Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Bhutan’s political rights rating improved from 6 to 4, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, due to largely successful national elections held in 2008.
Bhutan completed its transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 2008. The final rounds of parliamentary elections were held in January and March, and both were deemed generally free and fair. While more than 100,000 ethnic-Nepali Bhutanese remain in refugee camps in Nepal, several thousand were resettled in the United States during the year.
Britain began guiding Bhutan’s affairs in 1865, and in 1907, the British helped install the Wangchuck dynasty. 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 imposing restrictions on Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, ostensibly to protect the culture of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. In 1988, the government began stripping thousands of Nepali speakers of their citizenship. The newly formed Bhutanese People’s Party (BPP) responded in 1990 with sometimes violent demonstrations, prompting a government crackdown. Tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled or were expelled to Nepal in the early 1990s, with credible accounts suggesting that soldiers raped and beat many villagers and detained thousands as “antinationals.”
In 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. In 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 2007 to prevent ULFA raids.
As part of a major constitutional overhaul led by the king, the posts of election commissioner, anticorruption commissioner, and auditor general were created in 2006, and political parties were legalized in June 2007. Elections for an upper house of Parliament were held in two rounds, in December 2007 and January 2008.
Elections to the lower house, the National Assembly, took place in March 2008. With voter turnout at about 80 percent, the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) won 45 of the 47 seats. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won the remaining seats, but its candidates resigned shortly thereafter, accusing the DPT of fraud and vote-buying. However, the High Court dismissed those claims for lack of evidence, and the PDP members returned to the assembly in April. The elections were peaceful, and European Union (EU) observers judged them a “successful and orderly change of political system.”
After a three-year drafting process, the new constitution was officially promulgated in July 2008. It provides for some fundamental rights, but it upholds the primacy of the monarchy, and analysts noted that it does not adequately define and protect the rights of Nepali speakers.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck formally succeeded his father as king in November 2008, although he had been in power since the outgoing king’s abdication in December 2006. The monarchy remains highly popular with the public, and many Bhutanese have expressed reservations about the shift toward democracy.
Bhutan is not an electoral democracy, though the elections of 2008 represented a significant step toward that status. The new constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-member upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-member lower house, the National Assembly, both serving five-year terms. The king appoints five members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king as prime minister. The cabinet is nominated by the king and approved by the National Assembly. The king remains the head of state and appoints members of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the heads of national commissions.
An EU monitoring team reported that the March 2008 National Assembly elections “generally met international standards,” although it noted problems in freedom of expression and association during the campaign.
Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in June 2007. Only two parties—the DPT and PDP, both of which have ties to the royal family—participated in the 2008 National Assembly elections. The parties do not differ significantly in policy goals. The constitution forbids parties based on sex, religion, language, or region, and a 2007 election law forbids individuals without bachelor’s degrees from participating in government. In November 2007 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.” Nine ethnic Nepali candidates were elected to office in 2008, although the EU monitoring report noted that a rule requiring candidates to obtain a security clearance certificate may have been an obstacle for some Nepalis.
The government operates with limited transparency and accountability, but steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), created in 2006, is tasked with investigating reports of corruption and preventing graft through education and advocacy. The Anti-Corruption Act, passed that year, also established protections for whistleblowers. However, police and local officials routinely ask for bribes, and a 2008 ACC report found that 43 percent of Bhutanese believed corruption had worsened in the five previous years. The most corrupt areas of government are education, health, and agriculture. Bhutan was ranked 45 of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The authorities restrict freedom of expression, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. A 2006 media law overhaul led to the establishment of two independent radio stations, but it did not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. Two independent weeklies, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer, were launched in 2006. Both papers, along with the state-owned Kuensel, generally publish progovernment articles but occasionally cover criticism of the government. Cable television services, which air uncensored foreign programming, thrive in some areas but are hampered by a high sales tax and regulatory obstacles. Although violence towards journalists is rare, in May 2008 members of the Bhutan News Service, a Bhutanese exile organization, were threatened with death for covering student protests. Shanti Ram Acharya, a journalist working for the Bhutan Reporter, a monthly paper published by refugees in Nepal, was still awaiting trial at the end of 2008. He was arrested while visiting Bhutan in 2007 for allegedly engaging in “subversive activities.” The government claims that he was taking photographs of a Royal Bhutan Army outpost.
The constitution protects freedom of religion, and a 2007 election law bars any ordained religious figure or “religious personality” from voting or running for office. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion and reportedly receives various subsidies. A 9,287-member Monastic Body is the sole arbiter on religious matters, and monks also wield political influence. The religious services of the small Christian minority are reportedly often held out of sight to avoid harassment by the authorities. 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 constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but a protest can be 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. The Civil Society Organization Act, passed in June 2007, requires all new NGOs to register with the government. The constitution guarantees freedom of association, but only for groups “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” Several NGOs are currently operating, with the majority advocating for women’s or environmental rights. The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes, though some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. A 2007 labor and employment law prohibits forced labor, child labor, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
The 2007 Judicial Service Act created an independent Judicial Service Council to control judicial appointments and promotions. Courts are also now required to make decisions within a year, and 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.
Prior to the mass expulsions of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, the government had stripped thousands of Southern Bhutanese of their citizenship under a 1985 law that required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens. Individuals also had to prove that they or both of their parents were residing in Bhutan in 1958. While the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that the overwhelming majority of refugees have proof of Bhutanese nationality, the government maintains that many left voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. The roughly 105,000 refugees live in extremely poor conditions in Nepal, and a 2008 fire in one camp left 10,000 homeless. Even if permitted to reenter Bhutan, ethnic Nepalis would face a difficult citizenship process and would not be compensated for lost property. The government has also 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 would accept up to 60,000 refugees. Resettlement began in 2008, and nearly 8,000 had made the trip by the end of the year. New Zealand has also accepted some refugees.
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 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.