|Case Study: ETHNIC NEPALIS IN BHUTAN
- Bhutan is a remote Himalayan state whose powerful king has gone to great lengths to preserve the traditional culture of the majority Buddhist community.
- In 1988 ethnic Nepalis who had been living in the south of the country for generations were effectively deprived of their nationality. Many fled the country and 90,000 are now living in refugee camps.
Minority communities in many countries face discrimination and are under pressure to lose their distinct identity. In some instances that pressure is backed up by force.
Bhutan, in the Himalayas, is bordered by Tibet, China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Until recently, when elements of democracy were introduced, Bhutan’s king was one of the last absolute monarchs in the world.
He has kept the country isolated ‘in order to preserve its national identity’. Television is banned, and citizens who do not wear traditional dress face fines of around three days’ wages.
Most of the 600,000 Bhutanese are Buddhists but the Nepalese-speaking people, some of whom have lived in the south of the country for generations, are Hindu.
In 1988 the Bhutanese authorities launched a census in Southern Bhutan. It appeared to be designed to exclude a large number of ethnic Nepalese from Bhutanese citizenship.
It was combined with unpopular measures requiring them to adopt North Bhutanese traditions and culture. In effect, they were deprived of their nationality.
The Nepali community responded by campaigning for democracy but demonstrations were broken up by the authorities and many people were arrested. Amnesty International has reported they were tortured and ill-treated. In an atmosphere of fear and repression, thousands of people fled into exile.
Now, more than 90,000 people live in refugee camps in Nepal. Negotiations between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments have failed to resolve their fate.
Official documents still refer to them as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘Nepalese who had worked in Bhutan’. These people argue, however, that this is a denial of their right to nationality under Article 15.