The violence has decreased over the years, but this does not mean that the threat is gone, nor that there is positive peace. Many Lhotshampa citizens are still missing, others have been killed, and close to 50 political prisoners are serving life sentences in Bhutan’s prisons.
The King recently released six political prisoners, and commuted a life sentence.
Till last year, approximately 6,300 Bhutanese refugees were still languishing in two remaining refugee camps in Nepal. Many of the over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in eight western countries have not been able to return to the land of their birth with which they have an intense attachment.
The Peace Initiative Bhutan started in 2020 by families who are divided between Bhutan and the countries they have been resettled in.
Its goal is to end the polarisation and distrust between people back home in Bhutan and overseas. Peace Initiative Bhutan currently functions under the auspices of Global Citizens Circle, founded in 1974 in the USA which was formed during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Peace Initiative Bhutan is not interested in ‘defeating’ the government in Thimphu. We want a ‘win-win’ solution which we know will not be easy or quick. But it is possible through a sustained, holistic peace-building and reconciliation process, in which remorse, apology and forgiveness will play a critical role.
The process, rooted in restorative rather than retributive justice, centres on fairness and justice which are prerequisites in addressing conflict. This was central to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa.
The past years have seen a growing realisation among people in Bhutan and abroad about the futility of the conflict. The suffering of divided families is underpinned by the urge to visit their birth country and meet loved ones.
Western education has also led to a visible shift in the thinking amongst exiled families from Bhutan, even as new thinking is evident among politicians back home.
This shift in perception and attitude makes it possible to find a pragmatic and peaceful resolution to the decades-old, seemingly intractable conflict. The disputing parties have a shared goal in making Bhutan genuinely happy and prosperous.
Since the conflict, Bhutan has transitioned into a democracy with general elections every five years. It adopted its first Constitution in 2008 and established an independent judicial system. A silver lining to the conflict was also the formation of political parties who are now participating in the democratic process.
According to two United Nations’ triennial reviews, 2015 and 2018, Bhutan has met the criteria to graduate in 2023 from the category of least developed countries (LDCs) and rise above the poverty index.
Many overseas people from Bhutan are outstanding in the fields of academia, entrepreneurship and literature, yet consider themselves Bhutanese first.
This provides a great opportunity for Bhutan to have an international profile on a scale greater than its physical area and 600,000 population.
The diaspora wields considerable soft power to the home country, to garner international support and solidarity in Bhutan’s favour.
I have spoken to many Bhutanese American business owners who want to contribute to Bhutan’s economic development, its education sector, and in other fields, besides directly helping their own family members who are still in Bhutan.
Many are eager for an opportunity to improve their relationship and reconcile differences with the country of birth.