Refugees fight back in Nepali

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Teaching in its native tongue has cost a community dear, reports Dorothy Lepkowska. Freedom to teach in their native tongue has come at a price for the southern Bhutanese. The community, which is of Nepali origin, was banned from speaking Nepali in schools but as refugees they are able to return to their own culture and traditions.

The plight of the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who have fled their homeland is currently being highlighted in Britain by two teachers.

Hari Sharma and Tek Bir Chhetri both work in one of a handful of schools in the camps to which whole communities fled in the wake of strict new government restrictions on ethnicity in Bhutan.

The refugees are all from the southern, flat region of the country and belong to a Hindu ethnic group, even though they have lived in Bhutan for seven or more generations.

They were forced to leave in 1991 by the ruling Drugpa group - Buddhists of Tibetan origin who speak the official Bhutanese language of Dzonkha - after a census revealed the majority of the population belonged to the southern ethnic group.

Fearing a threat to their national culture and power base, the Drugpa banned the southern Bhutanese from teaching Nepali in schools, imposed restrictions on national clothing and forced the women to cut their hair.

More than 100,000 fled in what the southern population has described as "ethnic cleansing" with most going to Nepal.

High-ranking officials from the two countries are discussing how to resolve the problem. The Bhutanese government has imposed four categories of citizenship and it is likely huge numbers of refugees will not be repatriated because they will fail to satisfy the criteria.

Meanwhile, Mr Sharma and Mr Chhetri have been holding their own discussions with Amnesty International, the Irish government and British teaching associations to highlight their problems.

Mr Sharma said 30,000 refugee children were being taught in makeshift camp schools in classes of between 65 and 100. But now, at least, they are able to teach using the Nepalese language which had been denied them under the new regulations.

He said: "Before the government imposed the changes, there began to be a reform of the education system with a more child-centred approach.

"Previously children in primary schools had different teachers in each subject and teaching involved standing at the front of the class and pupils copying work.

"Later we tried to adopt more pupil participation and classroom activities, with the help of British and Irish teachers who came over under the Voluntary Service Overseas and other programmes."

Mr Chhetri said the camp schools were trying to follow the reformed system in the hope that when they eventually return to Bhutan both pupils and teachers will be able to fit in.

The Bhutanese teachers are being supported by a small group of British professionals called the Bhutanese Refugees Support Group.

Colin Izod, a former teacher who worked in Bhutan in the 1980s and now produces television programmes for schools, leads the group.

He said: "There is a disproportionate number of British teachers who have worked in Bhutan at some point. We want them to be aware of what is happening.

"Through our group we have been able to make the Bhutanese aware of organisations such as Amnesty International which can help them."

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