Bhutan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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As part of its ongoing political reform process, Bhutan legalized political parties in June 2007; two parties were registered ahead of lower-house elections scheduled for March 2008. On December 31, 15 members were elected to a new 25-member upper house. The 10 remaining members will join the house in early 2008. The final draft of a new constitution was published in October, and formal promulgation was scheduled for early 2008. Among other signs of progress, a bill providing for an independent judiciary was passed in January, and the fledgling Anti-Corruption Commission was active during the year. However, more than 100,000 ethnic-Nepali Bhutanese remained in refugee camps in Nepal, and Nepali speakers in southern Bhutan continued to endure poor conditions.

Britain began guiding Bhutan’s affairs in 1865, and in 1907, the British helped install the Wangchuck monarchy. A 1949 treaty allowed newly independent India to assume Britain’s role in conducting Bhutan’s foreign and defense policies. In 1971, Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father as king.

Reversing its long-standing tolerance of cultural diversity, the government in the 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. In 1988, after a census showed Southern Bhutanese to be a majority in five districts, the government began using a strict 1985 citizenship law to strip thousands of Nepali speakers of their citizenship.

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 deteriorated, 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 villagers and detained thousands as “antinationals.” About 105,000 Southern Bhutanese currently live as refugees in Nepal.

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 there remained poor; in September 2006, a tenuous ceasefire between the Indian army and the ULFA broke down amid reports that the guerrillas were reestablishing bases in southern Bhutan. India doubled troop levels along the border in October to prevent ULFA raids.

The government has made significant progress on political reform in recent years. The third and final draft of a new constitution, first published in 2005, was circulated in October 2007. It was due to be formally promulgated in early 2008. The draft provides for a bicameral parliament, a two-party political system, and some fundamental rights. However, it upholds the primacy of the monarchy, and analysts note that it may not adequately define and protect the rights of Nepali speakers. In preparation for the democratic transition, the king in January 2006 created the constitutional posts of election commissioner, anticorruption commissioner, and auditor general.

In December 2006, King Jigme abdicated in favor of his son, Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and announced plans for elections in 2008. Political parties were legalized in June 2007. On December 31, 15 members were elected to a new 25-member upper house. The 10 remaining members—5 elected and 5 appointed—are expected to join the house in January 2008. All candidates for the upper house ran as independents. Political parties will participate in elections to the lower house, or National Assembly, scheduled for March 2008. Despite the government’s reform efforts, the king and the existing monarchical system apparently remained popular with the public, and many Bhutanese were apprehensive of the coming political changes.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bhutan is not an electoral democracy. King Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal and a small group of elites make the key decisions and wield absolute power. The 150-member National Assembly has little independent authority. Every three years, village headmen choose 105 chimis, or National Assembly members, while the king appoints 35 members and religious groups choose 10 members. For the 105 district-based seats, each village nominates one candidate by consensus. The National Assembly was dissolved in December 2007 following elections to the 25-member National Council, the upper house of the new bicameral parliament. Elections for a lower house are scheduled for March 2008.

Political parties, which were previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in June 2007. Two parties were registered at year’s end. However, on November 27, the Election Commission denied registration for the Bhutan People’s United Party, commenting that the party did not “have the capacity to fulfill … national aspirations, visions and goals.” The draft constitution forbids parties based on sex, religion, language, or region. A 2007 election law forbids individuals without bachelor’s degrees from participating in government.

The government operates with limited transparency and accountability, although steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. In January 2006, King Jigme created the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), responsible for investigating reports of corruption and preventing corruption through education and advocacy. The Anti-Corruption Act, passed in July 2006, endowed the commission with substantial investigative powers and established protections for whistleblowers. ACC probes led to the prosecution of several local officials in 2007, although it has only pursued 16 of the 600 complaints received. Bhutan was ranked 46 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The authorities restrict freedom of expression, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. A July 2006 media law overhaul led to the establishment of two independent radio stations, but observers expressed concerns that the legislation provides no specific protections for journalists and does not guarantee freedom of information. Two independent weeklies, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer, were launched in the spring of 2006. Although they have published mainly progovernment articles, with the Times particularly supportive of the official stance on refugees in Nepal, both papers have occasionally been critical of the government. In June 2007, the authorities blocked the Times website for about two months due to antigovernment comments. The state-owned publication Kuensel generally reports positive news about the kingdom, although it occasionally covers criticism of government policies during Assembly meetings. State-run broadcast media do not carry opposition views. Cable television services, which air uncensored foreign programming, thrive in some areas but are hampered by a high sales tax and regulatory obstacles.

While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, government policy favors the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism, the official religion. The government reportedly subsidizes Buddhist monasteries, shrines, and some monks. A 9,287-member Monastic Body is the sole arbiter on religious matters, and monks also wield political influence. However, the draft constitution protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and a 2007 election law bars any ordained religious figure or “religious personality” from voting or running in the parliamentary elections. No restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, although Bhutan’s first university opened only in 2003.

Freedoms of assembly and association are restricted. The draft constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but a protest is authorized only if the government approves its purpose. In recent years, security forces have arrested Southern Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal who crossed the border to demonstrate for the right to return home.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work on human rights, the refugee issue, or other overtly political issues are not legally allowed to operate in the country. The Civil Society Organization Act, passed in June 2007, is designed to ensure the “transparency and accountability” of NGOs and requires all new NGOs to register with the government. The draft constitution guarantees freedom of association, although only for groups “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes. In any case, some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. A labor and employment act passed in 2007 prohibits forced labor, discrimination, sexual harassment, and child employment in the private sector.

The Judiciary Service Act, passed in January 2007, created a financially and administratively independent Judicial Service Council to control all new appointments and promotions within the judiciary. Courts are also now required to make decisions within a year. Citizens are guaranteed legal counsel in court cases. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern, and 43 political prisoners continue to serve lengthy sentences.

The government’s human rights record has improved since the height of the campaign against Nepali speakers in the early 1990s. Prior to the mass expulsions of that period, the government had stripped thousands of Southern Bhutanese of their citizenship under a 1985 law that required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens. 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 in Nepal have documentary proof of Bhutanese nationality, the government continues to maintain that many left voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. Several reports released by Human Rights Watch in 2007 documented the extremely poor living conditions of the roughly 105,000 refugees. Even if they were permitted to reenter Bhutan, ethnic Nepalis would face a lengthy and difficult citizenship process and would not receive compensation for lost property. The government has also actively sought to settle Bhutanese from the north in lands formerly occupied by the refugees. The UNHCR has increasingly called for a third-party solution, and in October 2006, the United States said it was prepared to accept up to 60,000 refugees. The offer has drawn mixed reactions in the camps, where many refugees maintain their right to return to Bhutan.

Conditions for Nepali speakers in Bhutan have improved somewhat, but several major problems remain. According to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, ethnic Nepalis must obtain certificates verifying that they do not present a threat to the state in order to enter schools, receive health care, take government jobs, or travel within Bhutan or abroad. Schools in the south restrict even those Nepali speakers with certificates.

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 ethnic minorities, to wear the traditional dress of the ruling Drukpas in public places. A 2004 decree instructed all women to adhere to the custom of wearing a scarf draped over two shoulders instead of one.

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.