Bhutan: Behind the Curtain

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Bhutan: Behind the Curtain

BEHIND its scenic beauty and Gross National Happiness, Bhutan hides a dark secret. It is the land of the Thunder Dragon; an ancient realm where the rice is red, buying cigarettes is illegal and ghosts and witches stalk the history books. This is the Bhutan that tourists know — one of the most expensive destinations in the world. But behind the catchy phrases, such as Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, and the country’s obvious rugged beauty, lies a dark secret of oppression, persecution and forced expulsion.

Like most modern nation-states, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 670,000 people contain a patchwork of ethnic groups. The Ngalongs of the western mountains and the central Bhutanese, with whom they have intermarried, form the elite of this landlocked nation. They are a minority alongside the Sharchhops (Easterners) and the Lhotshampas (Southerners). The Lhotshampas are the last group which, according to Michael Hutt, Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has borne the brunt of the state’s persecution and, before the crisis, constituted one-third to one-half of the total population of Bhutan.

But why the Lhotshampas? The answer lies in a confluence of religion and language. In this deeply Buddhist nation, the presence of a large group of Nepali-speaking Hindus was seen as a threat to the dominant political order. The Lhotshampas originally settled in what were, during the late 19th century, uninhabited southern reaches of Bhutan. They came on the invitation of Bhutanese contractors, keen to open up the region for cultivation. By the 1930s, according to records kept by British colonial officials, the population of Nepali origin had reached a respectable 60,000.

In 1958, the Citizenship Act was passed, granting for the very first time, full citizenship to the entire population of Southern Bhutan. Development programs, modernisation drives and hydro-electric power projects were implemented across the nation. However, the law prohibited southern Bhutanese to permanently settle north of certain latitudes, effectively reducing interaction between the northerners and southerners to a bare minimum. On the other hand, social services, education and the development of the economy meant that by the 1970s, many Lhotshampas has risen to occupy influential posts in the bureaucracy.

By the 1980s, the government of Bhutan, seeing the rise of the Southerners as a threat to the status quo, struck back. The Citizenship Act of 1985 was used as the basis of a census exercise in the southern districts of the kingdom. Lhotshampas who could not produce evidence of legal residence since 1958, were stripped of their nationality. Another law was passed, forcing all who ventured out to wear the northern traditional dress, or risk fines and imprisonment. The Nepali language was banned from school curricula.

Predictably, public demonstrations took place against these measures. In response, the government branded all who took part as ‘anti-nationals.’ It is estimated that up to two thousand of the many arbitrarily arrested were tortured. Only a handful were actually charged or stood trial; the vast majority languished for months in primitive conditions. Eventually, the King of Bhutan declared an amnesty and most were released, but they discovered to their horror that their houses had been demolished and their families had fled the kingdom.

The first refugees arrived in India to find that they were not permitted to set up permanent camps and were subsequently shuttled off to eastern Nepal. Repressive measures continued, resulting in a steady stream of refugees. It is estimated that 80,000 are currently living in UNHCR-administered camps. None of those who lost their homes, citizenship and livelihood have been allowed back. Many claim that they were coerced into signing ‘voluntary migration’ certificates. Nepal and Bhutan have met sixteen times to discuss a resolution to the crisis, without making any headway. India, the third party in this dispute, maintains that this is purely a bilateral issue between the two nations, effectively siding with Bhutan, which rejects Nepal’s call for international engagement in the talks.

Lhotshampas who didn’t leave the kingdom, face heightened discrimination today. Many have lost their lands to a resettling campaign that gives southern land to landless northerners. Relatives of ‘anti-nationals’ have been dismissed from the civil service and annual census activities continue, reclassifying Lhotshampas from F1 (full Bhutanese) to F7 (non-nationals). Often, members of the same household are placed in different categories. To access school, healthcare and obtain business licenses, a ‘No Objection Certificate’ is required, stating that neither the bearer, nor their family, were involved in the democracy movement or other ‘anti-national’ activities.

Recently, the King abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Wangchuck. It is unknown what, if any, impact this will have on the situation. 35,000 refugees reside outside the camps, without any UNHCR protection or status in the countries where they live. Southern Bhutanese, who remain in Bhutan, face an uncertain future with continuing persecution and the possible exclusion from the emerging democratic process offered in the new constitution.  


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