Peoples of Bhutan
Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was isolated for 300 years.
During the 1900s , it gradually established links with
the outside world while preserving its culture and tradition.
Now in the 1990s a political conflict has arisen that
could be critical for the country's future.
a country the size of Switzerland climbs like a staircase
from the plains of northeast India to the hill plateau of
Tibet. It was the last of the Himalayan kingdoms to adopt
the doctrine of economic development and confront the political
uncertainties of the world beyond its foothills. However,
the image of an unchanging medieval idyll is a little misleading.
Bhutan's history is complex and has been influenced by developments
outside its borders. Its current political problems demonstrate
was unified by the Shabdrung, a Buddhist lama of the Drukpa
Kagyu sect who fled from Tibet in 1616. From the 1600s until
the early 1900s, Shabdrungs were Bhutan's spiritual and temporal
rulers. During the 1800s they ruled decayed, and the Shabdrungs
lost much of their temporal power to feuding district governors.
In 1907, the office of the Shabdrungs was quietly abolished
and Sir Ugyen Wangchuck became the first king with the approval
of the British, whom he had supported during their incursions
Since 1907, Bhutan has been ruled by four kings of the Wangchuck
line; the present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began his
reign in 1972.
Peoples of Bhutan
is known to its inhabitants as Druk Yul, (the land of the
Dragon), after the Buddhist Drukpa Kagyu sect that first united
it. The Buddhist peoples who inhabit its highland areas are
known collectively as Drukpas. Some 19 languages are spoken
throughout Bhutan, and three main ethnic groups - the Ngalong
in the west, the Sharchhop in the east, and the Nepalis in
the south-comprise perhaps 85 per cent of the total population.
The Sharchhop and the people of central Bhutan have their
origins to the east of the kingdom. They were conquered by
the Ngalong, who came from Tibet, early on in Bhutan's history.
All now show a fair measure of cultural unity as Drukpas.
They share the same religious faith and speak closely related
languages, although the Ngalong tend to dominate the religion
politically, and their language, Dzongkha, is the national
Nepali-speaking people of the south were settled in Bhutan
from the late 1800's onward. Most of them practise Hinduism,
although some are Buddhist. They originally spoke a variety
of languages, but the Nepali language has displaced them.
Lacking census data, the Bhutanese government could for many
years only estimate the size and ethnic composition of the
population of Bhutan. In 1979, it gave a figure of 1.2 million.
In 1988, the published figure was 1.375 million. But in 1991,
following a more detailed survey, the figure was drastically
reduced to 600,000. It is probable that none of the main ethnic
groups is in a majority. Estimates for the Ngalong vary from
10 to 28 per cent, for the Sharchhop 30 to 40 per cent, and
for the Nepalis 25 to 52 per cent. All figures should be treated
culture has evolved over the centuries and developed its own
distinct characteristics. Nonetheless, it came originally
from Tibet, and until the early 1900s, Bhutan looked toward
Tibet as a commercial partner. The majority of the kingdom's
trade was carried out over the Himalayan passes to the north.
The south of Bhutan, bordering the plains of India, remained
an undeveloped region behind the ruler's backs. In the early
1900s, the British began to make their presence felt and Bhutan
had to begin setting up completely new, foreign links. Inside
Bhutan, there was a struggle between those who wished to maintain
the traditional connections with Tibet and those who felt
that Bhutan's fortunes depended on links with the British.
monarchy is unlike those of most other monarchical states.
The Druk Gyalpo (the Ruler of Druk) possesses neither absolute
power nor divine authority,. The first king was elected in
1907 by the topmost civil and religious classes of Bhutan's
society who swore a legally binding oath of allegiance to
the ruler and his heirs. But until the coronation of the third
king in 1952, powerful families continued to govern the districts,
with little interference from the centre. This flexible arrangement
could not ensure Bhutan's survival after India's independence
and China's invasion of Tibet, and the third king began a
process of modernization that has continued to this day. In
1953, a Tshogdu (national assembly) was created and has met
once or twice a year since then. (Its 72nd session lasted
for three weeks, from July 8 to 30, 1993.) Local governors
drawn from Bhutan's topmost social groupings began to be replaced
by centrally appointed officers, many of whom had been drawn
from humble backgrounds and sent for education to India. In
1958, the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhutan
for the first time. He offered Indian development aid and
urged Bhutan to come out of its isolation. In 1959 the Chinese
crackdown in Tibet pushed Bhutan further toward India.
a treaty signed in 1910, Bhutan had agreed to accept British
guidance in its external relations, and the British had promised
not to interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs. In 1949, a
similar agreement was formalized with independent India, and
the relationship has been an intimate one ever since. Indian
engineers built and still maintain most of Bhutan's roads;
India finances 40 per cent of the Bhutan government's expenditure
and receives at least 80 per cent of Bhutan's exports. Bhutan's
emergence into the wider world has been marked by pragmatism
and caution, but since the 1970s there have been signs of
a desire to move out a little from under India's wing. Bhutan
joined the United Nations in 1971, the Non-Aligned Movement
in 1973 and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC) when it was formed in 1985. By March 1993, Bhutan
had joined over 150 international organizations, and 54 international
agencies were participating in its development programmes.
But Bhutan maintains only five embassies abroad (in Bangladesh,
India, Kuwait, and at the United Nations in Geneva and New
York) and only Bangladesh and India have embassies in Bhutan.
Caution is also evident in Bhutan's efforts to earn the maximum
amount of foreign currency from the minimum number of tourists.
of this paints a picture of a kingdom that is moving cautiously
and pragmatically out of its medieval isolation into the modern
world, while maintaining its unique culture and way of life
intact. However, since 1990 Bhutan has been engulfed in a
growing political crisis. This has led to the presence in
December 1993 of over 84,000 refugees in camps in Nepal administered
by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, to insecurity
and violence in southern Bhutan, and to the growth of a dissident
movement led by southern Bhutanese in exile who are demanding
radical changes in the kingdom's political system. How has
this come about?
1985, a new Citizenship Act stipulated that any one born in
Bhutan after 1958 who had only one Bhutanese parent had to
apply for citizenship, demonstrate fluency in Dzongkha, and
produce documentary evidence of 15 or 20 years' residence.
According to the government, a survey of the south had detected
large numbers of illegal immigrants. A census began to "identify
Bhutanese nationals" in the southern districts in 1988,
and led to unease because, according to refugees and exiles,
the authorities set excessively strict standards for documentation.
Many who could not provide documents that proved they resided
in Bhutan in 1958 were apparently classed as noncitizens,
regardless of whether or not they held citizenship cards.
is very difficult to discover whether or not massive illegal
immigration did take place after 1958, but after 1980 the
government seemed to revise its confident, inclusive attitude
to the Southerners and apparently decided that they were a
political threat. Perhaps this was partly because Sikkim had
lost its independence and become a Nepali-dominated state
of India in 1974, and India's Darjeeling district, right next
to Bhutan's border, erupted in a Nepali-led struggle for autonomy
between 1986 and 1988. Nepal's democracy movement, which reduced
the status of the king of Nepal to that of a constitutional
monarch in 1990, must have heightened the Drukpas' fears.
Sixth Five Year Plan (1987-1992) included a policy of 'one
nation, one people' and introduced a code of traditional Drukpa
dress and etiquette called Driglam Namza. This required all
citizens to wear the gho ( a one-piece tunic for men) and
the kira (an ankle- length dress for women) in ceremonial
and official contexts. The rule was applied over-zealously
at first; so much so that many Lhotshampas could not venture
out of their homes in their everyday attire without facing
the prospect of a fine or imprisonment. Then in 1989 the teaching
of Nepali was stopped in Bhutanese schools. According to the
Government, this became necessary because of the introduction
of a new primary curriculum, but it added to the Lhotshampas'
feeling that their culture was being pushed to one side.
was growing in the south because of what the Southerners thought
was an attempt by the government to force out Nepali-speaking
citizens, and to impose the Drukpa culture. In July1989, a
small group of dissidents, led by Tek Nath Rizal, a former
Royal Advisory Council member in Bhutan, set up the People's
Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) in Nepal. Between October and
December 1989, 45 people were arrested in Bhutan for writing
and circulating "seditious pamphlets." Six were
held for between 26 and 28 months before being released, and
Tek Nath Rizal is still imprisoned. The Bhutan People's Party
was formed by Nepali Bhutanese in India in June 1990. With
the PFHR, it organized mass public demonstrations in southern
Bhutan in September and October 1990 that were unprecedented
in the kingdom's history. The demonstrators submitted a list
of 13 demands for radical changes in the political system
as well as basic civil rights. It was alleged that both demonstrators
and security forces committed acts of violence. After the
demonstrations, the Bhutanese army and police began the task
of identifying participants and supporters, who were classed
as Ngolops (anti-nationals), and the flow of refugees out
of Bhutan began. It reached a peak in May 1992, with 11,000
arrivals recorded for that month in the camps in Nepal. The
refugees brought with them detailed allegations of torture,
brutality, and rape.
Bhutanese government rejects the refugees' allegations and
argues that it now faces a problem of terrorism in southern
Bhutan. Village leaders and officials have suffered intimidation,
facilities have been destroyed or damaged, there have been
a few instances of political assassination, and ordinary villagers
have been robbed and assaulted. However, while many crimes
of violence and robbery in the south are now blamed on ngolops
in Bhutan's only newspaper, it is not clear that all such
crimes are politically motivated. As the refugee camps began
to grow in 1991, Bhutan disclaimed responsibility, arguing
that the people in the camps were illegal immigrants, Nepali
nationals, migrants from India, or southern Bhutanese who
had left voluntarily. It cast doubt on the authenticity of
the citizenship documents still held by two-thirds of the
camp residents, and expressed the fear that a plot was afoot
to turn Bhutan into a Nepali dominated state. Representatives
of Nepal and Bhutan met several times to discuss the problem,
but their discussions were either fruitless or ended in bitter
first breakthrough occurred in July 1993, when a Nepali government
delegation visited Thimphu, Bhutan's capital. In a joint communique,
the two countries' home ministers announced that a joint committee
would be set up to "determine the different categories
of people in the refugee camps who are claiming to have come
from Bhutan," and to arrive at a "mutually acceptable
agreement on each category to provide a basis for the resolution
of the problem." The Bhutanese stated (in a document
published in May, 1993), "the royal government of Bhutan
will accept full responsibility, for a bonafide Bhutanese
national who has been forcibly evicted from Bhutan."
But clearly, many matters still need to be clarified if the
problem is to be resolved. Nor will any final resolution be
sustainable if it does not take full account of the fears
of the Drukpa Bhutanese, and of the grievances and aspirations
of their southern compatriots.
important development affecting the already imprisoned Tek
Nath Rizal occurred toward the end of 1993. On November 16,
Rizal received a life sentence for his political activities.
But on November 19, the king of Bhutan announced that Rizal
would be released as soon as Bhutan and Nepal had resolved
the refugee problem.