Government Repression of Southern Bhutanese

Provided by

Association of HUman Rights Activists, Bhutan
AHURA Bhutan

The Citizenship Act of 1958 granted the Nepali speaking people (also called the Lhotshampas which means people living in the south) the full citizens of the country. As the nationwide programmes of development and modernisation commenced in 1961, the Lhotshampas, with the development of education, social services and the economy,during the 1960s and 1970s, rose to occupy influential positions in the bureaucracy. During the 1980s, the Lhotshampas came to be seen as a threat to the political order and Drukpa culture. The Durkpas of the northwest or the ruling elite began to see themselves as an endangered species that would one day be swamped by the Lhotsampas of the south or the Sharchops of the east.

In 1985 the government began its defense of Drukpa culture and traditions. A new citizenship act was passed that applied new criteria of citizenship, and made them retrospective, declaring all previous legislations null and void. The new citizenship Act of 1985, One Nation One People policy, Driglam Namza, Compulsory Labour, and No Objection Certificate were the vivid government repressions against the Nepali speaking Lhotshampas that resulted the democracy movement of 1990.

One Nation One People Policy

In the name of national integration, government's drive for "One Nation One People'' policy made all the southern Bhutanese liable to a fine or imprisonment if they ventured out in anything other than western traditional costume, and Nepali language was removed from the school curriculum. Many southern Bhutanese were fined and imprisoned for not complying with this order. The wearing of 'gho' and 'kira' , traditional Drukpa male and female garments was unsuited to the heat of southern Bhutan.

Driglam Namza, an ancient code of social etiquette of the western Bhutanese which dictates how to eat, how to sit, how to talk, how to dress or how to bow before the authority, and what hair style to adopt, was made mandatory to all the Bhutanese despite their cultural diversity.

May it be Driglam Namza or One Nation One Peo

ple policy, but they clearly had the political objectives behind and were initiated politically with a view to binding the growing class of educated lot with complete obedience to the crown and the ruling elite. However it was difficult to the Bhutanese nationals of other ethnicity to surrender their own traditional customs whatsoever.

No Objection Certificate (NOC) and the closing of schools in Southern Bhutan

After the democracy movement of 1990, No Objection Certificate or a police clearance was made mandatory to all the southern Bhutanese in order to work, obtain license or attend school allegedly for having their implication in the movement. NOC was denied to the southern Bhutanese and all the schools in southern Bhutan were closed down which deprived about 30,000 southern Bhutanese school children of their right to education. Seeking admission in schools in other districts was impossible owing to the so-called NOC.

Other repression included strict marriage laws that imposed heavy burdens on anyone marrying a foreigner. A policy to create 'Green Belt' along the southern border threatened the eviction of thousands of southern Bhutanese; a one month free labour was demanded from each household, the noncompliance of which was a heavy fine.


Revocation of Citizenship

In 1985, the government of Bhutan passed a new Citizenship Act having retroactive applications and fixing 1958 as cut off date for citizenship. This Act became the basis for the so-called census exercise carried out only in the southern districts in 1988, in which every household of the southern population had to produce documentary evidence of having legal residence such as land tax receipt of 1958, or else be a non-national. The census teams randomly categorised the southern Bhutanese and in many instances members under a same household fell into seven different categories. In many cases citizenship cards previously issued were confiscated. Many genuine Bhutanese citizens who could not produce land tax receipt of 1958 were declared non-nationals. The village headmen, formerly considered knowledgeable and authoritative sources in census matters, were not taken into confidence and were not permitted to testify the credentials of their village people.

Sita Mothe, the wife of Buddhiman Mothe, a Bhutanese citizen of Chirang district committed suicide on fear of being separated from her husband and children when the census team threatened to deport her from the country for being a non-national. Mrs.Mothe was an Indian citizen by origin who had married a Bhutanese national.

Opposition Movement

The overall effect of Driglam Namza, One Nation One People policy and a series of other repressive measures and discrimination against the Nepali speaking southern Bhutanese (Lhotshampas) made them feel like second class citizens in their own country. The introduction of new Citizenship Act of 1985 with retrospective action, and the subsequent census exercise in 1988 that converted a large segment of southern Bhutanese citizens as illegal immigrants instilled fear and political unrest amidst the southern Bhutanese for the first time. This ultimately became the basis that led the Lhotshampas to campaign for their rights and freedoms.

A petition seeking a review of the 1985 Citizenship Act and the manner in which the census was carried out and other government policies was sent to the king by Tek Nath Rizal, who then was the Royal Advisory Councillor and people's representative from the south. But his appeal was taken by the king as an act of treason. Consequently Mr. Rizal was imprisoned and tortured on charges of inciting the southern Bhutanese against the government.

A week later, on conditions that he did not attend any public functions or speak to more than three persons at a time, Rizal was released under amnesty from the king. Distressed at the way he was treated, Rizal soon flee the country to join dissidents and mobilise support in exile.

On July 7, 1989, Mr. Rizal formed the "People's Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan" (PFHRB) in exile (Nepal) and started campaigning against the gross violations of human rights in Bhutan.

In October and November 1998 Bhutan Government arrested and tortured a number of Rizal's supporters including college and high school students inside the country. On November 16, 1989, Bhutan police trespassed into the kingdom of Nepal and abducted Tek Nath Rizal and his three associates. Now Mr. Rizal is in Chemgang central jail in Thimphu as an Amnesty declared "Prisoner of Conscience."

A number of other suspected dissidents fled Bhutan to escape arrest, and organised themselves into a political party called 'Bhutan Peoples' Party' (BPP) on June 2, 1990 on Indo-Bhutan border district of North Bengal in India.

On August 7, 1990, the Home Ministry of Bhutan issued a circular branding all those who fled the country as traitors or anti-nationals. The Citizenship of family members and relatives of those fleeing the country were consequently confiscated and were charged with anti-national activities.

Notwithstanding the government threat and order, in September 1990, under the command of BPP, the southern Bhutanese in all the southern districts, organised a number of peaceful public demonstrations protesting against the discriminatory citizenship laws and Driglam Namza. The government reacted swiftly, arresting their leaders, and closing schools and hospitals throughout southern Bhutan. The protest grew into a movement for full human rights, and eventually into a call for democracy.

Forced eviction

The result of the demonstration was awfully disheartening and tragic. It all ended in ruthless government atrocities and forced evictions of the southern Bhutanese. Demonstrations against the government policies in September 1990 were followed by :

For the ruling elite, Lhotshampa became a byword for anti-national. Crackdown and campaign against the southern Bhutanese intensified. The innocent people were thus terrorised by the government forces and some began to flee from the country for fear of arrest and torture, some following evictions by the government forces. People previously classified as bona-fide citizens were pressurised into living voluntarily because they had relatives detained as political prisoners or participated in democracy movement.

Mass expulsion started in 1991 when the government resorted to forced evictions intimidating the innocent villagers into signing "voluntary migration forms" under torture and threat of life imprisonment. Now the majority of the refugees in the camps in Nepal fall under this category.

Bhutanese Refugees come to Nepal

The Exodus

Bhutanese fleeing Bhutan in early 1991 first arrived in Assam and West Bengal in India. They set up makeshift camps and hoped for the situation to normalize. Instead, as the situation in Bhutan worsened and the refugees were not permitted to set up permanent camps in India, a small group of refugees crossed into Nepal and established the first camp by the banks of Mai river in July 1991 which housed only 235 refugees.

From August 1991, the influx of refugees increased at the rate of 1,000 a month. The flow of refugees leaped in February 1992 to a massive 10,000 per month. The period from February to March 1992 saw the refugee population rise to 48,000.

Conditions at Maidhar in late 1991 were grim, but the refugee leaders quickly organised themselves and sought help from the local community. Local Nepalese responded with donations of rice, bamboo, money and wood.

However, with thousands to feed and shelter it was becoming impossible to manage. Many died and hundreds suffered from malnutrition and diseases.

UNHCR Becomes Involved

Urgent appeals for help resulted in assistance from Lutheran World Service (LWS), and in adhoc humanitarian relief from UNHCR at the end of 1991.

Following formal requests from the Nepalese government, UNHCR began regular assistance to the Bhutanese refugees at the beginning of 1992.UNHCR now channels its assistance through its implementing partners.

At its peak, the population of Maidhar camp alone was 24,000. The site was susceptible to flooding and dangerously overcrowded. Refugee leaders and Nepal Government officials, with some assistance from NGOs, located new sites in Jhapa and Morang districts of southeastern Nepal. Seven camps in these cite now shelter over 96,000 refugees.

Efforts towards solution

Nepal Bhutan Bilateral Talks

Of the estimated 130,000 southern Bhutanese who lost their homes, lands, livelihoods and country between 1990 and 1993, not a single person has yet been allowed home. Although the Bhutanese government coerced thousands into signing what it claims were 'voluntary migration forms,' it does admit tacitly that the camps contain bona-fide citizens who were ejected from Bhutan against their will. The governments of Nepal and Bhutan have met seven times at ministerial level to try to resolve the problem that is souring relations between their two countries. All attempts to move towards a joint survey of the camp population that would establish how many have right to repatriation have so far failed.

The Bhutan Nepal Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) agreed to classify Bhutanese refugees into four categories as follow :

1. Bona-fide Bhutanese refugees if they have been forcefully evicted.
2. Bhutanese who emigrated.
3. Non-Bhutanese.
4. Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.

Bhutan maintains that the refugees under Category II are not eligible to return Bhutan as they have signed the "voluntary migration forms" and have emigrated from Bhutan. Nepal maintains that such a large number of population would not at a time migrate under normal situation and there is no record in history so far. It is the case of intimidation. The refugees under Category II are the real Bhutanese citizens and almost all posses documentary evidences such as citizenship identity cards, land tax receipts and other documentary evidences to support their claim. The sample survey conducted by the Home Ministry of Nepal in February 1995 showed that of the (approximate) 12,500 heads of family in the refugee camps, 85% posses citizenship identity cards, 10% have land tax receipts, and 3% school certificates or other official documents. Only 2% have no certification, and many of these claim it was confiscated by the authorities before leaving Bhutan.

After the seventh round of talks the Nepalese counterpart, Foreign Minister Dr. Prakash Chandra Lohani has explicitly declared Nepal's position in the following words. " If they (Bhutan) can apply Bhutanese law, then Nepal too can apply its own laws which does not provide Nepali citizenship to refugees. By law then, these refugees are stateless people. In essence, what this means is that if Bhutan refuses to take back all the refugees, then there will be thousands of stateless people, which is a violation of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our position is that the whole idea of voluntary immigration does not make sense. They were Bhutanese citizens before coming to the camps in Nepal and they should turn back home."

Association of HUman Rights Activists, Bhutan
AHURA Bhutan