Bhutan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Britain began guiding this Himalayan land's affairs in 1865, and in 1907 installed the still-ruling Wangchuk monarchy. London's role ended after a 1949 Indo-Bhutan treaty gave New Delhi control over Bhutan's foreign affairs. In 1972, the current monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, now 46, succeeded his father on the throne.

Reversing a long-standing policy of tolerating cultural diversity in the kingdom, the government in the late 1980s began requiring all Bhutanese to adopt the dress of the ruling, northern-based Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. Authorities said they feared for the survival of Drukpa culture because of the large number of Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, in the south. The situation for the Southern Bhutanese worsened in 1988, when the government began using a strict 1985 citizenship law to arbitrarily strip thousands of Nepali speakers of their citizenship. The move came after a census showed Southern Bhutanese to be in the majority in five southern districts.

Led by the newly formed Bhutanese People's Party (BPP), Southern Bhutanese held several demonstrations in September 1990 against the new measures. The BPP demanded full citizenship rights for Nepali speakers, the reintroduction of Nepali as a medium of instruction in southern schools, and democratic reforms. Authorities cracked down on the BPP and closed many southern schools and clinics after BPP members and other dissidents reportedly killed several local officials and raided or bombed some government buildings. As conditions worsened, tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled to Nepal in the early 1990s, many of them expelled by Bhutanese forces. Credible accounts suggest that soldiers raped and beat many Nepali-speaking villagers and detained thousands as "anti-nationals."

Under a December 2000 agreement between Thimphu and Kathmandu, a ten-person, bilateral team in early 2001 began certifying citizenship documents and interviewing family heads of the more than 90,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. The Bhutanese government maintains that most of the refugees either left Bhutan voluntarily or were illegal immigrants. Refugee leaders say the vast majority of those in the camps are genuine Bhutanese nationals.

Benin maintained a good human rights record in 2001, but sporadic violence preceded and followed the presidential elections. In eastern Bhutan, a small dissident group called the Druk National Congress (DNC) has in recent years organized demonstrations and other peaceful protests calling for political reform. Authorities arrested several dozen suspected DNC members and sympathizers in 1997 and 1998, according to human rights groups. The government says that only 16 people were arrested and they are awaiting trials on sedition charges. Most DNC members come from the country's third major ethnic group, the Sarchops, who live mainly in eastern Bhutan.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bhutanese cannot change their government through elections and enjoy few basic rights. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and a small group of elites, drawn mainly from the king's Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group, make key decisions and wield absolute power. King Wangchuk took several steps in 1998 that in theory reduced his day-to-day role in running the government and increased the power of the national assembly. However, it is not clear what practical effects, if any, these changes have had. The king removed himself as chairman of Bhutan's council of ministers, a post roughly equivalent to that of prime minister. He also gave the national assembly the powers to remove the king from the throne and choose cabinet members from among candidates nominated by the king. King Wangchuk, however, still assigns the actual portfolios. The current head of the council of ministers is Sangay Ngedup, a former minister for health and education.

The government discourages the formation of political parties, and none exist legally. The 150-member national assembly meets irregularly and has little independent power. It often serves as a forum for diatribes against the Southern Bhutanese, who hold a disproportionately small number of seats. Every three years village headmen choose 100 national assembly members, while the king appoints 40 seats, and religious groups choose 10 seats. For the 100 district-based seats, each village, in theory, nominates one candidate for its district, though it must do so by consensus. Votes are cast by family heads rather than individuals. Human rights activists say that in reality, authorities suggest candidates to the headmen in each village, and the headmen ask families to approve the candidates, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Bhutan's human rights record in 2000.

The government's human rights record has improved somewhat since the early 1990s, when soldiers and police committed grave human rights abuses against Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. These abuses included arbitrary arrests, beatings, rape, destruction of homes, and robberies. However, "arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems, and reports of torture and abuse of persons in detention continue," according to the U.S. State Department report. The report also said that some or all of the roughly 75 people still jailed for offenses related to political protests or violence in the early 1990s may be political prisoners. In a positive move, the government in December 1999 released 40 political prisoners.

Bhutan's judiciary is not independent of the king, according to the U.S. State Department report. Despite recent efforts to improve training for judges, most have little legal education. Prison conditions reportedly are adequate, the U.S. State Department report said.

Bhutanese authorities sharply restrict freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The government prohibits criticism of King Wangchuk and Bhutan's political system, except indirectly during national assembly meetings. The state-owned weekly Kuensel, Bhutan's only regular publication, reports only news that puts the kingdom in a favorable light and carries only progovernment views. The only exception is occasional coverage of criticism by national assembly members of King Wangchuk and government policies during assembly meetings. Similarly, the state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service's radio and television stations do not carry opposition positions and statements. The government generally ignores its own formal ban and allows Bhutanese to receive satellite television broadcasts originating in other countries. There is also cable television service in some areas. Authorities began operating a public-access Internet server in 1999, although most Bhutanese probably would find access too costly.

In recent years, security forces have arrested Bhutanese for taking part in a series of peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations in eastern Bhutan. They have also arrested and deported Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal who entered and demonstrated inside Bhutan for the right to return home. The government does not allow nongovernmental groups to work on human rights or other overtly political issues, but tolerates business and civic organizations.

The government's expulsion of tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in the early 1990s and recent bilateral efforts to repatriate them, have underscored the tentative nature of citizenship in the kingdom. Prior to the expulsions, the government stripped thousands of Southern Bhutanese of their citizenship in the late 1980s under a 1985 law that tightened citizenship requirements. The new law required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens in order for citizenship to be conferred on a child, rather than just the father, as before. In addition, Bhutanese seeking to verify citizenship had to prove that they or both their parents resided in Bhutan in 1958, the year the kingdom granted citizenship to all land-owning adults who had lived in the country for at least ten years. This meant presenting land tax receipts or other documents from 1958, nearly 30 years earlier. Those who lost citizenship under the law could apply for naturalization if they could prove residence during the previous 15 years.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that the overwhelming majority of Bhutanese refugees who entered camps in Nepal since screening began in 1993 have documentary proof of Bhutanese nationality. This assertion is borne out by random checks and surveys of camp residents, according to the U.S. State Department report.

Conditions for Nepali speakers still living in Bhutan have improved somewhat since the early 1990s, but major problems remain. The government reportedly requires Southern Bhutanese to secure official "no-objection certificates" in order to enter schools, take government jobs, or sell farm products. The government shut 75 primary schools in Nepali-speaking areas of southern Bhutan in 1990, and most remain closed, according to the U.S. State Department report. Authorities also ban schools from using the Nepali language as a medium of instruction. In addition, the government in 1998 fired 429 civil servants related to Nepali-speaking refugees. The move came after Bhutan's national assembly passed a resolution in 1997 prohibiting immediate family members of Nepali-speaking refugees from working in the government or armed forces.

At the same time, the government has in recent years eased some cultural restrictions introduced in the late 1980s that specifically targeted Southern Bhutanese. Although a 1989 royal decree forced all Bhutanese to adopt the national dress and customs of the ruling Drukpas, more recently enforcement has been sporadic.

While Bhutanese of all faiths can generally worship freely, government policy favors the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism, which is the official religion. The government subsidizes Drukpa monasteries and shrines and helps fund the construction of Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist temples and shrines, according to the U.S. State Department report. The law gives Drukpa monks 10 of the 150 seats in the national assembly and 2 of the 11 seats on the Royal Advisory Council, a body that advises the king. Women make up only 16 percent of civil servants, although they increasingly are becoming senior officials as well as private sector entrepreneurs, the State Department report said.

The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes. In any case, some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. The government in 1998 began resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other parts of the country on land in southern Bhutan vacated by Nepali speakers who fled to Nepal, according to the U.S. State Department report.

Bhutan began holding talks in June with separatist rebel groups from India's northeastern state of Assam, asking the guerrillas to vacate camps they had set up in southern Bhutan in the 1990s, Reuters reported. The rebels' use of Bhutanese territory has strained relations between New Delhi and Thimphu.