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.  


Unity in Diversity

THE BALUCH independence movement; the Kalabagh dam; and until very recently, the NFC award. These are the issues which characterise Pakistan’s fractious federation.

The problem can be expressed in one statement; strong centre, weak provinces. In Pakistan, the essence of the federation was forgotten after a succession of bureaucrats and military generals increased the power of the centre so much so it resulted in the partition of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Pakistan was made on the basis of a federation. The first of Mr Jinnah’s fourteen points was that ‘any future constitution should be federal with the power resting with the provinces.’

The Lahore Resolution clearly stated that the Muslim majority areas of India ‘should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.’

Since 1947, the government began to strengthen the centre without regard to the provinces. This culminated in the One Unit Scheme of Mr Iskander Mirza which amalgamated the independent identities of all the provinces into one. Apart from this, forcing one language onto a country with more than five widely spoken languages was folly of the highest order.

We must understand that Pakistan is made up of multiple peoples, each having their own culture, language and tradition. Failure to tolerate and accept differences is what leads to extremism, xenophobia and unrest in society.

Embracing this diversity as a source of strength is the only way forward. We must understand that forcing smaller provinces to the bidding of larger ones is a sure road to our own destruction.

Unless full provincial autonomy is granted, I fear we will witness multiple nations rising from the embers of Pakistan. There are places in Baluchistan where the national flag is not raised and 14th August is a day of mourning. This should be a warning to Islamabad that strong undercurrents of nationalism are brewing.

Full provincial autonomy, as envisaged by the 1973 constitution, strengthening of democratic institutions and the just and equitable distribution of resources, is the only way to avert this looming crisis.

An independent judiciary and agreement in the NFC formula are, no doubt, steps in the right direction. But more needs to be done urgently before it is too late.

One ’71 is more than enough for any country.