue to be vilified and continue to suffer in silence in Bhutan. In our good fortune, we cannot, in good conscience, neglect our countrymen and women who have been dismissed by their own government. And we ask that the United States give the same consideration to these persecuted nationals as we do.
The Peace Initiative Bhutan, a nonprofit organization, and Bhutanese American community members have joined hands to work determinedly with Congressmen Khanna, and Senators Brown and Casey, to introduce this resolution, and we urgently ask the United States, a country that priorities human rights, to act accordingly in favor of this initiative.
Bijaya Khadka is the founder of House of Refuge USA and a human rights activist. He is also the Chair of the New American Advisory Council and a founding member of Peace Initiative Bhutan (PIB).