Bhutan's Crisis of Identity
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Bhutan's Crisis of Identity

by Pro. Michael Hutt

 

Introduction

Peoples of Bhutan

Indian Connection

Seeds of Conflict

Political Unrest

Refugee Problem

 

 

Introduction

 

The 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.

 

Bhutan, 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 this fact.

Bhutan 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 into Tibet.
Since 1907, Bhutan has been ruled by four kings of the Wangchuck line; the present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began his reign in 1972.

The Peoples of Bhutan

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 language.

The 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 with caution.

Bhutan's 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.

The Indian Connection

Bhutan's 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.

In 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.

Seeds of Conflict

All 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?

In 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.

It 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.

Bhutan's 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.

Political Unrest

Dissent 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.

The refugee problem

The 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 disagreement.

The 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.

An 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. 

 
 
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