Royal repression in Bhutan

Issue 

By Stephen Robson

NEW DELHI — Bhutan, a tiny country in the north-eastern part of the Himalayas, has a population now estimated at around 1.3 million. Since 1988, some 125,000 have become refugees from the brutal regime.

Bhutan is ruled by an absolute hereditary monarchy, established in 1907. Apart from a period of constitutional monarchy from 1969 to 1973, Bhutan has never had a democratically elected government. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has occupied the throne since 1974.

There is no written constitution or bill of rights. There is no independence of the judiciary or freedom of the media. Formation of associations, unions and organisations is prohibited.

The Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas population in southern Bhutan has been the main target of government repression. The rulers come from the Ngalongs, a people of Tibetan Mongoloid origin residing primarily in the north west of the country whose culture is known as Drukpa.

Bhutan is a ethnically diverse society. The "Drukpanisation" policy of the government attempted to eradicate all non-Drukpa culture, language, religion and dress.

Ganesh Subedi, the general secretary of the Youth Organisation of Bhutan, told Green Left Weekly, "In southern Bhutan, in an attempt to destroy the language, all the books were confiscated and burnt, and they forced the people to speak the Drukpa language."

In response, the Lhotshampas people began to organise a pro-democracy and human rights movement.

Under the banner of the Bhutan Peoples Party a peaceful demonstration was organised in September 1990. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of people participated in the demonstrations all over Bhutan on the same day.

A deputation of the leaders of the movement went to see the king to put their demands, but they were arrested. Following this, in fighting more than 400 people were killed and many arrested.

Subedi's family has been directly affected. Government troops came to his house, but "I was warned, and I managed to escape. I left the country but then they came to my house and they arrested my dad. They said to my father 'You have sent your son to the party, to the movement. Unless you call your son back, we are not going to release you.'"

They subsequently arrested his three brothers as well.

"So for the last four years, four of my family are in prison and we don't know their whereabouts."

In May 1992, 41 political prisoners were placed on trial in the High Court. Appeals by Amnesty International to send observers were ignored. The prisoners were found guilty of treason and sentenced to prison terms from nine months to life.

Following this, an exodus began, with most refugees taking shelter in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The Indian government provided no protection and little relief, with the result that many refugees began to move to Nepal.

The Citizenship Act of 1985 arbitrarily deprives many Lhotshampas of citizenship. Those who had migrated to Bhutan before 1958 could become citizens, but "some of these people didn't have documentation", Subedi explained.

Eighty per cent of foreign aid to Bhutan comes from India. Subedi explained that the foreign policy of the royal government of Bhutan is "totally controlled by India".