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Refugees Begin March to Demand Right to Live in Bhutan

January 14, 1996

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) _ Chanting Hindu prayers, 150 Bhutan refugees began a trek on Sunday across the Himalayan mountains to reclaim their homes in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

The marchers represent 100,000 ethnic Nepalese whose families migrated to Bhutan decades ago, but were driven out in 1990 amid cultural clashes.

The 150 marchers plan a 23-day hike from eastern Nepal, through a sliver of India and into Bhutan, a tiny mountainous land that travel books describe as the last Shangri-la. The march began from the town of Damak.

If they reach the capital Thimphu, the marchers intend to ask King Jigme Wangchuk to let their people return.

``The peace marchers will press our demand to be fulfilled either through national reconciliation or through constitutional or legal settlement,″ said march organizer Jagat Acharya.

It’s doubtful they will finish. Bhutan has asked India to stop the protesters at its border with Nepal. India, which regards its ally Bhutan as a buffer state between it and China, is likely to comply.

If they do get through, it’s doubtful the king will grant their request. They had tried to replace him with a democratic government after Bhutan’s Drukpa majority tried to force them to change their Hindu religion, language and style of dress.

The group fled Bhutan in 1990 after army troops opened fire on a demonstration, killing three people.

The Drukpas are Buddhists who came from Tibet hundreds of years ago to what they call Druk-Yul _ ``Land of the Thunder Dragon.″

Most refugees live in eight snake- and leech-infested camps run by the United Nations in eastern Nepal. An estimated 15,000 live in bordering provinces of India.

The protesters are expected to reach the India-Nepal border at Kakarbhitta, 190 miles southeast of Katmandu, on Wednesday, Acharya said.

Organizers nonetheless hope the march will draw attention to the plight of the refugees, which six rounds of talks between Bhutan and Nepal have failed to resolve.

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