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Remembering Dr Govinda Rizal

Rizal, a Bhutanese scholar, engaged in various roles, including scientist, teacher, human rights advocate, author, thinker, press freedom activist, scholar, editor, mentor, and senior lecturer.

Today (May 18) is the 13th day of the tragic death of my beloved friend and colleague, Dr Govinda Rizal.

Late Rizal was a 52-year-old Bhutanese scholar and leader of Bhutanese refugees based in Nepal. He died on May 5, 2024, in an accident in Kathmandu. He was a scientist, teacher, Bhutanese human rights leader, author, thinker, press freedom activist, scholar, editor, mentor, and senior lecturer at Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur.

I had the privilege of working with the late Govinda Rizal since 2007. However, our relationship deepened in 2017 when he sent me a bulk shipment of his book Pardesi in Paradise to sell in the Netherlands. I used his book as a tool to advocate for human rights and democracy in Bhutan, which made it famous among Europeans and other international intellectuals familiar with Bhutan and the region. Dr. Rizal frequently wrote Facebook posts appreciating my efforts, particularly my approach to selling his book by informing people about the Bhutanese refugees and their movement for democracy and human rights in Bhutan.

In 2019, Dr Govinda Rizal joined the team of The Bhutan Watch, alongside Indra Adhikari, myself, and others. Later, he became the co-editor of The Bhutan Journal, with Indra Adhikari as the other editor, and The Bhutan Watch began publishing in 2020. As the coordinator, I organized regular meetings to ensure the smooth functioning of The Bhutan Watch and to secure sufficient articles from various researchers for The Bhutan Journal. The late Govinda Rizal compiled a list of Bhutanese scholars and writers, creating a platform to encourage them to contribute articles to The Bhutan Journal. Despite considerable challenges, thanks to the formidable efforts of Govinda Rizal and Indra Adhikari, The Bhutan Watch successfully published The Bhutan Journal annually from 2020 to 2024.

The late Govinda Rizal and I started the Bhutan Watch Debate Series in 2024 to bring neutral experts together to discuss issues concerning Bhutan and to inform Bhutanese both inside and outside the country about topics considered prohibited for discussion within Bhutan. Dr Rizal compiled a list of potential experts for the debate series. Thanks to his easy access to these experts, he was able to convince them to join the panel. I served as the host, assisted by US-based youth scholar Ashika Dhaurali.

He planned to organize workshops to provide interested Bhutanese writers and intellectuals with technical writing skills. Dr Rizal believed that everyone who could write should start writing their own stories, and he wanted to teach them how to do that.

Just a day before he died, he suggested that I organize a discussion event on the issue of press freedom in Bhutan. Bhutan had dropped from 90th to 147th in the press freedom index published on May 3, 2024, by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Dr Rizal and I met at 3:00 PM Netherlands time to plan that event. Unfortunately, the news of his tragic death reached me just 15 minutes before our scheduled virtual meeting for which I was preparing. Dr Rizal was a part of almost all the essential initiatives taken by the Bhutanese refugee community, both resettled and not resettled. He built excellent relations with Bhutanese intellectual communities and maintained strong relationships with experts and scholars worldwide.

As someone who worked closely with him until the last hour of his life, I found Dr Govinda Rizal to be very well-informed. He firmly believed in thorough discussion supported by proper homework and data. Unlike others, Dr Rizal always wanted to engage with people holding conflicting perspectives on issues concerning Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. He never refused anything directly but chose words that indirectly implied his rejection. During our innumerable video calls, Dr Rizal sat in his office, diligently jotting down the crucial points of our conversations. He was a reservoir of information.

Dr Rizal’s belief in the eventual acceptance of Bhutan and its people was a source of inspiration for us all. He was confident that one day he would be able to return to Bhutan. His work ethic was unparalleled—he never rested and never grew tired. If you sent him a draft to review, you could expect his feedback within a remarkably short period.

Dr Rizal’s words always carried weight and had a profound impact on my advocacy work for the Bhutanese people. His Facebook post, where he mentioned that ten activists like Ram Karki could steer our movement in the right direction, made me feel that my efforts were being closely observed by the community. His words were a constant source of inspiration and energy for me.

Dr Rizal was very cautious regarding Bhutan’s national interest and territorial sovereignty. He repeatedly emphasized that our stance was not against Bhutan as a country but against the human rights violations and injustices faced by the Bhutanese people. He was meticulous in choosing his words during discussions. Thus, I found him to be one of the most nationalist and patriotic Bhutanese leaders in exile. He remained very optimistic about the dignified repatriation of willing Bhutanese refugees, including himself.

With his untimely demise, Bhutan has lost a patriot, and those of us in exile have lost a strong pillar of our movement, which has always stood for the cause of Bhutanese issues in whatever capacity possible. Had he been a citizen of a liberal democratic country, his death would have been a cause for national mourning. Sadly, as a refugee in Nepal, his passing may not receive the same recognition, but his contributions as a scientist and lecturer at Tribhuvan University earned him a good reputation among academics and intellectuals. This was evident in the large number of such individuals who participated in his funeral.

We must strengthen our capacity to fulfill the unfinished mission of Dr Rizal, as that would be the best and most fitting way to honor and preserve his legacy. 

Finally, I extend my heartfelt condolences to all the bereaved family members and pray that the departed soul of Dr Rizal rests in eternal peace.