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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 2005, with a 34-article draft constitution being released for public comment and debate in March. However, little 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, King 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 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 "antinationals."
In early 2001, a bilateral team began certifying citizenship documents and interviewing family heads of the estimated 105,000 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, although returnees were to be subject to stringent requirements once back in Bhutan. However, following an incident in December 2003, where refugees at one of the camps injured three Bhutanese inspectors, progress on solving the problem has since ground to a virtual halt.
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 were convicted of providing assistance to militant groups and were sentenced to long prison terms.
During the past several years, the government has made further progress on the issue of political reform. A 39-member drafting committee submitted a second draft of the constitution to the king in 2003, and, after being reviewed by legal experts, it was presented to the cabinet in November 2004 for their comments and was finally published in March 2005. The 34-article draft provides for a bicameral parliament, a two-party political system, and some fundamental rights. However, it does uphold the primacy of the monarchy, and analysts note that it may not adequately define and protect the rights of Bhutan's sizable Nepalese minority, many of whom are currently refugees in Nepal. A revised draft was circulated in September, and the process of consultation with Bhutan's citizens regarding the draft began in October. Nevertheless, many Bhutanese remain apprehensive of the political changes initiated by the king and seemingly prefer the monarchical system to one with greater political freedom.
Bhutanese cannot change their government democratically, 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 has taken several steps since 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 2004, the Assembly resolved that it would meet biannually in order to take a more active role in approving legislation. A new Royal Advisory Council, which is expected to play a role similar to that of an upper house of parliament, was elected in October 2004. Local government structures have been granted greater executive authority and now are headed by elected leaders.
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 chimis, or 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. Human rights activists allege that in reality, authorities suggest a candidate to the headman in each village, and the headman asks families to approve the candidate. In September, the law was amended so that chimis would be elected by adult franchise rather than the one vote per household system that existed previously.
Political parties are illegal in Bhutan; the opposition Druk National Congress operates in exile. Women and members of all major ethnic groups are represented in the National Assembly, although ethnic Nepalese remain underrepresented.
The Bhutanese government operates with limited transparency or accountability, although steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. In December 2004, a Public Accounts Committee was created in the National Assembly and charged with monitoring how government funds are spent. Bhutan is not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Bhutanese authorities restrict freedom of expression. Under the 1992 National Security Act, any criticism of King Wangchuk and Bhutan's political system is prohibited. Bhutan's only regular publication, 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. In February 2005, Kuensel switched to a biweekly format, and the publisher plans to open another printing press in Tashingang so that it can improve its distribution network. 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. In March, in response to concerns voiced by authorities as well as by members of the public, the Association of Private Cable Operators resolved to limit cable access to 30 channels, with a complete ban on 12 music and other channels that provided "controversial" content such as wrestling. Internet access is growing and is unrestricted-two new internet service providers were licensed during the year- and the online edition of Kuensel provides a somewhat lively forum for discussion and debate.
While Bhutanese of all faiths generally can worship relatively freely, government policy favors the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism, which is the official religion. The government helps fund the construction and maintenance of Buddhist monasteries and shrines and subsidizes some monks, according to the
U.S. State Department's 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom. A 3,500-member Monastic Body is the sole arbiter on religious matters, and 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 Bhutan'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, the refugee issue, 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 prodemocracy 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 have been bolstered by legislation that provides 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 2004.
Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern. Approximately 70 political prisoners continue to serve lengthy prison sentences. In April 2004, 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 serious human rights abuses against Nepali-speaking Bhutanese.
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 Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 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, although it was not certain that refugees would be able to reclaim their original lands and property, and the Bhutanese government planned that many would be housed in transit camps inside Bhutan for up to two years while they proved their loyalty to the king. Following a violent incident at one of the refugee camps in December 2003, bilateral efforts to continue the repatriation process have remained stalled, and the Bhutanese government continues to deny the UNHCR access to Bhutan. In addition, at least 20,000 refugees currently reside in India.
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.
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. However, in a positive step, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 religious freedom report, in early 2005, the Bhutanese government began to issue national identity cards to some ethnic Nepalese who have relatives living in the refugee camps.
Restrictions on dress and cultural practices were imposed in the late 1980s in an attempt to safeguard Bhutan's heritage. A 1989 royal decree requires all citizens, including those from minority ethnic groups, to wear the traditional dress of the ruling Drukpas in public places, including schools, government offices, and religious buildings. In September 2004, it was decreed that all women had to adhere to the custom of wearing a scarf draped over two shoulders instead of one, according to The Economist. In December 2004, Bhutan became the first country in the world to ban the sale and use of tobacco.
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. There are no reports that trafficking of women or children is a problem in Bhutan.