Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet

Religious Freedom report of Bhutan

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for religious freedom, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Drukpa sect of the Kagyupa School, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is the state religion, and the law prohibits religious conversions. Citizens of other faiths may not proselytize.

Religious communities must secure government licenses before constructing new places of worship, but there were no reports to suggest that this process was not impartial. The Government provides financial assistance for the construction of Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist temples and shrines. In the early 1990’s, the Government provided funds for the construction of new Hindu temples and centers of Sanskrit and Hindu learning and for the renovation of existing temples and places of learning.

The Government subsidizes monasteries and shrines of the Drukpa sect and provides aid to about one-third of the Kingdom’s 12,000 monks. By statute, 10 seats in the 150-seat National Assembly and 2 seats on the 11-member Royal Advisory Council are reserved for monks of the Drukpa sect.

About two-thirds of the declared population of 600,000 practice either Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa Buddhism. The Drukpa sect is practiced predominantly in the western and central parts of the country, although there are adherents in other parts of the country. The inhabitants of the western and central parts of the country are mainly, but not exclusively, ethnic Ngalops–the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who predominate in government and the civil service and whose cultural norms and dress have been declared by the monarchy to be the standard for all Bhutanese.

The Ningmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism is practiced predominantly in eastern Bhutan, although there are adherents in other parts of the country, including the royal family. Monks and monasteries of this school also receive some state funding. Most of those living in the east are ethnic Sharchops–the descendants of those thought to be the country’s original inhabitants. Several Sharchops hold high rank in the Government, the National Assembly, and the court system.

There is a tradition of respect among many citizens for the teachings of an animist and shamanistic faith called Bon; the arrival of this faith to the country predates that of Buddhism. Bon priests still can be found in the country, but it is unclear how many citizens adhere to this faith. Bon rituals sometimes are included in the observance of Buddhist festivals.

Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are present in small numbers throughout the country. There is only one Christian church building in the country, in southern Bhutan, where the only concentration of Christians sufficiently large to sustain a church building is located. Elsewhere, families and individuals practice their religion at home.

About one-third of the population, ethnic Nepalese who live mainly in southern Bhutan, practice Hinduism. The Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Ghanapath, Paurinic, and Vedic schools are represented among Hindus.

Dissidents living outside of the country contend that the Government underreports the number of ethnic Nepalese in the country, and that the country’s actual population is between 650,000 and 700,000. The ethnic Nepalese were subject to discrimination by the authorities in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when many were driven from their homes and forcibly expelled from the country. The root causes of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political; however, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion was also a factor. The Government contends that many of those expelled in 1991 were illegal immigrants who had no right to citizenship or residency in Bhutan. Some 90,000 ethnic Nepalese continue to live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal and are seeking to return to their homes in Bhutan. Although the refugees have not been permitted to return to the country, ethnic Nepalese Hindus remaining in the country are free to practice their religion. The King has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays and the royal family participates in them. The Government also provides some scholarships for Sanskrit studies in Hindu universities in India.

A resolution adopted by the National Assembly in July 1997 prohibits family members of ethnic Nepalese refugees resident in the camps in eastern Nepal who are still resident in the country from holding jobs with the Government or in the armed forces. Under the resolution, those holding such jobs were to be retired involuntarily. The Government made clear that for the purposes of this resolution, a family member would be defined as a parent, child, sibling, or a member of the same household. The Government states that 429 civil servants, many of them ethnic Nepalese, were retired compulsorily in accordance with the July 1997 National Assembly resolution and that the program was terminated in November 1998. The motivation for this official discrimination appears to be mainly economic and political in nature and does not appear to be related to the practice of religion. The Government also began a program of resettling Buddhist citizens from other parts of the country on land in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in Nepal. Human rights groups maintain that this action prejudices any eventual negotiated return of the refugees to Bhutan. The Government maintains that this is not its first resettlement program and that citizens who are ethnic Nepalese from the south sometimes are resettled on land in other parts of the country. The motivation for this official discrimination appears to be economic and political; however, to the degree that the Hinduism of the ethnic Nepalese identifies them, religion is also a factor.

Foreign missionaries are not permitted to proselytize. However, international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests are active in education and humanitarian activities.

Buddhist religious teaching, of both the Drukpa Kagyupa and the Ningmapa sects, is permitted in schools; the teaching of other religious traditions is not, according to dissidents living outside of the country. These same sources claim that the import into the country of printed religious matter is restricted and that the Government bars all but Buddhist religious texts from entering.

The passports of members of minority religions cite the holder’s religion, and applicants for government services sometimes are asked their religion before services are rendered. All government civil servants, regardless of religion, are required to take an oath of allegiance to the King, the country, and the people. The oath is without religion-specific content, but a Buddhist lama administers it.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Human rights groups criticized the killing of Gomchen Karma, a Buddhist monk of the Ningmapa school arrested in October 1997 during a peaceful prodemocracy demonstration in eastern Bhutan; he was shot and killed by a government official. The Government states that the shooting was accidental, that the official responsible has been suspended from duty and charged in connection with the incident, and that his case was being heard. Human rights groups also allege that another Buddhist monk arrested in October 1997, Thinley Oezor Kenpo, was tortured while in custody in 1997. It is not clear to what extent the motivations for the actions in these two cases was religious rather than political.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government’s refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Governmental discrimination against ethnic Nepalese in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s arose in part from a desire to preserve the country’s Buddhist culture from the growth of the ethnic Nepalese population, with its different cultural and religious traditions. That preoccupation on the part of the Government and many Buddhists is still present today. It is reflected in official and societal efforts to impose the dress and cultural norms of the Ngalop ethnic group on all citizens. While there are no known reports of the repetition of the excesses of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, societal and governmental pressure for conformity with Drukpa Kagyupa norms is prevalent. The failure of the Government to permit the return of ethnic Nepalese refugees has tended to reinforce societal prejudices against this group, as has the Government’s policy on forced retirement of refugee family members in government service and the resettlement of Buddhists on land vacated by expelled ethnic Nepalese in the south.

There have been some efforts at promoting interfaith understanding. There are regular exchanges between monks of the two schools of Buddhism represented in the country. The King’s example of making Hindu festivals official holidays and observing them has also had a positive impact on citizens’ attitudes.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan. There are informal contacts between the two governments ranging from the level of cabinet secretary to that of embassy officer. During many of these exchanges, governmental discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority has been discussed. The issue of religious freedom has not been raised explicitly.

Source: U.S. State Department

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