An issue pertaining to the crisis of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal that is even less known to the outside world concerns the persecution of the Sharchokpa tribe, who are also Buddhists. The Sharchokpa tribe inhabits eastern Bhutan, and the members are predominantly followers of the Nyingmapa tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. The Sharchokpa believe that the saint responsible for the emergence of Nyingmapa teachings dates back to the visit of Guru Padmasambhava in the early seventh century AD; but they have nevertheless been victimized by the regime during several periods.
Nyingmapa practitioners enjoyed the bliss of the teachings of Buddhism under the duel umbrella of Ka-Nying Zungdrel, though the government took politically deceptive moves to increase its control over the monastic system. The regime patronized the Karma Kagyu establishments, but Nyingmapa institutions in different parts of eastern Bhutan functioned under the independent supervision of eminent priests of the sect. however, during the 1980s and 1990s, the kingdom began to instigate differences among the different sects and faiths.
In 1989, the Lhotshampa agitation for civil rights was followed in I991 by the regime’s interference in the affairs of the Nyingmapa faith in eastern Bhutan. The religious institutions, especially those of eastern Bhutan, continue to silently suffer state suppression. Even today, the elected government promotes only Kagyu Buddhism and other Buddhist sects like the Nyingmapa continue to be sidelined.
After 1991, Nyingmapa centers were scrapped, and the Nyingmapa masters disallowed from preaching their traditional faith, thus denying people of the right to their choice of belief. The regime unleashed atrocities in the south during the early 1990s. Worse, relatives of victims were deprived of their right to equal opportunities under restrictions such as mandatory no-objection-certificates or clearance from the security forces!
In 1982, the government of Bhutan invited the Dodrupchen Rinpoche, the supreme authority of Nyingmapa institutions in Bhutan, who had previously been exiled by the 4th king in the early 1990s. In the contrast to the vested interests of elite monks in state-sponsored Kagya institutions, Nyingmapa followers were victimized and as many as 16 teaching centers closed down overnight with students forcibly sent back to their respective homes.
The deprived Nyingmapa followers converged into pro-democracy forces and organized a peaceful demonstration in support of human rights and democracy in 1997, with the view to restore their rights to practice their faith with freedom and dignity. But the government resorted to armed repression and unleashed brutality upon the people.
A monk was shot at point blank by the district chief, who went unpunished. Instead, the Chief Abbot was imprisoned for eight years while as many as 131 people were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three months to life for merely raising their voice to demand their right to freedom to practice the religion of their choice. Scores of faithful followers escaped the vicious grip of the armed forces by fleeing to the refugee camps in Nepal.
Thus, the Nyingmapa, too, join the struggle to restore democracy and human rights for the Bhutanese people.
The author is a member of the Druk National Congress; the article is based on a presentation at the Symposium on ‘Bhutanese Refugees: The Tragic Story of the Forgotten People’ by Human Rights Defense (India) in New Delhi on 14 July 2012
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