Bhutan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


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The ongoing process of political reform undertaken by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, which is expected to lead to Bhutan's emergence as a constitutional monarchy, continued in 2004. A new Royal Advisory Council was elected in October, and a draft of the constitution was presented to the cabinet in November. However, little further progress was made on resolving the thorny issue of repatriating a significant proportion of the Bhutanese refugees currently residing in camps in Nepal.

Britain began guiding this Himalayan land's affairs in 1865 and, in 1907, installed the Wangchuk monarchy. However, a 1949 treaty gave India control over Bhutan's foreign affairs. In 1972, the current monarch succeeded his father to the throne.

Reversing a long-standing policy of tolerating cultural diversity in the kingdom, the government, in the 1980s, began requiring all Bhutanese to adopt the dress of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. Authorities said that 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. Arson and violence that accompanied the protests 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 bilateral team began certifying citizenship documents and interviewing family heads of the estimated 102,000 Bhutanese refugees currently in Nepal. After a number of delays in the process, in October 2003, the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments agreed to repatriate approximately 70 percent of the refugees from the first of the seven camps to undergo the verification procedure. However, following an incident where refugees at one of the camps injured three Bhutanese inspectors in December of that year, progress ground to a virtual halt in 2004, while inconclusive investigations into the incident were conducted. In July, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offered to take a lead role in the process if Nepal and Bhutan agreed that they were unable to solve the problem bilaterally.

After facing diplomatic pressure from India regarding the presence in Bhutan of a number of militant Indian separatist groups, the Bhutanese government held talks with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in 2001. When the ULFA did not honor its commitment to reduce its presence within the country, the National Assembly authorized the Bhutanese army to initiate operations against ULFA and two other insurgent groups. In December 2003, with support from Indian forces, the army expelled about 3,000 insurgents and destroyed many of their camps. However, the security situation in much of southern Bhutan remains poor; in September 2004, a bomb blast in the border town of Gelephu killed or injured several dozen people. Later that month, 111 Bhutanese citizens were convicted of providing assistance to various militant groups and were sentenced to terms ranging from four years to life imprisonment.

During the past several years, the government has made further progress on the issue of political reform. The 39-member constitutional drafting committee submitted a second draft of the constitution to the king in 2003, and after being reviewed by legal experts throughout 2004, it was presented to the cabinet in November for their comments. Local government structures have been granted greater executive authority and now are headed by elected chairpersons. A new Royal Advisory Council, which is now expected to play a role similar to that of an upper house of parliament, was elected in October.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bhutanese cannot change their government through elections, and they enjoy few basic political rights. King Jigme Singye 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. In July, the assembly resolved that it would meet biannually, in order to take a more active role in approving legislation or official policy.

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 three 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 one candidate by consensus, with votes being 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. Members of all major ethnic groups are represented in the National Assembly, although ethnic Nepalese remain under-represented.

The Bhutanese government operates with limited transparency or accountability, although steps have been taken in recent years to improve both, with among other measures efforts to strengthen the powers of local government bodies. In June, 16 men involved in a local election bribery case were sentenced to prison terms. Bhutan was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bhutanese authorities restrict freedom of expression. The government prohibits criticism of King Wangchuk and Bhutan's political system. Bhutan's only regular publication, the weekly Kuensel, generally reports news that puts the kingdom in a favorable light, although it does provide occasional coverage of criticism of government policies during assembly meetings. Similarly, state-run broadcast media do not carry opposition positions and statements. Cable television services, which carry uncensored foreign programming, thrive in some areas but are hampered by a high sales tax and the absence of a broadcasting law. Internet access is growing and is unrestricted, and the online edition of Kuensel provides a somewhat lively forum for discussion and debate.

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 helps fund the construction of Drukpa monasteries and shrines and subsidizes some monks, according to the U.S. State Department's 2004 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. No restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, although the country's first university opened only in 2003.

Freedom of assembly and association is restricted. Citizens may participate in a peaceful protest only if the government approves of its purpose. Nongovernmental groups that work on human rights or other overtly political issues are not legally allowed to operate inside the country. In recent years, security forces have arrested Bhutanese for taking part in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. They have also arrested and deported Southern 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. However, litigants' rights were bolstered by legislation that provided for legal counsel in court cases. In addition, in 2003, the king approved the establishment of a five-member National Judicial Commission to oversee the appointment of judges and other judicial staff. Capital punishment was abolished in March 2004, and a new penal code was enacted in August.

Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern. According to Amnesty International, approximately 60 political prisoners from southern and eastern Bhutan continue to serve lengthy prison sentences. In April, the BBC reported that police had detained 46 members of banned political parties. 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.

Conditions for Nepali speakers living in Bhutan have improved somewhat, but several major problems remain. According to a 2003 report by the Human Rights Council of Bhutan, a consortium of Bhutanese human rights organizations based in Nepal, ethnic Nepalese are still required to obtain official "security clearance certificates" to enter schools, receive health care, take government jobs, or travel within Bhutan or abroad. At the same time, the government has eased some cultural restrictions that specifically targeted Southern Bhutanese. For example, in recent years, enforcement of a 1989 royal decree forcing all Bhutanese to adopt the national dress and customs of the ruling Drukpas 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 of their parents were residing in Bhutan in 1958.

While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees asserts that the overwhelming majority of refugees who entered camps in Nepal have documentary proof of Bhutanese nationality, the Bhutanese government continues to maintain that many of the refugees either left Bhutan voluntarily or were illegal immigrants. A deal to repatriate a first batch of 9,000 refugees was brokered in October 2003 under considerable international pressure, but bilateral efforts to continue the repatriation process remained stalled in 2004. In addition, approximately 20,000 refugees currently reside in India.

However, since 1998, the government has been resettling Bhutanese from other parts of the country on land in southern Bhutan vacated by those who fled to Nepal. A 2002 Habitat International Coalition report documented specific cases of the appropriation of houses and land and noted that this policy will considerably complicate the refugee repatriation process.

Women participate freely in social and economic life, but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics despite some recent gains. The application of religious or ethnically based customary laws regarding inheritance, marriage, and divorce sometimes results in discrimination against women.