PHUENTSHOLING, Bhutan -- It was an American story, and particularly an East Bay story, that took me and photojournalist Jane Tyska to the Himalayas this spring.

We wanted to know more about the Bhutanese refugees who have been settling in Oakland, Alameda and other cities across the United States.

They fled 20 years ago from a nation that is rarely covered in the American media. Most journalistic dispatches from Bhutan are travelogues about its unique, long-isolated Buddhist culture and its gorgeous Himalayan terrain and architecture.

We saw these things, and admired them, but we wanted to learn something else: Why did tens of thousands of people flee? Why were they coming to America? Did Bhutan take any responsibility for their plight?

Charming and erudite, the stewards of Bhutanese political society let us in and answered many of our searching questions. They expressed astonishment, however, that two Californians were so stubbornly determined to tread across southern Bhutan, a place that most foreigners cannot visit and don't want to, anyway.

The south was the homeland of the refugees, people of Nepali descent who were uprooted from their villages in the 1990s. The south is viewed by northern Bhutanese as a rural, uninteresting backwater far from the cultured capital of Thimphu. Why would we want to go there? With the exception of the border city of Phuentsholing, Bhutan's main gateway to India, the government refused to let us venture south, citing security concerns.


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Many Americans who travel to Bhutan seek to discover a world far different from their own. They look for inspiration in a society that rejects materialism, embraces age-old traditions and views the pursuit of happiness not just as an unalienable right, but as the guiding philosophy of good government.

But the story Jane and I were investigating was not an exotic one. If anything, it was a parable about problems that many modern nations struggle with.

Is citizenship a birthright, or something that can be granted and removed at the whims of the state? Is ethnic and religious pluralism something to value, or do societies function better when everyone assimilates? How can a country control its porous borders without infringing on human rights? Will demographic change diminish national identity and the dominant language and way of life? And if a state has the power to reverse this change and maintain the status quo, should it use it?

These questions can provoke unpleasant debates in any country but are especially taboo subjects in Bhutan. But we asked people anyway, in ornate government halls and whiskey bars, archery fields and Bhutan's only bowling alley. We asked Drukpa people, whose culture is the dominant one in Bhutan, and found most were sympathetic to the government's approach.

We asked minority Lhotshampas, people of Nepali descent who remained in Bhutan after many of their kin fled. Some of them expressed contentment with their place in Bhutanese society. Others were reluctant to talk about it.

Refugee leaders abroad believe Nepali-descended people still face discrimination, especially in the south. The Bhutanese government says everyone is treated equitably.

Bay Area refugees told us we needed to go to the southern districts of Tsirang, Dagana and Sarpang to get the real story. These regions were epicenters of the political crisis where wounds were still sore.

"In the south, there are a lot of people suffering," said Ananta Gurung, president of the Oakland-based Bhutanese American Community Center, which helps local refugees. "They're still getting harassed. There's a lot of things the government doesn't want outsiders to see. If you go there, you will find the truth."

Gurung fled from Bhutan when he was 12 and was one of a handful of Bhutanese exiles who moved to the East Bay a decade ago, obtaining political asylum before the United States began accepting Bhutanese refugees as a group in 2008. He bases his assertions on news that trickles out of southern Bhutan to the hundreds of refugees who live in the East Bay.

Was Gurung right about Bhutan hiding something? We never found out.

Bhutanese bureaucrats repeatedly insisted that their southern travel ban, which also applies to tourists, was based on security concerns, and was not an attempt to stifle journalism. Free speech is protected in the two-year-old democracy's constitution.

As cause for the restrictions, authorities cited a diplomatic summit that brought to the country potential targets of international terrorism, including the heads of state of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. We attended the conference and asked to visit southern Bhutan when it was over, and the dignitaries were back home.

Violent crime is rare in Bhutan and there have been few reports of political violence in recent years. One media official, Tshering Wangmo, attested in an e-mail that Bhutan is "one of the safest place(s) on Earth," but added that we could not go to the south because of the security concerns.

A Bhutanese journalist based in the town of Damphu, capital of the district of Tsirang, said security is not a problem in the region where she works -- the same place we wanted to visit.

"It's safe. Nothing is happening here," said Tashi Dema, a reporter for Kuensel, a government-owned newspaper. "I don't know why they're saying it's not safe."

Bhutan's secretary of home and cultural affairs disagreed, and was the final authority -- after months of negotiations -- on whether we could go. The secretary, Penden Wangchuk, was also the only person to name a danger.

"We've received so many threats from the Maoists, from the people in the camps, the Indian insurgent groups," Wangchuk told me. "The villages have been alerted. We have to be overtly mindful, overtly careful."

In a later phone call, Wangchuk denied that Bhutan was trying to hide anything, remained adamant about the security restrictions and said I should stop bothering him about it.

"Don't try to push me against the wall for nothing," he finally told me, before hanging up.