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Finding a future for minorities in Bhutan’s emerging democracy

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In Brief

Bhutan is famously known for the unique approach it has taken to measuring its population’s overall wellbeing. ‘Gross national happiness’ (GNH) is a set of criteria that considers sustainable development, support of cultural values, environmental conservation and good governance to offer a nuanced index through which the country judges its success.


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In recent years GNH has captured the imagination of other bodies seeking to offer positive developmental goals. In 2011, for example, 68 countries endorsed a move by the UN General Assembly to adopt Bhutan’s holistic approach to development.

But the four measures that comprise GNH, while laudable, fail to capture one important element that affects a nation’s residents, and one that is quite relevant for Bhutan: the equal treatment of minority populations. What is less well known is that the GNH narrative has masked a dark chapter of Bhutan’s recent history, a chapter that continues to bedevil a significant portion of the population today. Bhutan’s ethnic minorities have suffered profound mistreatment. While this article focuses on the Nepali-Bhutanese, or Lhotshampa, other groups, particularly the Sharchops, have been equally, if not more, mistreated.

Differences in religion, language and ethnicity are one aspect of the Nepali-Bhutanese issue. The Ngalong, the minority ruling class in Bhutan, are Buddhist and speak Dzongkha, while the Nepali-Bhutanese, who have traditionally resided in the lowlands of southern Bhutan, are primarily Hindu and speak Nepali.

These ethno-religious differences, extant for decades, were highlighted by the Bhutanese government’s growing fears in the 1970s and 1980s that the separatist movements in nearby regions (such as calls for an independent Ghorkaland in an area that included Sikkim, parts of Bhutan, West Bengal and eastern Nepal) would manifest in Bhutan. As a consequence, policies singling out ‘the other’ within Bhutan became oppressive. For example, a centuries-old code of conduct called Driglam Namzha, originally meant to offer guidance on dress and etiquette, was reinterpreted in ways that restricted the language and customs of Nepali-Bhutanese.

By the late 1980s discrimination against the Nepali-Bhutanese took several forms. First, in addition to continuing cultural and linguistic discrimination, the jobs and land-holdings of many Nepali-Bhutanese were taken away. Second, in 1988, a first-of-its-kind census, applied strictly only in the south where Nepali-Bhutanese primarily lived, divided the population, including units of individual families, into different categories of genuine citizens and non-citizens. Finally, beginning in 1989 and continuing through the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Nepali-Bhutanese had their documentation (land certificates, voting records and the like) taken away and left the country. They crossed through India and into Nepal, where between 80,000 and 100,000 lived for more than two decades in refugee camps.

Bhutan’s position is that the Nepali-Bhutanese left willingly, and Bhutanese officials at the time even required those leaving the country to sign forms indicating the voluntary nature of their departure. Nepali-Bhutanese were additionally asked to ‘show their teeth’ in photographs as a way of showing that they were happy to leave.

Yet the stories of those who lived in refugee camps in Nepal belie this narrative, and they speak to a damning expulsion of up to one-sixth of the country’s population. One example of the yearning of Nepali-Bhutanese to return is that even the most vociferous exiled groups for many years sent happy birthday messages to Bhutan’s king and asked for the chance to return home.

Today, Bhutan estimates that 25 per cent of its population is Nepali-Bhutanese. Many live in southern Bhutan and remain in what has been called a ‘liminal legal space’, fearful of losing their jobs, afraid to promote their rights, suspicious of local leaders, and ever wary of having their status revoked. There is little triangulated information about this remaining population because the media do not cover the issue and international visitors to the region are highly restricted. Most information that does exist comes from those who have left. And those Nepali-Bhutanese who now live abroad say that relatives who remain within Bhutan will not discuss these issues by email or telephone for fear of retribution.

What hope exists for the Nepali-Bhutanese? Will those in the country begin to enjoy political representation, freedom of speech and security of status? Will those out of the country have the chance to return? Two things have changed in recent years that could signal the possibility of reform.

First, Bhutan is an emerging democracy. The Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, administered structural changes to Bhutan’s laws that officially removed his absolute power as monarch and paved the way for a democratic constitution and elections, which occurred for the first time at the parliamentary level in 2007–08 and at the local level in 2011.

Second, the exiled Nepali-Bhutanese, after spending more than two decades in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, have since 2009 been permitted to resettle — that is, to move permanently to some countries of the Global North which offer citizenship to selected refugee populations. To date, approximately 80,000 Nepali-Bhutanese have moved to resettlement countries such as the United States and Australia, where over time they may be able to make use of access to international power-holders, education and media resources to leverage rights claims concerning the Nepali-Bhutanese issue.

So far, however, no change in Bhutan has been forthcoming. Neither national nor local elections have produced candidates willing to take up the Nepali-Bhutanese issue (despite the election of some Nepali-Bhutanese), and it is a taboo topic in the public domain. Lily Wangchuk, the president of Bhutan’s Druk Chirwang Tshogpa party and a social activist, has noted that formalised structures for public debate have not yet filtered down to the informal realm. This, of course, is where honest discussions about the Nepali-Bhutanese may begin to take shape at some point, but certainly not yet.

And while the Nepali-Bhutanese diaspora in resettlement countries has increased exponentially in recent years, its members are too young to maintain a sole focus on reforms in Bhutan. Websites intended to reach out to Nepali-Bhutanese worldwide currently emphasise resettlement issues, rather than Bhutanese politics. To date, not one Nepali-Bhutanese has been permitted to return to Bhutan.

Many commentators have noted that Bhutan is at the start of a long path towards democracy. It is too early to predict if that path, even if straight and smooth, will permit a space for reflections on the wrongs done to Nepali-Bhutanese and other ethnic minorities and, even more importantly, ways to remedy them. In the short term, it’s worth noting that in the past year the narrative of GNH has taken a back seat to other pressing domestic issues, such as unemployment and corruption. But the issue of ethnic minority treatment is not even on the horizon.

Dr Susan Banki is a senior lecturer at the Human Rights Program, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, The University of Sydney.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the Edge in Asia’.

One response to “Finding a future for minorities in Bhutan’s emerging democracy”

  1. Well written and honest thoughts. It does justice to our plight. An alarming issue of concern for us is that Bhutan still maintains that it has over 100,000 illegal immigrants in the country even now. What do you make of this regarding its policy? The worst part is that Bhutanese citizens do not raise a voice inside the country and government does everything possible to isolate the citizens from international attention. Some say there is a real democracy in Bhutan now, but you are not allowed to discuss publicly about Bhutanese refugees nor criticize the king. People do have started making noise against their bureaucrats and government on issues of infrastructure, sanitation, environment or governance but not about Bhutanese refugees. Some might wish to make an issue publicly but they don’t dare to face the retribution of the government. Let’s see how far the younger generation in and around Thimpu will go to the extent of commenting publicly on taboo topics. I hope they will wake up one day to a rude shock.

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