Human rights in Bhutan tends not to be a subject often brought up. In fact there’s every chance you have either never heard of the country, or that if you have what you’ve been told is pretty much a fairylale. Known as “The Land of The Thunder Dragon”, the country is famous for its adherence to Buddhism, the benign King and that it measures “gross domestic happiness”.
Sadly many Bhutanese, particularly the Lhotshampa are not all that happy, with human rights violations galore and a general population that want a lot more freedom than they are being allowed.
The Kingdom of Bhutan
The Bhutanese managed to remain largely independent of the UK, despite being on the doorstep of British India, but much like Nepal fell under a form of suzerainty. The late 1800’s saw much infighting before the modern Kingdom and its reigning line came to power in 1907.
Despite its position, it like Nepal and Sikkim managed to maintain independence, with Bhutan in fact being the first country to recognize India. Their neighbor to the south though was to take a principal role in the defense and foreign affairs of the Kingdom, with a form of suzerainty continuing.
Bhutan itself also started to “develop” during this time, with a rubber-stamp legislature being introduced in 1953, with further reforms continuing until the country was admitted to the United Nations in 1971.
Despite these cosmetic reforms the country for all intents was to remain not only a full absolute dictatorship, but also a country largelly cut off from the world until the 2000’s
The Begrudged Modernization of Bhutan
Things finally began to change in the 1990’s with the introduction of television the internet and a move to a constitutional monarchy.
Yet while these moves are generally painted as cute and in the same way the west loves to deify the noble savages, they came because the people didn’t want to be players in some theatrical performance, but wanted actual development.
This led to King Jigme Singye Wangchuck stating it was “a critical step to the modernisation of Bhutan as well as a major contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Happiness” – this was in 1999 making it the last nation on earth to allow TV and the internet, two things the King and the nobility of course already enjoyed.
And as for Gross Domestic Happiness?
Watch shorts on YouTube, TikTok, or read anything about Bhutan on social media and you will learn that they measure Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH), rather than Gross Domestic Product (GNP).
This has led many to erroneously state that the Bhutanese are some of the “happiest people on earth”, with me once even stating this to a United Nations worker, who quickly corrected me with “No, Bhutan is really not that happy”.
Sadly measuring GDH is much measuring how much money you have. If you are poor, you are poor, counting does not make it any better.
In 2019 the last time Bhutan were measured they were found to be the 95th happiest country on earth, so not at all that happy and somewhat pissing on the western obsession with the happy monks and the the people wearing their traditional clothes in the country.
When I have pointed this out to people I have had many retorts that is still “nice” that they do it. In fact it is just misdirection to allow the government to act in the “best interests” of GDH, without push back on what is actually right.
The end of the absolute monarchy
In December 2005 the King adopted a new draft constitution, with elections held in 2006 and 2007. He then abdicated so his son King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a young “modernizer” could take over and the country converted to a constitutional monarchy.
Now whilst this might seem very magnanimous to the outsider, with the west often extolling how popular the royal family is, in fact it was more about pragmatism. Neighbors Nepal had been locked into a brutal civil war with Maoists, and had lost to them. The monarchy then literally and figuratively shot itself not just in the foot, but the face too. Nepal had brutally overthrown its monarchy and on the face of it at least was now a communist Democratic Republic.
To read about Nepal failing at communism click here
The Bhutanese royals not only wanted to stay in power, but also fight the real battle, the one against the stateless Bhutanese known as the Lhotshampa, or as Bhutan call them “Nepalese immigrants”. These were and always had been seen as 5th columnists within the country and Bhutan wanted them gone.
To read about the Bhutanese Maoists click here
Human Rights in Bhutan and the Lhotshampa problem
Much like the Burmese call the Rohingya “Bengali immigrants” and then deny them human rights, so too do the Bhutanese with the Lhotshampa. Of course you will scarcely hear, or read about this, but it does not make it any less true. Genocide by an unfriendly regime gets noticed, gross violations of human rights by an ally does not..
The Lhotshampa are essentially migrants from Nepal, but ones that moved there over generations since the 1800’s, which spiked in the 1960’s when workers were needed for Bhutanese development.
Things were seemingly OK during the 70’s and early 80’s, but beneath the surface racism was starting to brew and this led to good old fashioned xenophobia. A nationality law stating both of your parents had to be Bhutanese citizens was introduced, specifically aimed at the Lhotshampa. Were a law like this to be introduced in the UK for example it would throw millions into statelessness and would cause world condemnation.
Bhutan essentially did not want Nepalese Hindus screwing up their Buddhist state. Now here we have a Woke paradox. Many would argue that Bhutan were and are right to do this to preserve their culture, but is that not exactly the case for Orban in Hungary? You really cannot have it both ways. This is again playing to romanticized views of the noble savage, rather than the reality of equality of man.
And how did they deal with the problem? They expelled over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, making them stateless and denying them even the most basic of human rights.
The Lhotshampa though have fought back, both through a Maoist insurgency, but also through the moderate Bhutan Peoples Party, a party long illegal and formed prior to the end of the absolute monarchy and modern political parties within the party.
Some have since now left, or have rather been resettled by western governments, keen for whatever reason to not make the Bhutanese government look bad, or perhaps due to fear a unified Bhutan would lean towards China. Whatever the reason though, these people were not and will never be allowed to live in the place they call home.
Yet despite this, tens of thousands not only still remain stateless, but there are still up to 100 political prisoners being held in Bhutanese jails, many who have been there for decades. Anywhere else in the world this would rightly be called ethnic cleansing, but here it is treated as “protection of culture” all under the veil of the peaceful Buddhist religion. Keep in mind also the furor over “cultural genocide” in Tibet and the coverage it gets in comparison to this.
Ironically too and much like Myanmar these problems were not solved by moving towards democracy either. Instead democratic voices have merely amplified the xenophobia.
Contemporary Human Rights in Bhutan
So, whilst visiting Bhutan is indeed a beautiful thing, the fact that the country forces its people to wear traditional dress and limits the amount of foreigners that can visit the country is regularly lauded by outsiders for how good it is. Sadly regular citizens do not exactly see it that way.
Many while dressing conservatively in the day change into fashionable western clothes to go out to secret parties at night and want to see development, rather than a deliberate retardation of progress.
As one of our local minders put it “Yes we want to retain our culture, but we also want more tourism and to be able to develop like other countries. If we are measuring happiness, the government needs to help provide more to actually make us happy”
Yet while the nation remains this very Tibet like Buddhist stereotype that the west dotes over, it gives the Kingdom carte blanche to continue repressing its people, denying citizenship to a huge swathe of its population and ignoring basic human rights in Bhutan.