To the state, “Bhutanese national identity” meant the forceful assimilation of cultures. Forced national integration meant eviction, and depriving the Lhotshampas and dissidents of their nationality through brutal intimidation and use of force.
Buddhism has been used as a political tool by the state. Buddhism has been defined to suit the interests of the ruling community. Bhutanese polity is increasingly communalized by the ruling elite. Politics is practiced on ethnic lines and politics has become the monopoly of the single ethnic group of the Drukpa Kargyudpa tradition.
Being aware of the global thrust to support democratic movements and its import to Bhutan, the government crafted a strategy to prevent the demand for democratic reforms. “Depopulation” became part of state policy and state strategy.
Given the current situation, the repatriation of refugees is difficult if not impossible without effecting a change in existing laws. These laws declare a citizen anti-national if one is found to be in contact with any dissident. The laws also have been used to declare several thousand refugees as voluntarily émigrés who are not allowed to return to the country. Several thousand citizens have been intimidated to flee and asked to fill up voluntary migration forms under duress.
Today, the demands for establishment of human rights, end of racism and discrimination, creation of participatory and political institutions, establishment of a secular political and social order, rule of law, balanced economic growth, and repatriation of Bhutanese are the focal points around which the resolution of Bhutanese refugee and the political crisis revolves. The reduction of humanitarian assistance by the UNHCR and the discontinuation of the bilateral negotiation between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal have also created frustration among the residents in the refugee camps.
General Human Rights Assessment
According to the Centre for Protection of Minorities and Against Racism and Discrimination in Bhutan (CEMARD-Bhutan), the “human rights situation in Bhutan began to deteriorate from the early 1990s,” and that the genesis of the present political crisis in Bhutan is because of the “fundamental weaknesses arising from the socio-political institutions and feudal attitudes.” CEMARD claims that these institutions and attitudes have worked towards a national identity based on the narrow Drukpa Kargyudpa tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, and the imposition of a Drukpa Kargyudpa culture and values on a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.[lxi]
On January 6, 1989, the king issued a royal decree called “Driglam Namzha” as part of the promotion of a distinct national identity and the “One Nation, One People” theme in the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1986-1991). The edict of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck states that “any person not following this directive will be answerable to the concerned Dzongdas (Chief District Officers) who have been vested with full authority to implement this policy.” The policy deals with matters such as how to eat, how to sit, how to speak, how to dress and how to bow down before authorities in true, medieval, feudalist style. The dress code which came into enforcement from May 1, 1989 strictly banned the wearing by men and women alike of all other dresses than that of the royal elites, Gho for men and Kira for women (robe like dresses).
The “One Nation, One People” policy of the government stresses the need for a distinct “national identity.” It does not envision forging this identity to encompass the diversity of the nation’s cultures. The policy imposes the Drukpa Kargyudpa traditions and customs on the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Under the Driglam Namzha policy, the teaching of Nepali language spoken by the Lhotshampas was struck from the school curriculum and Dzonkha language developed in the 1980s, and made compulsory. Failure in Dzonkha language examination results in the denial of promotion to next higher grade in schools and even entry into Civil Service.
According to CEMARD, “The feudalistic attitude of the royal regime has imposed and prescribed strict adherence to the set of Buddhist dogmas and beliefs among the Bhutanese population. Driglam Namzha designed within the traditional attire of Drukpa Kargyudpa tradition directly attacks the custom and values of non-Drukpa Kargyudpa followers. The theocratic ideology of clerics profoundly influences the administration and poses a challenge to the creation of a modern secular nation-state. The regime’s bogey of preserving traditions and culture through the newly drafted constitutional provisions seems to be a shield for protecting feudal and despotic rule.”
The imprisonment of Khenpo Thinley Oezer, a prominent Nyingmapa Buddhist scholar, who was released after eight years in prison on October 22, 2005 on the condition that he will not move out of the country at least for one year is an example of the attack on human rights by the Bhutanese regime.
Bhutan has been an U.N. member since 1971. It is also a member of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The Bhutanese government has so far signed and ratified six international human rights covenants, treaties and conventions but not implemented any one of them satisfactorily. There is no monitoring done by the UN agencies either. India, Bangladesh and Thailand have embassies in Thimphu. The United Nations Development Program has an office there as well. Bhutan has diplomatic relations with India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan, Maldives, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait and most of the European countries including The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. Bhutan does nnot maintain formal diplomatic relations with the United States, although informal contact is maintained between the Bhutanese and U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.
Bhutan has so far signed the following international instruments:
* Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
* Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
* Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (1949)
* Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (1949)
* Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1949)
* Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civil Persons in Time of War (1949)
In November 1992, Bhutan and Nepal entered into negotiations aimed at resolving the Bhutanese refugee problem amicably. On May 9, 1993, the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, during the sideline of the SAARC Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh proposed with the then Nepalese Prime Minster Girja Prasad Koirala the establishment of a Bhutan-Nepal Joint Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) to look into the matter bilaterally. On July 7, 1993 the JMLC was formerly established at the Home Ministers level in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Since then a series of talks have been held, the outcome of which are as follows:
October 4-7, 1993, Kathmandu: Agreed to classify Bhutanese refugees into four categories: Category-I Bona-fide Bhutanese, if they have been evicted forcefully; Category-II Bhutanese people who willingly emigrated; Category-III Non- Bhutanese nationals; and Category-IV Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.
February 21-24, 1994, Thimphu: The Nepalese team pressed for the involvement of a third party.
April 4-7, 1994, Kathmandu: The two countries agreed to commit five members each for a refugee verification team.
June 1994, Thimphu: Disagreement between Bhutan and Nepal on their position regarding the four categories.
Feb 27-Mar 1, 1995, Kathmandu: Extensive discussions held on their positions regarding the four categories.
April 20, 1995, Thimphu: Discussions held to harmonize the position of the two governments regarding the four categories, which also exchanged names of members in the Joint Verification Team (JVT).
April 4-8, 1996, Kathmandu: Talks resumed that were deadlocked after the sixth round of talks.
September 13-16, 1999, Kathmandu: Talk revolved around the number of refugees in Category II and modalities for the verification exercise.
May 22-25, 2000, Thimphu: Failed to reach agreement on Bhutan’s position that individuals over the age of 18 should be verified individually while Nepal wanted the unit of verification to be the head of the family.
December 25-28, 2000, Kathmandu: Agreement reached finally on the mechanisms and unit of verification.
August 20-23, 2001, Thimphu: Agreed to accelerate the verification process, including increasing the size of the JVT from 6 to 12 members and split into two sub-teams.
February 5-7, 2003, Kathmandu: Agreed to undertake the categorization process of the already verified Bhutanese refugees in Thimphu from February 24, 2003.
March 24-26, 2003, Thimphu: Reviewed the progress made by the JVT. Agreed on the modalities for the implementation of the outcome of joint verification and categorization exercise and also agreed to introduce a voluntary repatriation form for the refugees who want to go back to their homeland. The verified refugees would be asked to complete the voluntary repatriation form and those willing to do so would be eligible to go back to Bhutan.
May 19-22, 2003, Kathmandu: Scheduled announcement of result of verification of nearly 12,000 refugees at the Khudunabari camp withheld.
October 20-23, 2003, Thimphu: Agreed to start repatriation process of refugees as early as the second week of February 2004. Bhutan made a written commitment to begin repatriation of the first batch of refugees from the Khudunabari camp from February 15, 2003. It, however, laid down a strong condition that upon repatriation the refugees would have to stay in the observation camps for at least two years and upon verification and found acceptable for Bhutanese citizenship, the government would provide citizenship application forms to be completed, which would then be considered based on the Citizenship Act of Bhutan.
The provocative statement of the royal regime created serious dissensions among the refugees, who termed it as a ploy of the regime to deny repatriation. As a result, the entire bilateral process was derailed.
November 21-22, 2006, Thimphu: The long proposed “final and decisive talks” were postponed indefinitely due to political instability in Nepal. Talks were anticipated to resume after the formation of the new interim government in Nepal.
The living conditions in the refugee camps in Nepal has been deteriorating, particularly after the UNHCR started decreasing the supply of relief items and phasing out a number of its humanitarian programs, which it had agreed to provide when the UNHCR signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Nepal in 1991.
By 1994, when the first census was conducted by the UNHCR and the Government of Nepal, there were almost 85,000 refugees registered with the UNHCR in the districts of Jhapa and Morang in Eastern Nepal, whereas nearly 10,000 were reportedly scattered in Nepal and India without refugee status. As of December 2006, the refugee population has increased, and is estimated at 106,000 refugees living in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal. The Nepalese Government and the UNHCR have jointly started reprofiling on November 15, 2006. They have completed surveys of three camps (Beldangi-I, II and III). Close observers of the situation believe that the motive behind the current reprofiling is to identify refugees who could be later selected for resettlement in the United States and other countries in the West.
Third Country Resettlement
Out of the sixteen individuals selected for the resettlement, after 16 years of living in refugee camps, twelve refugees have been resettled:
Date of Departure from the Camp
Name of the Head of the Family
Members of Family
Place of resettlement
August 30, 2006
Second week of December 2006
December 23, 2006
Resettlement Offer by the US Government
During a visit by Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Assistant U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Jim Kolbe, a U.S. Congressman, willingness to resettle 50,000 to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in the U.S. was announced. Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, Austria and Canada have also shown willingness to accept the Bhutanese refugees. Offers of the international community have created serious division and debate in the refugee communities. In view of the international donors’ fatigue and unending refugee imbroglio, the UNHCR appreciated the U.S. and other nations’ offers to accept the large number of refugees. This initiative has not been accepted and appreciated by the majority of the refugees who have been hoping to return to Bhutan.[lxiv]
Human Rights Summary – 2006
The human rights situation in Bhutan continued to remain deplorable even after sixteen years of exile for over 100,000 Bhutanese citizens. The refugees are sheltered in the UN sponsored makeshift camps in eastern Nepal waiting for repatriation to their homeland safely and with dignity. Bhutan is becoming aggressive in its policy terming the refugees as “ready-made terrorists,” while the host country Nepal — affected by severe political instability — has not been able to address the considerable needs of the refugees.
There was no progress in 2006 towards finding an amicable solution to the refugee problem. The World Food Program (WFP), the CARITAS-Nepal, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and AMDA-Nepal are the principal program-implementing partners but have now started showing fatigue.
The year also witnessed a major political change in Bhutan as King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne delegating power to his heir, crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Nothing has changed, however, in resolving the refugee problem. The Bhutanese government set up an election commission to hold general elections in 2008 but political parties are still illegal, and there is no freedom of press. No allowance is being made for Bhutanese citizens in exile to take part in the electoral process.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The Bhutanese regime has to act in good faith to allow immediate re-entry of refugees and to rehabilitate them. Without taking back the Bhutanese refugees, it will be impossible to achieve integration of the Bhutanese society. Refugees must be repatriated with dignity and honor. Until the Bhutanese refugee problem is solved and human rights guaranteed Bhutan should be pressured by the international community. Bhutan has escaped the attention of USCIRF. Bhutan should take concrete steps to resume bilateral talks with Nepal, and proceed with voluntary repatriation of refugees. Human Rights Watch observes that the 2005 census has been used to categorize “a significant number of the Lhotshampas (Southern Bhutanese) still living in Bhutan as non-nationals. In 2004, official figures put Bhutan’s population at 730,340, and the number of foreign workers in Bhutan at 40,350. The June 2005 census has found the population of Bhutan to be 553,000.” HRW believes that this “amounts to a declaration of ‘denaturalization’ of the majority of Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan.”
HRW points out that “the citizenship status of Lhotshampas has been eroded by various measures taken since the end of the 1980s,” and that the provisions of the draft Constitution “would make it very difficult for Lhotshampas to reacquire citizenship status of which they had been deprived.”
HAF seconds the recommendations made by other human rights agencies like HRW and Amnesty International:
· “Bhutan must take practical and concrete steps to demonstrate its stated commitment to a just resolution of the longstanding refugee crisis.
· “Bhutan, Nepal and UNHCR should adopt a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for voluntary repatriation that includes a clear statement of rights and entitlements upon the refugees’ return to Bhutan – including full citizenship rights and human rights protections.
· “An accelerated and simplified verification exercise needs to be carried out in the six camps which have not yet been screened, based on t7wo categories only: Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese.
· “Donors, UN agencies and Bhutan’s other partners should insist on measures to eliminate discrimination against Lhotshampas who have remained in Bhutan since the exodus of refugees, and to ensure the protection of their fundamental human rights and their right to participate as full citizens of Bhutan.
· “Bhutan’s development partners should urge the King to exercise his royal prerogative to regularize the nationality status of Lhotshampas who have no prospect of claiming any nationality other than Bhutanese.
· “Donors should provide increased support for new programs and projects in the south of Bhutan and the east of Nepal to create new economic and educational opportunities which do not discriminate in purpose or effect, including on the basis of race or ethnicity; and to facilitate voluntary repatriation and local integration.”