Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 July 2015, 09:04 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bhutan : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bhutan : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 29 July 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The name 'Bhutan' appears to have been derived from the Sanskrit phraseology 'Bhu-Uttan' meaning 'High Land'; Bhutan's environment and geography confirms the reasons for such a name. Bhutan is a small mountainous land-locked, Buddhist kingdom located in the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, squeezed between India and China. Bhutan borders the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh to the east, Assam and West Bengal to the south, and Sikkim to the south-west. To the north, Bhutan borders Tibet, ruled by China. The whole of the State is mountainous with the exception of 13-16 km wide strip of subtropical plains in the south, where are valleys known as the Duras. Thimphu is the largest city of Bhutan and is also its capital.


Main languages: Dzongkha (national language)

Main religions: Buddhism (state religion), Hinduism

Main minority groups: Nepali-speakers (35%), indigenous and others (15%) CIA World Factbook, 2007.

Over the years there has been a process of official downgrading of population. An official census conducted in April 2002, provides a figure of 672,425 and a more recent census puts it at 554,000. Bhutan is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia, with only 20 per cent of the population living in urban areas.

Four ethnic groups – Ngalong, Sarchop, Kheng and Nepali-speakers – make up 98 per cent of the population. Ngalongs, Sarchops and Khengs are all adherents to the drukpa kargyud school of Mahayana Buddhism, although each has a distinct identity as well. Ngalongs are people of western Bhutan and of Tibetan origin; they form the ruling and social elite.

Dzongkha, Bhutan's national language, is derived from Ngalong speech and has been imposed on the entire country since 1988. Sarchops are possibly the earliest settlers of Bhutan and share the same religion as the Ngalong, but they have their ethnic roots in Arunachal Pradesh and are of Indo-Mongoloid rather than Tibetan descent. Khengs are inhabitants of central Bhutan and may be indigenous people of Bhutan. All three groups are culturally integrated to some extent.

Numerous other ethnic groups are present in Bhutan on a much smaller scale, including Adivasi, Birmi, Brokpa, Doya, Lepcha, Tibetan and Toktop. These smaller groups, though adding great diversity to Bhutan's ethnic make-up, represent approximately 10 per cent of the total population.

Nepali-speakers are a mostly Hindu ethnic group, predominantly based in the south of Bhutan and called lhotshampa, literally southern border people, by the drukpa.

Although no reliable figures are available, it is estimated that at least a third of the population of Bhutan comprises Nepali-speaking people, a proportion that has increased in recent decades. Despite their growing numbers, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese have been the victims of persecution in recent times.


Bhutan is the stronghold of the drukpa kargyud school of Mahayana Buddhism, the state religion. The different peoples who follow the sect are collectively known as the drukpa, though this label is also used to refer to all of the people of Bhutan. The diverse ethnic groups who are drukpa Buddhists are a combination of the earliest inhabitants of the country and the immigrant Tibetan and Mongoloid peoples who settled in Bhutan as late as the tenth and eleventh centuries.

From the seventeenth century, when the foundation of present-day Bhutan was carved out of the smaller holdings of local religious and secular strongmen, to the beginning of the twentieth century, Bhutan was a theocracy ruled by the reincarnate shabdrung, a temporal and spiritual Buddhist leader, similar to Tibet's Dalai Lama. The British, whilst in control of the British India Company and subsequently colonial masters of India maintained an interest in the affairs of Bhutan. Territorial interests in the region led to Duar War (1864-5) between Bhutan and British India. The end of the war resulted in the treaty of cession of the Duars to British India and a recognition of Great Britain control over Bhutan's foreign, a position that was sustained even after the promulgation of the hereditary monarchy of Wangchuck dynasty in 1907. With the independence of India from British Control, Bhutan has remain close allied with India, primarily to foreclose any Chinese territorial encroachments.

Bhutan represents a country which is isolated from the remaining world, and heavy regulations and heavy state controls have resulted in very limited foreign influences. Plagued by local feuds and instability, the shabdrung's government was supplanted by the current hereditary monarchy of the Wangchuck dynasty. Ugyen Wangchuck, who founded the Wangchuck dynasty, was unanimously chosen as the King in 1907 by an Assembly of Buddhist monks, heads of important families and other officials.


The foundations for a democratically governed Bhutan were laid down by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is 1953 formed a legislative National Assembly. A Cabinet government with a consultative status was established in 1963. Despite the constitutional changes, the King nevertheless retained absolute legislative and administrative powers. In 1971, Bhutan was admitted formally to the United Nations. In 1972 King Jigme Singye, who succeed his father to throne at the age of 16, was the fourth of the Wangchuck line to occupy the throne. It was only during the 1980's that Bhutan's treatment of its citizens and in particular its Nepali-speaking population became a matter of international concern. In its efforts to curb, Nepali influences, the Bhutanese government introduced draconian laws such as wearing of the Northern Bhutanese dress in public places and enforcing Dzongkha as the National language upon all Bhutanese people. The implementation of the 1985 Citizenship Act excluded thousands of Nepal-speakers from claiming Bhutanese nationality, and resulting in policy of condemnation of these minorities either as illegal immigrants or refugees with Bhutan. Talks began on the refugee and immigration question in November 1992 between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, but the negotiations made little headway. The Bhutanese government refused to recognize Nepali-speakers as citizens, asserting that only a small number could be legitimately resettled in Bhutan.

Further attempts were made to resolve the crisis through mediation and deliberation. King Jigme Singye of Bhutan and the prime minister of Nepal discussed the matter in Dhaka in April 1993, and further talks in July 1993 led to the establishment of a joint ministerial committee with the mandate to (1) determine the different categories of people claiming to have come from Bhutan in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal; (2) specify the position of the two governments on each of these categories; and (3) arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement on each of these categories as a basis for the resolution of the problem.

The joint committee had its first sitting in 1993 in Kathmandu and agreed to categorize the refugee population into four groups: (1) bona-fide Bhutanese forcibly evicted; (2) Bhutanese who emigrated; (3) non-Bhutanese; and (4) Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. No agreement was reached about the criteria or the mechanism to be used to decide which categories people would be placed in.

Nepal showed concern for the plight of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, but was not in a position to keep the refugees indefinitely in its territory. Despite Nepal's requests to India to exert diplomatic pressure on the Government of Bhutan to facilitate the return of the refugees, India refrained from becoming directly involved in the matter. One hundred and fifty Bhutanese refugees were arrested by West Bengal police in January 1996 when they attempted to cross from Nepal into India. In June 2003, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal devised a plan for screening process to identify refugee status based on a pilot verification process of 12,000. The results of this plan, however were unacceptable since it would allow less than 3 per cent of the existing population to claim bona fide Bhutanese nationality.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In the absence of a written constitution providing for fundamental human rights, the overall position of minorities within Bhutan remains precarious. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan maintains a despotic autocracy; those campaigning for democratic reforms and the repatriation of refugees (from Nepal) are condemned as 'terrorist and anti-national' elements. The primary minority, ethnic Nepalese, continued to claim that they have suffered from forced expulsions and non-rehabilitation in their native lands, and discrimination in civil service and public-sector employment – claims rejected by the government. There are currently over 100,000 Bhutanese who have been forced to become refugees in the bordering Nepal. Almost all of these are ethnic Nepalese, who were stripped off their nationality by the new Bhutanese Citizenship Law. These refugees, while desperate to return to their homes, have put forward substantial claims of mass torture, persecution and repression by Bhutan's security forces. In what it perceives as efforts to maintain a Buddhist national identity, the government of Bhutan also carried on with a policy of compulsory wearing of traditional Buddhist dress for both men and women of Bhutanese nationality (including minorities) while in public places. During 2005-2006, this law was rigorously applied, in particular for those visiting Buddhist religious buildings, schools and monasteries, and those participating in official functions and public ceremonies.

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