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Thimphu hosts SAARC summit
Thimphu, Apr 27 (Agencies):
Published on 27 Apr. 2010 11:53 PM IST
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Bhutan is hosting the summit of SAARC region that accounts for almost 1.5 billion people - nearly one-fourth of the world’s population. This is also the first biggest international event being held in the country which is fiercely protective of its Buddhist culture.
The 60-km long mountainous route from Paro Airport to Thimpu was lined by thousands of schoolchildren, dressed in traditional robes -- kira for girls and goh for boys. They vigorously waved the flags of the eight nations.
Roads in the city are bedecked with colourful banners and buntings to welcome foreign delegates and the weather is pleasant -- maximum temperature hovering around 13 degrees Celsius. In line with Bhutan’s climate protection policy - Bhutan is one of the world’s greenest nations with nearly 70 percent forest cover- a joint declaration “Towards a Green and Happy South Asia” is expected to be an outcome of the summit.
The eight nations - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - will sign the environment convention to boost exchange of practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technology in areas such as climate change, coastal zone management, wildlife conservation and environmental impact assessment studies.
Meanwhile,tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees, forced to leave their homes for nearly two decades, are pinning their hopes on the 16th SAARC Summit starting in Bhutan from Wednesday, dreaming it would set in motion talks for their return.
Nepal is home to the largest number of Bhutanese refugees who amount to nearly a sixth of the Buddhist kingdom’s population.There were over 108,000 refugees living in closed camps in eastern Nepal under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees while nearly 10,000 more live outside the camps.
Evicted from Bhutan due to their ethnic roots and adherence to non-Buddhist religions, the younger refugees began to opt for a new life in western countries after Thimphu government refused to take them back.
Now an estimated 30 percent of the refugees have already exited Nepal for a fresh start in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway and more are expected to follow in the days to come.
Bhutan’s refugee leaders are now urging the heads of the eight member states to start multilateral talks for their repatriation.
They have sent a memorandum to the eight heads of state as well as an autobiographical book by a former advisor to the king of Bhutan, Teknath Rijal, recording the “torture” he faced in Bhutan’s jails after his arrest.
The memorandum urges them to facilitate the repatriation of refugees with honour and dignity, the unconditional release of all political prisoners, some of whom were jailed in the 1990s, and citizenship to 14 percent of the population who were not allowed to vote.
“It is the moral responsibility of SAARC to address the refugee issue since this is not simply Bhutan’s internal matter,” says Balaram Paudyel, chairman of the exiled National Front for Democracy in Bhutan, who was evicted 18 years ago.
“There are nearly 25,000 more Bhutanese refugees in India and about 30,000 scattered worldwide after they were resettled from the refugee camps in Nepal. It is now a regional issue.”
Nepal and Bhutan held 15 rounds of talks to repatriate the refugees from Nepal but the talks broke down and have not been resumed.
Before he left for Thimphu, Nepal’s Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal said resettlement was not a permanent solution. He has asked Bhutan to resume talks to take the refugees back and is expected to broach the issue during bilateral talks on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit.
However, the refugee leaders say they would never see their homeland again unless India steps in.
“India is the most influential member in SAARC,” Paudyel said. “It is also supporting development work in Bhutan and propping up the so-called democracy in Bhutan. But development and violence can’t go hand in hand.”
India has called the issue a bilateral matter between Bhutan and Nepal.

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