Bhutan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Bhutan's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6 due to increased accountability of the monarchy to the people. It civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to changes in the survey methodology.


The 39-member drafting committee established by the government held a series of discussions throughout 2002 on the structure of a new constitution. In December, the committee presented a draft constitution for deliberation and debate by the National Assembly as well as grassroots administrative bodies. The constitution is expected to lead to Bhutan's emergence as a constitutional monarchy with some form of parliamentary democracy.

Britain began guiding this Himalayan land's affairs in 1865, and in 1907 installed the still-ruling Wangchuk monarchy. However, a 1949 treaty gave India control over Bhutan's foreign affairs. In 1972, the current monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, succeeded his father to 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 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 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 demonstrations in September 1990 against the new measures. Accompanying arson and violence led authorities to crack down on the BPP. As conditions worsened, tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled to Nepal in the early 1990s, many of them forcibly expelled by Bhutanese forces. Credible accounts suggest that soldiers raped and beat many Nepali-speaking villagers and detained thousands as "anti-nationals."

In early 2001, a ten-person, bilateral team began certifying citizenship documents and interviewing family heads of the estimated 100,000 Bhutanese refugees currently in Nepal. However, the process stalled after the completion of the verification procedure in the first of seven camps in December 2001. A European Union delegation, which visited the camps in July, expressed concern at the situation and urged both governments to speed up the verification process.

Relations with India continue to be strained by the presence in Bhutan of a number of Indian separatist militant groups. After holding talks with the Bhutanese government, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) agreed in June 2001 to reduce its presence within the country. However, there is little evidence that it has honored this commitment. In July 2002, the National Assembly recommended holding a final meeting with ULFA, after which it said that military action might become inevitable. Other Indian guerrilla groups continue to operate from Bhutanese soil despite mounting diplomatic pressure from New Delhi.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bhutanese cannot change their government through elections and enjoy few basic rights. King Wangchuk and a small group of elites make key decisions and wield absolute power, although the king did take several steps in 1998 to increase the influence of the National Assembly. He removed himself as chairman of Bhutan's Council of Ministers; in addition, he gave the National Assembly the power to remove the king from the throne and to elect cabinet members from among candidates nominated by the king. The proposed constitution is expected to formalize the separation of powers and to address the king's status.

The government discourages the formation of political parties, and none exist legally. The 150-member National Assembly has little independent power, although some analysts note that debate within the assembly has become more lively and critical in recent years. Every 3 years village headmen choose 105 National Assembly members, while the king appoints 35 seats and religious groups choose 10 seats. For the 105 district-based seats, each village nominates 1 candidate for its district, though it must do so by consensus. Votes are cast by family heads rather than by individuals. Human rights activists say that in reality, authorities suggest a candidate to the headman in each village and the headman asks families to approve the candidate.

Bhutanese authorities sharply restrict freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. The government prohibits criticism of King Wangchuk and Bhutan's political system. Bhutan's only regular publication, the weekly Kuensel, reports news that puts the kingdom in a favorable light. The only exception is occasional coverage of criticism by National Assembly members of government policies during assembly meetings. Similarly, state-run broadcast media do not carry opposition positions and statements. Cable television service, which carries foreign programming, thrives in some areas but is hampered by a high sales tax and the absence of a broadcasting law.

While Bhutanese of all faiths generally can 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 temples and shrines, according to the U.S. State Department's 2002 Report on International Religious Freedom. Drukpa monks also wield political influence. Some members of the country's small Christian minority are reportedly subject to harassment by local authorities.

Citizens may only participate in a peaceful protest if the government approves of its purpose. The government does not allow nongovernmental groups to work on human rights or other overtly political issues. In recent years, security forces have arrested Bhutanese for taking part in peaceful pro-democracy 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 prohibits independent trade unions and strikes. In any case, some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Draft labor legislation under preparation would prohibit forced labor, discrimination, sexual harassment, and child employment in the private sector.

Bhutan's judiciary is not independent of the king, and legal protections are incomplete as a result of the lack of a fully developed criminal procedure code and deficiencies in police training. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern. According to Amnesty International, 15 political prisoners arrested during demonstrations in 1997, in addition to an estimated 50 prisoners arrested in southern Bhutan around 1990, continue to serve lengthy prison sentences. However, the government's human rights record has improved since the early 1990s, when soldiers and police committed grave human rights abuses against Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. These abuses included arbitrary arrests, beatings, rapes, robberies, and the destruction of homes.

Conditions for Nepali speakers living in Bhutan have somewhat improved, but several major problems remain. A September 2002 Amnesty International report noted that ethnic Nepalese are still required to obtain official "security clearance certificates" to enter schools, take government jobs, or travel abroad. Many primary schools in the Nepali-speaking areas of southern Bhutan shut by the government in 1990 remain closed. At the same time, the government has in recent years eased some cultural restrictions that specifically targeted Southern Bhutanese. Although a 1989 royal decree forced all Bhutanese to adopt the national dress and customs of the ruling Drukpas, recent enforcement has been sporadic.

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 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. In addition, Bhutanese seeking to verify citizenship had to prove that they or both their parents resided in Bhutan in 1958. That meant presenting land-tax receipts or other documents from 1958, nearly 30 years earlier.

The UN 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. However, the Bhutanese government continues to maintain that many of the refugees either left Bhutan voluntarily or were illegal immigrants. A bilateral verification process begun in 2001 has stalled amid disputes over how the refugees should be classified. Meanwhile, the government in 1998 began resettling Bhutanese from other parts of the country on land in southern Bhutan vacated by those who fled to Nepal. A report published by Habitat International Coalition in January documented specific cases of the appropriation of houses and land and noted that this policy will considerably complicate the refugee repatriation process.

Women make up only 23 percent of civil servants and are underrepresented in the National Assembly, although they increasingly are becoming senior officials as well as private sector entrepreneurs. Female school enrollment has risen in response to government policies.