Bhutan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Bhutan took several significant steps forward in its ongoing political reform process in 2006, including King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s announcement in January that he will transfer power to his son in 2008, when elections to a new Parliament are scheduled to be held. The king continued to conduct public consultations on a new 34-article draft constitution, and established several new government commissions in preparation for the transition. Some progress was made toward resolving Bhutan’s long-standing refugee problem, as the United States offered to take in 60,000 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, in the 1980s the government 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 December 2003, with support from Indian forces, the army expelled about 3,000 members of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an Indian separatist group, from southern Bhutan. 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. In September 2006, a tenuous ceasefire between the Indian army and the ULFA broke down amid reports that the ULFA were once again organizing bases in southern Bhutan. India doubled troop levels along the Bhutan border in October to prevent attacks from across the border.

During the past several years, the government has made further progress on the issue of political reform. After several years of review, a 39-member drafting committee published a draft constitution 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.

In January 2006, King Jigme announced that he would step down in 2008, to be succeeded by his son, Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. Parliamentary elections are also scheduled to be held in 2008.

In preparation for the transition, in January, King Jigme created the constitutional posts of Election Commissioner, Anti-corruption Commissioner, and Auditor General. Mock polls held in September and frequent consultations with the Election Commission of India have demonstrated Bhutan’s commitment in preparing for the elections. The king remains popular among the public, however; many Bhutanese remain apprehensive of political change and seemingly prefer the monarchical system to one with greater political freedom.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bhutan is not an electoral democracy. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and a small group of elites make key decisions and wield absolute power. 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 2005, the law was amended so that chimis would be elected by adult franchise rather than the one-vote-per-household system that existed previously.

Since 1998, the king has taken several steps 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.

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 January 2006, King Jigme created the Anti-Corruption Commission, responsible for investigating reports of corruption and preventing corruption through education and advocacy. The Anti-Corruption Act, passed in July, endowed the commission with substantial investigatory powers and put in place protections for whistle-blowers. The commission is currently investigating several complaints that have been made through the whistle-blower mechanism on their website. Bhutan was ranked 32 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bhutanese authorities restrict freedom of expression. Under the 1992 National Security Act, any criticism of King Jigme and Bhutan’s political system is prohibited. The Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act, passed in July 2006, is designed to regulate the information, communications, and media industries. Two private radio stations in Thimpu are awaiting licenses under the new law, and in September, Kuzoo FM 90, Bhutan’s first independent radio station, began broadcasting. Many observers have however expressed concern that the law, which is primarily concerned with technological specifics, licensing, and ownership, provides no specific protections for journalists and does not guarantee freedom of information.

Two new independent newspapers, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer , were launched in April and June, respectively. Although the papers have published mainly progovernment articles, with the Times particularly supportive of the government stance toward refugees in Nepal, both papers have occasionally been critical of the government. The government-owned publication Kuensel generally reports news that portrays the kingdom in a favorable light, although it does provide occasional coverage of criticism of government policies during Assembly meetings. 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 2005, 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. In January 2006, two men were arrested for preaching and projecting a CD visual of Jesus Christ. They were imprisoned and originally sentenced to three and a half years in jail, although the charges were dropped shortly after and they were released in July. No restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, although Bhutan’s first university opened only in 2003.

Freedoms of assembly and association are restricted. Citizens may participate in a peaceful protest only if the government approves of its purpose. 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.

Nongovernmental groups (NGOs) that work on human rights, the refugee issue, or other overtly political issues are not legally allowed to operate inside the country. Only two NGOs exist—the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature and the National Women’s Association of Bhutan; both collaborate with the government. 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 (NJC) to oversee the appointment of judges and other judicial staff. In September 2006, the king expanded the number of members of the High Court from four to nine, appointing five new justices on the recommendation of the NJC. 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. 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. 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. A 2004 report by the Human Rights Council of Bhutan (HRCB), a consortium of Bhutanese human rights organizations based in Nepal, documented government efforts to settle Bhutanese from the north in lands formerly occupied by the refugees, which makes it difficult for refugees to return. Amid the continued stalemate, the UNHRC has increasingly advocated for a third-party solution, and in October 2006, the United States stated that it was prepared to take in up to 60,000 refugees, over half of the approximately 106,000 expelled in 1990. However, it remains to be seen if refugees will agree to this offer.

Conditions for Nepali speakers living in Bhutan have improved somewhat, but several major problems remain. According to a 2003 report by the HRCB, ethnic Nepalese are 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.