HONGTSHO, Bhutan (Reuters) - In a remote corner of the Himalayas, a small Tibetan refugee community felt helpless as it watched protests erupt all over the world against Chinese rule in their homeland. For in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, ethnically, culturally and linguistically close to its giant northern neighbor Tibet, demonstrations are not allowed. Young Tibetans were even reluctant to give their names for fear of trouble.
“We want to demonstrate but we don’t have the right to, and that is very bad for us,” said a 24-year-old who gave her name as Tenzing. “If we could, people would know that Tibet belongs to Tibetans.”
Sixty years ago, Tibet and Bhutan were both reclusive feudal societies virtually shut to the outside world, under absolute rulers viewed as close to Buddha in most people’s eyes.
But after Tibet was swallowed up by China, Bhutan befriended India and embarked on a gradual path of modernization and opening up that culminated in last week’s parliamentary elections, ending a century of royal rule and ushering in democracy.
Despite the advances, Bhutan remains a tightly controlled society where criticism of the elite, let alone protests, is almost unheard of.
Tibetan refugees were welcomed into Bhutan in the 1950s and given land by the king. In the small village of Hongtsho in central Bhutan, Tibetan families grow potatoes and have planted apple orchards, selling their produce by the roadside.
Tshering Jamtsho was just two years old when his parents carried him on their backs in a long and dangerous trek from Tibet to Bhutan in 1959, the same year Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising.
Jamtsho says he will always be grateful for the safe haven he found here.
“I was born in Tibet and brought up in Bhutan,” he said in the shrine room of his house, butter lamps burning near photographs of the Dalai Lama and the kings of Bhutan. “The countries are like my father and my mother.”
Those who renounced the right to return to Tibet were granted Bhutanese citizenship, and they and their children were allowed to take part in last week’s elections.
But the majority told Bhutanese authorities they would like to return to Tibet one day. As a result, they remain refugees, and youngsters complained that makes them feel like second class citizens.
Without a security clearance — something they say is virtually impossible to obtain — Tibetans cannot get government jobs, enrol their children in higher education or obtain licenses to run private business.
Many get around that rule by renting shop licenses off native Bhutanese, but it leaves them in an uncomfortable limbo.
“It is hard for us to get papers, and we don’t get jobs easily,” said a woman who sells Tibetan souvenirs in a small market in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.
“If we get independence we would like to go back to Tibet,” she added. “But if we get ID cards we would probably stay here.”
Despite their cultural links, Bhutan’s people hardly seem to care about the problems of their Tibetan neighbors, a function of their long isolation in the Himalayas.
But Tibetans say they do mix with Bhutanese people and at least are free to practice their religion inside the country.
“As a refugee life goes, this is not too bad,” said one young man.
Yet parents usually send their children off from a relatively young age to be educated in Indian towns like Darjeeling and Dharamsala, where Tibetan schools teach them their language and culture and give them the chance for higher education.
Bhutan has a population of less than 700,000 people and after an influx of Tibetans in 1959 it closed its northern borders for fear of being swamped. New refugees are no longer welcome.
Dolker, a 48-year-old farmer’s wife says she was born high in the Himalayas, right on the border of Bhutan and Tibet, in the midst of a dangerous and arduous trek to safety.
Today she looks after her 82-year-old mother Choden, but the rest of her family are scattered.
All three of her children, aged 19, 18 and 16, study in Mussoorie in India. She has a younger sister in Canada, and a brother in the Indian Himalayan state of Ladakh.
“The army came and tortured families and the rest had to flee,” she said, relating her family’s odyssey in 1959 as her lined and hunched mother sat on a bed twisting her prayer beads.
“My parents had many brothers and sisters who were put in prison, and we have never found out what happened to them. We do not know if they lived or died,” she said, as her mother looked pained.
The simple, dirt-floored house was decorated with mementoes of her absent children, posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger, crayon drawings of Bhutanese stupas or rural scenes on the walls.
“We always have a little hope, but we are not really sure if freedom is possible,” she said.
Editing by Mark Williams and Megan Goldin