Bhutan ethnically cleansing native Hindu population
D P Kafley
20 July 2012
In the early 1990s, several thousands of Bhutanese residents in southern Bhutan were ethnically cleansed by the authorities under the provisions of the amended Citizenship Act of 1985, because they followed the Hindu religion and culture, and had mixed Himalayan ethnicity, with one parent of Nepali origin. Nepal, like India, shares common Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but the majority population of Bhutan is exclusively Buddhist and the royal family has unfortunately shown a pronounced sectarian bias towards its Hindu citizens who have been settled there for centuries.
After the purge of the 1990s began, the Bhutanese Hindus have been forced to live in refugee camps set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in eastern Nepal in 1992. We refugees are insecure and unhappy as we see no future in either land. This bleak prospect forced over 60,000 refugees to reluctantly accept the third country resettlement program offered by the UN and some Western nations, as a result of which they went and settled in eight different countries, but several thousand remain in the refugee camps in Nepal and cling to the hope that someday they may somehow return to Bhutan.
Despite the declaration of democracy in 2008, the kingdom of Bhutan is mired in multi-dimensional problems. Most citizens residing inside the country live in a state of fear and are deprived of basic rights and freedoms, while those living in exile are denied their right to return to their mother country with dignity and honour.
We are challenged on all aspects of our fundamental freedoms and human rights, for instance, the Right to Citizenship. Article 6 of the constitution of Bhutan continues to uphold and enforce the 1985 Citizenship Act which is the foundation for the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of southern Bhutanese. Because this Act is still in force, over 80,000 southern Bhutanese inside Bhutan and over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees desirous of returning to Bhutan continue to be deprived of their citizenship rights.
Amnesty International in its report, BHUTAN: Forcible Exile, 1994 noted that, “The 1985 Citizenship Act of Bhutan contains a number of vague provisions and appears to have been applied in an arbitrary manner. It also contains provisions which could be used to exclude from citizenship many people who are not the members of the dominant ethnic group, as well as those who oppose government policy by peaceful means”.
The European Parliament in its Resolution adopted on 14 March 1996 also stated that, “Most of the refugees would appear to qualify under international law as being genuine citizens of Bhutan.” The Resolution stated that “Bhutan’s Citizenship Act of 1985 may need to be modified as a result”.
There is thus an urgent need to reform this Act and bring it in conformity with the 1958 Nationality Law and 1977 Citizenship Act, and to restore the citizenship to those who continue to be deprived.
Article 4 and 7 of the Constitution of Bhutan do not acknowledge the existence of cultural diversity in the country, and thus we are denied the Right to equal protection of culture, costume and tradition. The constitution does not guarantee the protection and enjoyment of cultural rights by politically non-dominant communities, as enjoined by Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
We desire that the Languages and Scripts of all linguistic groups in Bhutan be provided with equal amount of attention, protection, promotion and preservation, at par with the dzongkha language of the majority community.
We also demand the Right to equal protection of religion. Article 3 of the constitution states that, “It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan. Religious institution and personalities shall remain above politics”. Yet the reality is that the Drukpa Kajugpa sect belonging to the king’s tribe continues to get preferential treatment from the government. We feel that other traditional religions such as Nyingmapa (a Buddhist sect) and Hinduism and other denominations should also receive equal protection, promotion, preservation and equal weightage of representation in national constitutional bodies. There should be no persecution of followers of non-recognized faiths.
In this connection, there is a pressing need for the establishment of a national human rights commission in Bhutan to safeguard and guarantee the protection, promotion, preservation and enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights on equal footing by Bhutanese citizens of diverse origins. On the basis of the Paris Principle adopted by the General Assembly resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993, Bhutan must be pressurized to institute a NHRC vested with competence to promote and protect human rights. Bhutan must also be pressurized to permit the establishment of human rights organizations in the country.
It is also imperative that Bhutan ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the optional protocols to consolidate and deepen democracy and human rights in the country.
We the people of southern and eastern Bhutan want the country’s democracy and governance to be made truly inclusive by ensuring our tangible participation and representation in the national polity. Bhutan’s present parliament does not respect the principle of democratic inclusion because the first-ever political election was conducted with a predetermined design to deny participation to over 80,000 southern Bhutanese inside the country and over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in UNHCR camps in Nepal and elsewhere.
Over 200 political prisoners still languish in various Bhutanese prisons since the political turmoil began. They must be released unconditionally. At the same time, the authorities must initiate a political dialogue with Bhutanese leaders in exile in order to establish human rights, democracy and permanent peace in the country. Bhutanese refugees keen to return home should be allowed to do so under international supervision and protection. Political parties and human rights groups formed in exile should be recognized and be allowed to function as legal entities in Bhutan.
More importantly, Bhutan should allow an independent international monitoring team to monitor the implementation of 73 out of the 99 recommendations that Bhutan accepted during the 6th session of the Universal Periodic on 18 March 2010.
It is also imperative that the Bhutan government be made to stop the recent offensive moves of erasing the history and culture of Southern Bhutan by changing the names of villages and towns in with terms imported from Tibetan terminology. The original names were in the mother tongue of the southern Bhutanese and have a symbolic importance to the local inhabitants.
Finally, students and scholars from minority communities have been denied the right to education. Southern Bhutan students related to refugees have been denied admission in government-owned educational institutions even if they topped the board examinations. This and other forms of discrimination based on race, region, language, religion and culture must be immediately ended and an inclusive and vibrant democracy established on the basis of human rights and equality and dignity of all citizens.
The author is general secretary, People’s Forum for Human Rights, Phuntsholing Bhutan; he is based in Jhapa, Nepal. The article is based on a presentation at the Symposium on ‘Bhutanese Refugees: The Tragic Story of the Forgotten People’ by Human Rights Defense (India) in New Delhi on 14 July 2012