Bhutan’s Human Rights Record Defies ‘Happiness’ Claim

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

Bhutan’s Human Rights Record Defies ‘Happiness’ Claim

The UNHRC is looking at Bhutan’s record on human rights. It is less than stellar.

Bhutan’s Human Rights Record Defies ‘Happiness’ Claim
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Bhutan takes pride in, and is internationally acclaimed for, its unique policy of gross national happiness (GNH), which measures the nation’s progress in terms of the wellbeing of its citizens. However, Bhutan’s claim to fame may fall flat when the UN Human Rights Council evaluates how well this nation has respected the rights of its people on April 30.

During its first universal periodic review (UPR) in 2009, Bhutan stated in its report, “Ultimately the Royal Government believes that without the enjoyment of all human rights, Gross National Happiness, to which it is also deeply committed, cannot be achieved.”

Many nations, including Japan and Canada, have expressed aspirations to emulate GNH, which shuns purely economic yardsticks like gross domestic product (GDP), on the assumption that the policy has resulted in Bhutan’s people being happier than elsewhere. But happiness goes hand-in-hand with human rights. So does Bhutan really have respect for human rights?

Based on concerns raised by member nations, the Council made 99 recommendations to Bhutan, and Thimphu agreed, or pledged, to implement more than 70 of them. Statistically, it was an impressive response. But a qualitative look at the ones Bhutan remained uncommitted to paints an uninspiring picture.

Notable recommendations to which Bhutan chose not to give a clear response included abolition of discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity and religion, resolution of the Bhutanese refugee issue, protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, formation of an independent human rights commission and civil society organizations, and ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


Among the main stakeholders in these recommendations were the “Lhotshampas,” as Bhutan’s southerners are called. They are part of the nation’s ethnic Nepalese minority. While some of them have risen to become ministers, many others do not even have full citizenship rights.

The citizenship ID cards the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs issues to them contain seven categories. Category 1 is for “genuine Bhutanese citizens.” Category 2 is for southerners who left Bhutan once and then returned; 3 is for those who were not around when the 1988 census was held; 4 refers to non-national women married to Bhutanese men, and their children; 5 is for non-national men married to Bhutanese women, and their children; 6 is for legally adopted children. And category 7 would mean the card holder is a non-national.

Holders of cards in categories other than 1 and 4 normally do not get the security clearance required for a passport. They cannot get voter ID cards either, which mean they cannot vote. Worse, those who carry category 7 cards, or fall in that category – and there are significant numbers of them – cannot get admission into schools or get government or corporate jobs. They find it difficult to travel even within the country – they get a “route permit” for restricted domestic travel.

While the government is making efforts to grant citizenship to such people, the categorization has created divisions among the southerners, as those with category 1 card think they are superior to those belonging to lower categories, a Lhotshampa journalist told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity. The source added that authorities normally categorize a child according to the lowest category to which either of the parents belongs.

While the Bhutan Citizenship Act of 1985 provides for eligibility criteria for citizenship by naturalization, it states, “The Royal Government of Bhutan also reserves the right to reject any application for naturalization without assigning any reason.”

Of Bhutan’s 740,000 people, about 20 percent are Lhotshampas, most of whom are Hindu by religion.

The southerner issue dates back to the 1980s and the early 1990s, when Bhutan adopted a “one nation one people” policy and introduced mandatory Driglam Namza, an ancient code of social etiquette practised by the dominant Ngalop ethnic group, or people from west Bhutan who are of Tibetan origin. The code involves observance of the national dress – the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, for men; and the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist, for women – in offices and at public functions.

The schools were also directed during that period not to use the Nepali language as a medium of education, but only the national Dzongkha language and English. In addition, a strict census was held, and later it was claimed that there were thousands of “illegal immigrants” from Nepal in south Bhutan.

This led to a revolt by southerners, which was met with a crackdown leading to an alleged expulsion of over 100,000 Lhotshampas, who subsequently sought asylum in Nepal.

Through a third country resettlement program, 88,770 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled – about 75,000 of them in the United States.

Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, are also treated like “second-class” Christians, as described by a pastor, who also requested anonymity.

Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.

However, only Buddhists and Hindus are allowed to form organizations to function legally in the country. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 – the only legislation that provides for the formation of religious groups – says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Mahayana Buddhism.

About 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist.

Christians have applied for the registration of a confederation so that they can also function with a legal Christian identity, but the Home Ministry has not obliged thus far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no church buildings and no Christian book stores.

The ambiguity over the legality of practising Christianity in Bhutan has resulted in harassment of the minority by officials.

For example, police in southern Samtse District arrested two pastors, M.B. Thapa and Tandin Wangyal, on March 5 for holding a Christian gathering without the required prior permission from authorities. The pastors remained in jail until April 22 despite an absence of formal charges. Home Minister Damcho Dorji told Business Bhutan that the pastors were “forcibly” converting people, but the local police clearly denied they found any basis for that charge.

“This is an attempt to harass the Christian minority,” said a relative of one of the two pastors, on condition of anonymity.

Freedom of Opinion, Expression

The requests for anonymity that journalists often get from Bhutanese sources are suggestive of the level of freedom of opinion and expression in the country. Media are a good test case in this area.

Law relating to media is not much of an issue in Bhutan, but self-censorship is. It is a common understanding among journalists that they must not write anything related to national security or the refugee issue, for example. Even the alleged discrimination against Lhotshampas finds no mention in local media. And only a few would dare write about the Christian issue, unless the story is against the minority.

Corruption is one issue that does get highlighted in a couple of independent newspapers, but private media are on the verge of closing down.

Bhutan allowed private media in 2006, two years before the nation peacefully transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy thanks to the nation’s king, who is revered by almost all sections of the Bhutanese society. While the growth of private media is crucial for the new democracy, two successive governments have made little or no effort to help it survive.

“Bhutan’s economy is not doing well at the moment. Consequently, media sustainability has been affected to the extent that most private newspapers are facing bankruptcy,” Passang Dorji, the president of the Journalists Association of Bhutan, told The Diplomat.

“The ruling government [of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay] pledged during their election campaign that they would ensure that the press is vibrant for the democracy to flourish. However, no concrete steps have been taken to support the media thus far,” Dorji said, warning that the fourth pillar of democracy is about to crumble.

The financial woes of the media began in August 2012 when then then government of Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley decided to cut down on its advertising spend. The decision “coincided” with stories highly critical of Thinley’s government by The Bhutanese, a bi-weekly investigative newspaper.

Thinley’s government shrugged off the responsibility by citing budget constraints and indicating that private media, too, is subject to free market fluctuations. Since Bhutan’s private sector is too small and weak to place ads in newspapers, private media depend on government advertising.

The current government’s indifference matches that of its predecessor.

As a result, the main source of news for the people of Bhutan, and for foreigners, remains the national broadcaster Bhutan Broadcasting Service and the partially government-owned Kuensel daily.

Geopolitical Woes

However, Bhutan is still a nation that commands the respect and admiration of the world; its evident failings in the area of human rights are often overlooked.

Bhutan is a tiny nation in the high Himalayas lying between two rival Asian giants, India and China. It initially sought security in its relations with India after China “annexed” Tibet, Bhutan’s northern neighbor, in 1959. However, that sense of security took a beating after New Delhi “absorbed” Sikkim through a so-called referendum in 1975.

Bhutan’s policy of cultural unification, which led to the revolt in southern parts of the nation, can be understood in the context of these developments. Bhutan still fears that democratic freedoms could cost the nation its sovereignty.

Bhutan’s reactions to these fears might be understandable, but not excusable in today’s world.

The international community will likely be more gracious to Bhutan and allow it to take some more time to fully respect the fundamental rights of its citizens. But for that, Thimphu will at least need to make gradual but genuine efforts towards improvement. Until then, its claim of being a GNH country will appear to be nothing but a cover for an inadequate human rights record.

Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. His articles on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights have appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe GuardianThe Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and many other outlets.