The Bhutanese refugees arrived in Burlington this morning at 8:20 a.m. after driving all night — 22 hours straight — from Atlanta, Ga., just to stand silently in the rain in order to make their outrage felt. Their handmade protest signs of brown cardboard boxes quickly wilted in the downpour, as the ink ran on their white, hand-lettered T-shirts scrawled with political slogans. For these twentysomething men, many of them current college students or recent grads, there wasn't even time this morning to stop for breakfast. "This is our first priority," they told me.
The source of their passion and anger: the three-day "Gross National Happiness Project" conference at Champlain College, which opened this morning with a keynote address by Karma Tshiteem, secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission. But the men who stood outside on the sidewalk, all Nepali-speaking Bhutanese whose families were forced into exile due to ethnic and political persecution, are outraged that Vermont would welcome an official representative of the regime that drove them from their native land.
Among the protesters was Gopal Subedi, 24, who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. It was one of seven operated by the United Nations for the tens of thousands of Bhutanese — one-sixth of the nation's population — who currently live in exile. Like all his fellow Bhutanese who made the overnight drive to Burlington, Subedi supports the concept of Gross National Happiness — in theory.
However, he also wants the Vermont conference attendees to know that Bhutan's notion of Gross National Happiness was a myth perpetrated by the government as a way of concealing years of human rights abuses. As one of his fellow protesters put it, "In Bhutan, it's Gross National Sadness, not happiness."
Wearing shirts that read, "GNH with National Reconciliation," the men are calling on the Bhutanese government to immediately institute democratic reforms, end the repression of its Nepali-speaking citizenry, free political prisoners, and allow exiles such as themselves to return to their home nation without fear of reprisal or punishment. And, they're asking Vermonters to stand by them in putting pressure on the government of Bhutan, which is still one of the world's most closed and repressive countries.
For his part, Subedi, who came to the United States in 2006 and just graduated from Colby College in Maine, said he plans to ask the event organizers for permission to address conference-goers later today and explain Bhutan's current political situation. As another protester remarked, when several attendees walked by their silent vigil on their way into Champlain College's Hauke Family Campus Center, "They seemed very uninformed about the [Bhutanese] people in exile."
Such ignorance is shocking, considering that the event's local sponsors include the Vermont Peace Academy, the Peace and Justice Center and the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, which are all organizations dedicated to raising social awareness about the global implications of our actions. This is doubly true considering that Burlington is home to 500 such Bhutanese refugees. Wonder how much they researched the current political climate in that country and its record on human rights before inviting the speaker?
The men who made the 950-mile trek to Vermont would be happy share their perspective with a wider audience before departing the Green Mountain State on Wednesday.