Bhutan battles to preserve identity: The tiny Himalayan kingdom is evicting thousands of Nepali settlers. Tim McGirk visits refugees who fled across the border

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Standing on tip-toe, a shy girl in a dirty blouse peeled off a piece of bark from a tall, Himalayan tree which was splotched grey, like a crocodile's skin. The girl began gnawing on the bark.

A teacher shooed the girl away from the tree, which stood in an enclosure of bamboo huts where lessons were being taught to refugees who had fled from Bhutan to Nepal. 'They eat the bark because they believe it protects them from dysentery and cholera,' said Rita Thapa, an Oxfam aid worker. 'It doesn't'

Cholera, malaria and other diseases are sweeping through Timai camp, one of five cleared in the forest in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal to accommodate more than 75,000 refugees who have poured in from Bhutan over the past year. These refugees, who are of Nepali origin, see themselves as victims of an Asian variety of 'ethnic cleansing'. Newcomers at the camps tell stories of how the Bhutanese army stole their cattle, burnt down their homes, and marched them to the border at gunpoint. Some days, more than 400 new refugees arrive by lorries, travelling through India.

But for the Drukpas, the 'People of the Thunder-Dragon', who rule in the tiny, isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, the eviction of the Nepali settlers is viewed as a last chance to preserve their unique religion, culture and identity. Over the past 30 years, great numbers of Nepali farmers have intruded into Bhutan, attracted by virgin forest land and a higher standard of living than in neighbouring India and Nepal.

A 1988 census revealed that in this nation of 600,000 people, the Nepalis had nearly outnumbered the native Drukpas. 'We'd become an endangered species,' said Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan's only newspaper.

One by one, the Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas - Tibet, Ladakh and Sikkim - have vanished, and the Bhutanese are afraid they might be next to fall. Tibet was invaded by the Chinese, while Ladakh and Sikkim were engulfed by India.

The danger to Bhutan comes not from India but from armed Gurkha insurgents, descendants of the hill warriors, who want to forge a Greater Nepal out of present-day Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The Gurkha nationalists see Bhutan as the most vulnerable link. The royal government in Thimpu, the Bhutanese capital, also worries that once Britain disbands the Gurkha regiments, these expert soldiers might be recruited by the guerrillas, destabilising the eastern Himalayas.

Operating from clandestine bases in the Indian hill stations, guerrillas belonging to the Bhutanese People's Party in the past two years have attacked police stations, blown up bridges and killed Nepali 'collaborators' within the government. Faced with mounting discrimination by the Drukpa authorities, many Nepali-Bhutanese sided with the insurgents.

Bhutan's crackdown against the Nepalis began as an attempt to prevent this fragile, isolated kingdom from sprawling into modernity. The 37-year-old king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, educated at boarding schools in Darjeeling and in Britain, began in 1987 to slow the speed at which Bhutan was opening up to the world beyond its Himalayan walls.

Those Bhutanese who could afford television were ordered to remove their antennae, which captured programmes from India and Bangladesh. Entry to foreigners was restricted. Bhutanese who refused to wear the native khi - a silk robe - or who spoke in Nepali were fined.

What angered the Nepali-Bhutanese even more was a government decision in 1988 to reclassify as illegal aliens more than 100,000 Nepalis who had arrived in the kingdom after 1958. Bhutanese authorities deny that these Nepalis were forced out - many were offered cash incentives to leave. But Nepali refugees in the Jhapa camps painted a different picture - one of coercion, arrests and beatings. Many Nepalis whose families had lived in Bhutan long before the 1958 cut-off were also forced to depart.

Devi Lal, 42, arrived exhausted last week at Maidhar camp, a smoky city of bamboo huts under a tall canopy of trees. 'The Bhutanese took my house, my apple orchards, everything - and for that they gave me 25,000 rupees ( pounds 480) to leave. But first, they took away 9,000 rupees. They said that was to pay for feeding me for the year they had kept me under arrest.' He said his family had farmed in Bhutan for four generations.

Relief aid has started to trickle in from the United Nations, Oxfam, the International Red Cross and other agencies. Privately, relief officials say it is unlikely that these refugees will ever be allowed back to Bhutan. Still, in the camps this year they celebrated the birthday of the Bhutanese king's late father. And the refugees are also teaching their children to speak Bhutanese - the language of the Thunder-Dragon people.

(Photograph omitted)