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FOCUS March 1996 Volume 3

Bhutan: Human Rights in Peril

Bhutan and Nepal are the only States in South Asia with monarchical governments. Bhutan is largely characterized by two institutions: the hereditary monarchy and Lamaist Buddhism. While there are three major ethnic groups in the country, namely, the Sharchops, the Ngalops and the so-called Lhotshampas (descendants of Nepali migrants), the Ngalops or the so-called Drukpas politically dominate. The King of Bhutan belongs to the Drukpa group. There is no settled number of the total population of Bhutan. It ranges from 1.5 million to 700,000 in a landlocked area of 48,000 square kilometers.

During the reign of the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-1972), democratic reforms were introduced. A system of impeaching the King called "Vote of Confidence on the King", approval of appointment of Ministers, and power to make final decisions (without need for approval by the King) were introduced in the National Assembly (Tshongdu). It was reported that the election of members of theTshongdu was also established. There was, structurally speaking, a constitutional monarchy in Bhutan at that period. From 1972, when King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck died, these democratic reforms were abolished one after the other. The members of Tshongdu are reportedly now being nominated through the local government authorities.

The Nepali ascendants of southern Bhutanese started to settle in south Bhutan in 17th century. They were brought there as workers. They had since then integrated into the Bhutanese society identifying themselves as Bhutanese though they retained their Hindu culture and Nepali language. The Bhutanese royal government considered them as Bhutanese for a long time until new developments occurred in the 1980s.

Southern Bhutan is the locale of all the major commercial and industrial centers in the country mainly due to proximity to the facilities and markets in bordering India. The southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent contributed greatly to the development of this part of the country. Many have been educated and some acquired government scholarships for studies abroad. Many have assumed responsible positions in the government. And many also availed of the previous government policy of ethnic assimilation by receiving financial grants (5,000 Ngultrums ) for having inter-ethnic marriages.

In 1985, the Tshongdu enacted a new citizenship law (The Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985) which superseded two previous laws of 1958 and 1977. This law provides that permanent residents in the country as of December 31, 1985 and are registered in the census register maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs shall be deemed to be citizens of Bhutan by registration. This provision of the law affects many southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent.

The government proceeded to implement the 1985 law, granting citizenship to many southern Bhutanese. A highly questionable census survey in 1988 allegedly came up with the figure of a big number of "illegal migrants" in the country mostly in southern Bhutan. Abuses against the southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent by government authorities doing the survey were reported to have occurred. Citizenship acquired by them under the 1958, 1977 and even the most recent 1985 laws begun to be revoked, effectively making them stateless. To make use of the 1985 law itself as a basis for citizenship revocation, government officials came up with an interpretation of this law declaring that permanent residence can only be proved by showing land tax receipt of 1958. This requirement deviates from the clear provision of the 1985 law which does not provide for such proof of residence. Many were made to sign documents of voluntary migration out of Bhutan. There were reports of coerced signing of the voluntary migration documents.

In 1989, the government launched a "One Nation One People" policy (Driglam Namzha policy). This required everyone in Bhutan while in public places to wear the dress of the Drukpa people, speak their language and adopt their culture. This policy is obviously aimed at strengthening the dominance of the culture and traditions of the Drukpa group to the detriment of those belonging to other ethnic groups.

In 1990, protests were held in many parts of the country on the lack of democratic system of government; the arbitrary revocation of citizenship of southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent; and the restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion, expression and organization. The government responded by arresting the protesters and harassing people in southern Bhutan. Human rights violations committed by government authorities in southern Bhutan were repeatedly reported. Cases of killing, rape and torture of those arrested and detained were likewise reported. The government, on the otherhand, claims that southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent were doing acts of terrorism in southern Bhutan that threaten the peace in the country. There were indeed acts of anger on the part of some of those who were unjustly dispossessed of property and rights by the Bhutanese government. But acts of terrorism were reported by the Bhutanese government itself as coming from a tribe in India (Bodo) who have been crossing the India-Bhutan border.

The continuing violation of human rights by government authorities prompted people in southern Bhutan to flee to India and later on to eastern Nepal in 1991. Some of those who fled to India were arrested by Indian authorities and turned over to the Bhutanese government under the terms of a 1949 extradition agreement. Several people who fled to Nepal were abducted by Bhutanese government agents (reportedly in collaboration with Nepali police) and brought back to Bhutan. Mr. Teck Nath Rizal, a leading political figure in Bhutan, was one of those abducted and is now on his seventh year of imprisonment in Bhutan.

There are now around 90,000 southern Bhutanese living in refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in Nepal . Some 25,000 more are staying in various villages in India. The Bhutanese government reportedly started erasing government records of land ownership of the refugees and their relatives.

Nepal and Bhutan set up in 1993 a Joint Minister Level Committee to resolve the refugee issue. After six meetings, the Committee still has to come up with a solution to the problem. The situation in the refugee camps in Nepal is becoming more difficult, however, as support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees seems to be decreasing. The refugees are beginning to have low morale due to a perceived lack of international support. It is reported that King Jigme Singye Wangchuck maintains that the Bhutanese government will "... accept full responsibility for any citizens of Bhutan who had left the country involuntarily; but those who had absconded, or migrated voluntarily, would need to make their own arrangements." (Bhutan, Asia 1996 Yearbook, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 1995, Hong Kong). The Bhutanese government still insists that there are non-Bhutanese citizens among the refugees.

Taking into account the whole situation, there is a rather clear demarcation of interests between the ruling party in the royal government of Bhutan and the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin. The Bhutanese government is bent on protecting the dominance by the present ruling Drukpa group. The apparent official policy is explained thus:

"Bhutanese policymakers do not hide their rejection of some Western ideological and cultural concepts. At Bhutan's stage of development, they feel, Western concepts of representative democracy, competitive party systems, consumer culture, and standards of human rights, as well as activities of church-sponsored nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could pose a serious threat. They say that the economic growth required for the welfare of the population needs political stability, and they fear religious plurality as going against the grain of age-old Bhutanese traditions in which life revolves around the institution of religion..." (A.C. Sinha, Bhutan in 1994 - Will the Ethnic Conflict be Resolved?, in Asian Survey, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, February 1995).

Southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent are seen as threat to this power structure as they call for constitutional monarchy, democratic system, pluralist society and respect for human rights. The Driglam Namzha policy, the citizenship revocation and/or eviction of southern Bhutanese of Nepali descent , the abolition of democratic political system, and the labelling of protests against these developments as anti-national are all in favor of the continuing hold onto power of the ruling Drukpa group. They are more importantly violative of human rights principles. The continuation of this situation will only create an authoritarian rule by the present government with national security as its justification.

The Bhutan case is yet another example of a situation where governmental systems, laws, policies and programs do not seem to support human rights. The bigger issue in this case is on the means of putting in place the structures that will realize human rights in the context of a multi-ethnic, tradition-bound and multi-religious society. The return of the Bhutanese refugees to their previous communities, which should include the redress of the injustices committed against them, does not end the prospect of human rights violations. The accommodation of the growing role of the southern Bhutanese in the economic, social, cultural and political lives of Bhutanese society is a key concern.

The reintroduction of democratic systems (though not necessarily the Western model), the re-adoption of the policy of ethnic co-existence, the amendment of the 1985 citizenship and other discriminatory laws, enactment of laws and introduction of programs to realize human rights, among others, will have to be the necessary conditions that can facilitate respect and realization of human rights in Bhutan. Adherence to the positive Bhutanese traditions which support these measures is not ruled out nor devalued. They can be used as long as discrimination is not the result. These measures, obviously, directly affect the power relations in the Bhutanese government.

The nature of the situation in Bhutan underlies the difficulty of resolving the issues at hand. Certainly, the move of the refugees to peacefully address the issues should be supported. Some have petitioned the royal government of Bhutan as well as planned a peaceful march (January 14, 1996) to Thimpu, Bhutan's capital, for a dialogue. Unfortunately, the peaceful marchers were arrested by Indian authorities upon entering Indian territory. These peaceful efforts of the refugees themselves have to continue to grow, rather than be suppressed, until the issues are resolved. On the otherhand, international pressure on the royal government of Bhutan is also needed. The affected States in this sub-region, namely Nepal and India, will have to pursue some measures to assist Bhutan on this issue. United Nations agencies must undertake more steps at arriving at a political solution to the issue instead of merely acting as welfare agencies. Non-governmental organizations should continue providing pressure and assistance toward this end.


  1. Bhutan, Asia 1995 Yearbook, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, December 1995.
  2. "Bhutanese Refugees and the Appeal Movement", The AMCC Newsletter, vol.1, no. 1, Jhapa, Nepal, November 1995.
  3. Appeal Movement Coordinating Council "Bhutan - Revocation of Citizenship", Jhapa, Nepal, September 1995.
  4. A.C. Sinha "Bhutan in 1994 - Will the Ethnic Conflict be Resolved?", Asian Survey, vol. XXXV, no. 2, California, USA, February 1995.
  5. Excerpts of U.S. State Department Reports on Torture in Nepal and Bhutan, Voice, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1994.
  6. S.K. Pradhan, "Human Rights Situation in Bhutan", IMADR Review, no. 4, Tokyo, Japan, September 1994.
  7. Rebeka Martensen, "Bhutan - Just Another Ethnic Conflict?", IMADR Review, no. 4, Tokyo, Japan, September 1994.
  8. Ahura Bhutan, "Bhutan - A Shangrila Without Human Rights", Ahura Bhutan, Jhapa, Nepal, 1993.
  9. "State Terrorism in Bhutan", INSEC Bulletin South Asian Exchange, vol. 1, no. 5, Kathmandu, Nepal, November 1991.
  10. Clarence J. Dias "Brutality Beyond Bounds, Barbarity Beyond Belief", INSEC Bulletin South Asian Exchange, vol. 1, no. 4, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 1991.
  11. Urmila Phadnis, "Ethnicity and Nation-Building in South Asia", Sage Publications, New Delhi, India, 1990.
  12. H.N. Misra, "Bhutan - Problems and Policies", Heritage Publishers, New Delhi, India, 1988.
  13. Urmila Phadnis, S.D. Muni and Kalim Bahadur, eds., "Domestic Conflicts on South Asia", South Asian Publishers, New Delhi, India, 1986.