Lessons from Bhutan about Myanmar reconciliation

As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been doing little to prevent the ethnic cleansing in Burma. On the other hand, an eminent Bhutanese minister, Om Pradhan, did much more to prevent a similar cataclysm in Bhutan.

The Buddhist states of Myanmar and Bhutan are both ruled by parsimonious authoritarians. Both populations have two distinctive religious ethnic groups. Buddhists form the majority elites. Bhutan has a Hindu minority and Burma a Muslim minority. The Buddhist regimes in both these nations have been taking strategical ethnic cleansing measures. Neither the world powers nor the United Nations could significantly prevent this.

In the global theatre at that time, the gravity of the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan did not attract much attention. In the case of Myanmar, a comparison turns out to be quite gruesome, due to the rate of expulsion of the Muslim population. This amounts to 52 times larger than that of Hindus out of Bhutan.

The cynical truth behind the Myanmar conflict is that a minority of Rohingya Muslim militants had threatened to hoist a war against the state. They supported their claim by attacking more than 25 police stations on 25th August this year.

After the state military forces started their armed retribution, more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims were expelled and a few hundred were killed. Rather than preventing the conflict, the international communities began to organize relief aid – anyhow an indisputable necessity. The de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi got criticized by UN rapporteurs, for failing to protect the Rohingya Muslim minorities. Even less known is how other powers will act in response.

Eviction strategies of Myanmar and Bhutan

Compared to Myanmar, Bhutan’s Buddhist regime succeeded in tactfully evicting about 50 percent of its minority Lhotshampas on perceived future threats. The Buddhist elites feared that this minority would overwhelm the elections. They might get the chance to rule the state, after the king, the 4th Druk Gyalpo, would have to relinquish his power.

Therefore, as the king wished, about half the population of Lhotshampas were forcibly exiled, thereby strategically reducing their strength. There were no threats, no dissidents and not a single organized opposition that could hold the monarchy in check, although there was tremendous oppression and suppression against the minorities. Racism exists everywhere, but only in Bhutan the racism got state sponsored. Yet the Drukpa kings are still revered as the jewel of their society.

The Indian government did not dare to question its neighbor, instead it assisted Bhutan, by forcing the expelled refugees to proceed to Nepal. Furthermore, India didn’t want to break its clandestine promise to Bhutan: not to allow those Bhutanese refugees to return home over its soil. And the UN and the world powers failed to repatriate these refugees too. Therefore, the Western countries took the burden of taking them in. The exiled Bhutanese feel doubly victimized: firstly facing the forced exile from Bhutan and later having to accept forced migration to Western countries.

The fate of the Lhotshampas
It’s easy to imagine the increasing institutionalization of oppression in the state law. It went so far to the extent to plan for a complete genocide. None of the ethnic communities, not even the Rohingya, took arms against the state forces in Burma, until the degree of oppression crossed the boundaries of human endurance. It is amazing and lamentable how in the case of Bhutan the Lhotshampas gave up in to the state plans without much defend or counter action and that they left the country without any proper understanding of their case.

The strategy of both the Bhutan and the Myanmar governments – even if they are compelled to accept the return of the refugees – is to insist on verification of the refugee’s identity documents. Like Bhutan did with Nepal, the Burmese government, the human rights Supremo Aung San Suu Kyi included, demanded identity verification of the Rohingyas camped in Bangladesh. This gives an indication of the dismal opportunity for the refugees to get repatriated. Many of them may have been fleeing for their life without the necessary documents in hand. Time and again, this kind of state induced terrorism succeeds in the desired reduction of their ethnic minorities.

Clever intervention

The point to ponder now: the wish of the Bhutanese monarchy to wipe out all the Lhotshampas was prevented. Will the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar be successful or will there be an intervention by the clever arrangements of a few people in power, like in Bhutan?

The answer may be found in the role Aun san Suu Kyi may or may not play in Burma. Will she act like Bhutan’s minister for trade and industry Lyonpo Om Pradhan, when he succeeded in a peaceful reconciliation between the rulers and the ruled?

Amidst the Buddhist Drukpa elites in Bhutan’s cabinet, Om Pradhan is the only minister who belongs to the ethnic Lhotshampas, being a Hindu from a Southern district. The way that Lyonpo Om has been dealing with the royal elites shows his brilliant intellectual charisma. With his dedication to nation building he convinced his counterparts. His evidently genius disposition makes him one of the greatest thinkers of Bhutan.

Who is Lyonpo Om Pradhan?
From 1969, aged 23, Lyonpo Om Pradhan has been successfully involved in almost all the economic and industrial ventures of Bhutan. In 1980, as one of the youngest diplomats, he represented Bhutan at the United Nations. During the last decade of the last century when the civic outcry arose against state atrocities from the six Southern districts, minister Om walked on a tightrope. He was an impartial perfectionist and maintained his good relations with the royal family.

All of his cabinet colleague ministers were strongly inclined to wage war against the Lhotshampas. They wanted to cleanse them out totally, to form a country of ‘One Nation, One People’, a celestial home, exclusively for ethnic Buddhist Drukpa’s. They were influencing the king, to approve of their horrendous venture. In the esteemed presence of his majesty the king, Om Pradhan maintained himself as an impartial force; however the institutionalization of racial hatred and discrimination went unchecked in the parliament. ‘No efforts were made to prevent such divisive talks’, writes Om in his book: ’the Roar of the Thunder Dragon’, p.180.

Minister Om did indeed prevented the completion of the ethnic cleansing. It was during the 1992 summer session of the national assembly of the Lower House of parliament that Om initiated a reconciliation between the king, his royal government and the ethnic Lhotshampa citizens. Om called the representatives of the Lhotshampa districts to a room in the convention hall and told them what to say, later in the assembly session. He said: ‘His Majesty the King is very angry! You all should give to His Majesty a resolution, upon which His Majesty might calm down and give you clemency. Therefore you all should beg for forgiveness for any misconduct and submit a written agreement gyanza in the next assembly session. Say: ‘please forgive us. Lhotshampas will never repeat any act of treason again. Please – kuche sumche la’.

To keep a very long observation short, minister Om did indeed prevent ethnic cleansing. It was during the 1992 summer session of the national assembly or the Lower House of Parliament that Om initiated reconciliation between the king, his royal government and the ethnic Lhotshampa citizens. Om called the representatives of the Lhotshampa districts to a room in the convention hall and told them to submit to the king and beg for forgiveness. Following their submission in the parliament, minister Om appealed to the king to consider their humble appeal. From then on, the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan took a moderate turn. I was there, as news reporter for the state’s radio BBS.

Amicable solution

Bhutan’s trade minister Om Pradhan’s statesmanship might be taken as an example for an amicable solution. There is a saying that in this modern age – often described as the age of hypocrisy and quarrel – the states having a non-devotional faith like Buddhism would shake the world at least for once, either economically or with warfare. See for example the fear of war that a small country like North Korea instills to a continent like the USA.

After having seen how successful the Buddhist hermit kingdom Bhutan was in reducing the strength of its ethnic Lhotshampa minority, it’s easy to predict the fate of the evicted Myanmar’s Rohingya. Furthermore, if North Korea’s mismatch with America heightens, the world’s attraction will get caught up there. The plights of the poor Rohingya minorities would be forgotten in the same way as that of the Lotshampas. Let’s hope this will not happen.

Image: Comune Parma CC BY SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Journalist. MComn. from The Hague University. Masters Thesis on Media Relations. Professional Video Editor (Final Cut Pro Certified). Cameraman.