Capital: Thimphu
Population: 683,000

Political Rights Score: 4 *
Civil Liberties Score: 5 *
Status: Partly Free


Bhutan's new elected legislature passed several new laws in 2009, and declared an end to strict enforcement of cultural traditions such as the national dress code. While several thousand Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who were displaced in the 1990s have been resettled in other countries in recent years, 95,000 remain in camps in Nepal.

Britain began guiding Bhutan's affairs in 1865, and in 1907, the British helped install the Wangchuck dynasty. A 1949 treaty allowed newly independent India to assume Britain's role in conducting Bhutan's foreign and defense policies. In 1971, Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father as king.

Reversing its long-standing tolerance of cultural diversity, the government in the 1980s began imposing restrictions on Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, ostensibly to protect the culture of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. In 1988, the government began stripping thousands of Nepali speakers of their citizenship. The newly formed Bhutanese People's Party (BPP) responded in 1990 with sometimes violent demonstrations, prompting a government crackdown. Tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled or were expelled to Nepal in the early 1990s, with credible accounts suggesting that soldiers raped and beat many villagers and detained thousands as "antinationals."

As part of a major transition toward democracy led by the king, political parties were legalized in June 2007, and elections for an upper house of Parliament were held in two rounds, in December 2007 and January 2008. Elections for a lower house, the National Assembly, took place in March 2008. With voter turnout at about 80 percent, the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) won 45 of the 47 seats. A new constitution promulgated in July provided for some fundamental rights, but upheld the primacy of the monarchy, and analysts noted that it did not adequately protect the rights of Nepali speakers.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck formally succeeded his father as king in November 2008, although he had been in power since the outgoing king's abdication in 2006. The monarchy remains highly popular with the public, and many Bhutanese have expressed reservations about the shift toward democracy.

The new elected political institutions were relatively active in 2009, passing bills related to local governance, tobacco sales, and the police. In July, the National Assembly declared that Driglam Namzha (traditional etiquette) would no longer be strictly enforced, instead stipulating that cultural traditions such as the national dress code would be sustained through education alone.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Bhutan is not an electoral democracy, though the 2008 elections represented a significant step toward that status. A European Union (EU) monitoring team reported that the National Assembly elections "generally met international standards," although it noted problems with freedom of expression and association during the campaign. The new constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly, both serving five-year terms. The king appoints five members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king to serve as prime minister. The cabinet is nominated by the king and approved by the National Assembly. The king remains the head of state and appoints members of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the heads of national commissions. He can return legislation to the government with objections or amendments, but once it has been reconsidered and resubmitted, the king must sign it into law.

Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in 2007. Only two parties – the DPT and PDP, both of which have ties to the royal family – participated in the 2008 National Assembly elections. The parties do not differ significantly in policy goals. The constitution forbids parties based on sex, religion, language, or region, and a 2007 election law bars individuals without bachelor's degrees from participating in government. In November 2007 the election commission denied registration to the Bhutan People's United Party, commenting that it did not "have the capacity to fulfill ... national aspirations, visions and goals." Nine ethnic Nepali candidates were elected to office in 2008, although the EU monitors noted that a rule requiring candidates to obtain a security clearance certificate may have been an obstacle for some Nepalis.

The government operates with limited transparency and accountability, but steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), created in 2006, is tasked with investigating and preventing graft, and the Anti-Corruption Act, passed that year, also established protections for whistleblowers. However, police and local officials routinely ask for bribes. From 2006 through November 2009, the ACC fielded 2,073 complaints, with the majority related to corruption in local government. Of the 249 complaints that qualified for investigation, only 78 were actually investigated – the rest are pending review. In late 2008, the cabinet appointed a chief executive for Bhutan Post over the objections of the ACC, which uncovered corruption in the appointment process. Bhutan was ranked 49 of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The authorities restrict freedom of expression, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. A 2006 media law overhaul led to the establishment of two independent radio stations, but it did not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. Two independent weeklies, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer, were launched that year. Both papers, along with the state-owned Kuensel, generally publish progovernment articles but occasionally cover criticism of the government. A new paper, the Bhutan Daily, opened in October 2008. Cable television services, which air uncensored foreign programming, thrive in some areas but are hampered by a high sales tax and regulatory obstacles. A June 2009 decision by the National Assembly to discontinue live television broadcasts of its debates drew objections from Bhutanese press freedom advocates; National Council debates continue to be broadcast live. Shanti Ram Acharya, a journalist working for the Bhutan Reporter, a monthly published by refugees in Nepal, was sentenced to seven and half years in prison in January 2009. He had been arrested for alleged "subversive activities" while visiting Bhutan in 2007. The government claims that he was photographing an army outpost.

The constitution protects freedom of religion, and a 2007 election law bars any ordained religious figure or "religious personality" from voting or running for office. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion and reportedly receives various subsidies. A 9,287-member Monastic Body is the sole arbiter of religious matters, and monks also wield political influence. The religious services of the small Christian minority are reportedly often held out of sight to avoid harassment by the authorities, and permits for the construction of Hindu temples are apparently difficult to obtain. Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claim that the teaching of Nepali and Sanskrit is banned.

Freedoms of assembly and association are restricted. The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the government must approve the purpose of any protests. In recent years, security forces have arrested Southern Bhutanese refugees based in Nepal who entered Bhutan to demonstrate for the right to return home.

NGOs that work on human rights, the refugee issue, or other sensitive matters are not legally allowed to operate. The 2007 Civil Society Organization Act requires all new NGOs to register with the government. The constitution guarantees freedom of association, but only for groups "not harmful to the peace and unity of the country." Several NGOs are currently operating, with the majority focusing on women's rights or environmental issues. The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes, though some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. A 2007 labor and employment law prohibits forced labor, child labor, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

The 2007 Judicial Service Act created an independent Judicial Service Council to control judicial appointments and promotions. Courts are also now required to make decisions within a year, and citizens are guaranteed legal counsel in court cases. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern, and dozens of political prisoners continue to serve lengthy sentences.

Prior to the mass expulsions of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, the government had stripped thousands of their citizenship under a 1985 law that required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens. Individuals also had to prove that they or both of their parents resided in Bhutan in 1958. While the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that the overwhelming majority of refugees have proof of Bhutanese nationality, the government maintains that many left voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. The refugees live in extremely poor conditions in Nepal. Even if permitted to reenter Bhutan, ethnic Nepalis would face a difficult citizenship process and would not be compensated for lost property. The government has also sought to settle Bhutanese from the north in lands formerly occupied by the refugees. A resettlement process aimed at transferring the refugees to third countries including the United States began in 2008, but it was reported in June 2009 that approximately 95,000 ethnic Nepalis remained in refugee camps.

According to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, ethnic Nepalis living in Bhutan must obtain certificates verifying that they do not present a threat to the state in order to enter schools, receive health care, take government jobs, or travel within the country or abroad. Schools in the south restrict even Nepali speakers with certificates. Bhutan's first private college, the Royal Thimphu College, opened in July 2009.

The Bhutanese Communist Party, modeled on Nepal's Maoist party and dominated by Nepali refugees, has launched an armed struggle to overthrow the monarchy, and a number of bomb attacks were reported in 2008. The Bhutanese group has received training and supplies from Indian separatist groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which reportedly operates from guerrilla bases in southern Bhutan. There were no reports of major attacks or deaths in 2009.

Restrictions on dress and cultural practices were imposed in the late 1980s in an attempt to safeguard Bhutan's heritage. However, the National Assembly in 2009 declared that cultural traditions should no longer be enforced, but instead sustained only through education.

Women participate freely in social and economic life but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics, despite some recent gains. The application of religious or ethnically based customary laws regarding inheritance, marriage, and divorce sometimes results in discrimination against women. There are no reports that trafficking of women or children is a problem in Bhutan.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This 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.