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Bhutanese refugees press to return home

King Jigme Wangchuk had kicked Bhutanese of Nepali origin out of the country in the early 1990s after they complained of racial bias.

india Updated: Jun 02, 2006 16:18 IST

Thousands of people exiled from their villages in Bhutan gathered on Nepal's border with India on Friday demanding the right to leave their refugee camps and return home.

Wearing their traditional dress and holding placards saying "India resolve our fate", the ethnic Nepalis shouted slogans against Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck on the anniversary of his 1972 coronation.

It was Wangchuck who kicked hundreds of Bhutanese of Nepali origin out of the country in the early 1990s after they complained of racial discrimination and campaigned for democracy.

Tens of thousands joined them in exile in Nepal.

"The king has been talking about democracy and handing over power in a country where people do not have a right to speak," Mohan Tamang, president of the Bhutan National Democratic Party's youth wing said on Friday.

"India and Nepal have to do something to help us or we will be left with no alternative but to march back to our country," Tamang said.

Indian police kept watch in Methibridge, about 685 km north of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state, as about 6,000 refugees, including women and children blocked the border road, bringing all trade and traffic to a halt.

The refugees argued with Indian authorities to allow them to travel through the state to reach Bhutan, a remote Himalayan nation wedged between India and China and a five-hour drive from the frontier.

They handed over a request for safe passage through Indian territory.

"We will arrest them the moment they try to cross, we have enough policemen there," Jogesh Chatterjee, a top Indian police official told Reuters in Kolkata.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis are now living as refugees in seven humanitarian camps set up in forests in eastern Nepal where they survive on aid handouts from the U.N. and others.

The refugees say that neighbours India and Nepal have put little pressure on Bhutan to settle the problem, described by some rights groups as the world's most neglected refugee crisis.

Wangchuk has slowly slowly been pulling the country of just 630,000 people into the modern world and has expressed a wish to hand over power to the people in 2008, offering the refugees a ray of hope.