U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Bhutan

BHUTAN[1]*     The Wangchuck dynasty of hereditary monarchs has ruled Bhutan since 1907. Located in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, the small Kingdom has been able to escape domination by any external power since the 10th century. There is no written constitution or bill of rights. King Jigme Sinhye Wangchuck, on the throne since 1972, has continued some efforts toward social and political modernization begun by his father. However, in the past half-decade government efforts to repress ethnic Nepalese has sidetracked further progress. Buddhist citizens fear for the survival of their culture and identity because of the rapid growth of the Nepalese segment of the population. Buddhists constitute one-half to two-thirds of the population and generally inhabit the northern areas of the Kingdom. About one-third of the population, living mostly in the southern districts, is Hindu of Nepalese origin. The Royal Bhutan Police, a force of about 5,000, assisted by the Royal Bhutan Army, with approximately 7,000 lightly armed men, and a militia of about 10,000, maintains internal security. These forces have committed gross human rights abuses against ethnic Nepalese in the past, and the Government has failed to prosecute those responsible. An estimated 90 percent of Bhutan's 600,000 population live in rural areas on subsistence agriculture in a mainly barter economy and are largely illiterate. India is Bhutan's main trading partner and principal source of foreign exchange. The human rights situation improved slightly, but many basic rights remain restricted. There was insufficient information to determine if the Government continued to sanction the expulsion of ethnic Nepalese. These people continued to arrive in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, although in much lower numbers than in the past few years. Some refugees claim that they were evicted by security forces. From 1989 to 1992, Bhutanese authorities forcibly expelled tens of thousands of people declared to be illegal immigrants under the 1985 Citizenship Act. Other rights are also restricted. The citizens do not have the right to change their government, and there are significant limitations on the right to a fair trial, peaceful association and assembly, and on worker rights. Traditional cultural practices discriminate against women.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no independent confirmations of political or extrajudicial killings. However, the government-controlled weekly newspaper continued to describe dozens of incidents in which unidentified men staged hit-and-run attacks on civilians living in the south, resulting in some deaths. Many attacks, described by the Government as political terrorism, appear to have been the work of criminal gangs taking advantage of unsettled conditions on the border with India.

b. Disappearance

From 1989-92, police and army forces arrested thousands of ethnic Nepalese suspected of supporting the dissident movement. Some have been held in incommunicado detention; others have disappeared. The Government has denied responsibility for any disappearances. In the past few years, the Government released from detention at least 1,666 ethnic Nepalese under official amnesties, including 23 on February 22. Among those amnestied in February was Deo Dutta Sharma, a student leader who says he was abducted by the Royal Bhutan Police from the Indian state of West Bengal in December 1989. After his release, Sharma claimed he was held in solitary confinement for the first 3 years of his detention.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

According to local human rights groups, allegations of torture and rape in southern Bhutan decreased at the end of 1993. However, there was little evidence of that the Government investigated or punished security force officials implicated in the widespread abuses reported during 1989-1992. Government forces committed these abuses in southern Bhutan as part of an effort to reduce the presence of ethnic Nepalese (see Section 5). This policy created a climate of impunity in which the Government tacitly condoned the physical abuse of ethnic Nepalese. The Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB), the People's Forum for Human Rights, Bhutan (PFHRB), and the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center (SAHRDC) published dozens of affidavits from victims of rape and torture who fled to refugee camps in Nepal. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) in Nepal are providing rehabilitation services to victims of torture among those refugees. Following the 1990 disturbances and mass arrests, prison conditions had been poor, with inadequate sanitation, unhealthy food, and endemic overcrowding which reportedly resulted in the deaths of detainees. Responding to urging from Amnesty International (AI), the Government ended the use of shackles in 1992. Representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began visiting prisons in 1993. The opening of a new prison camp in Chemgang and the release of more than 1,600 detainees contributed to some improvement in conditions of detention.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Arbitrary arrest and detention remain a problem but are not routinely used as a form of harassment. The law does not provide for protection against arbitrary arrest. There are few established procedures for processing detainees. These shortcomings in the criminal justice system leave the authorities ample room for abuse. The authorities may arrest persons without warrants and detain them for weeks before they are brought before a judicial officer. Delay in informing family members of an arrest is commonplace. Incommunicado detention was a serious problem in 1991 and 1992, but the initiation of ICRC prison visits and establishment of an ICRC mail service between detainees and family members has helped to allay this problem."Terrorists" caught by village volunteers are generally held in detention camps in southern Bhutan before they are transferred to prison facilities near the capital. In many cases, the detention of accused "antinationals," a term the Government uses to describe some ethnic Nepalese dissidents, is arbitrarily prolonged. At mid-year, the authorities detained some 165 detainees on charges related to political unrest in southern Bhutan. Many have been awaiting trial for nearly 4 years. Although the Government does not formally use exile a form of punishment, many of the accused "antinationals" freed under government amnesties say they were released on the condition that they depart the country. Several of them subsequently registered at camps in Nepal funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system consists of district courts and a High Court in Thimpu with judges appointed by the Royal Civil Service Commission. Minor offenses and administrative matters are adjudicated by village headmen. Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated under a 17th century legal code, revised in 1965, which applies to all citizens regardless of ethnic origin. Judges are accountable to the King are responsible for all aspects of a case, including investigation, filing of charges, prosecution, and judgment. Defendants have the right to appeal to the High Court, and may make a final appeal to the King, who traditionally delegates the decision to the Royal Advisory Council. The legal system does not provide for jury trials or the right to a court-appointed defense attorney, although it does allow for the appointment of a "jambi," a person trained in the law, if the defendant so desires. Defendants are not presented with written charges; instead they answer to accusations made orally. Questions of family law, such as marriage, divorce, and adoption are resolved according to a citizen's religion: Buddhist law for the majority Buddist population; and Hindu law, which predominates in areas inhabited by ethnic Nepalese. The Government tried and convicted about 40 people over the past 2 years on charges of treason and other "antinational" activities related to ethnic Nepalese resistance to the 1985 Citizenship Act and its enforcement by the Government. In addition, some or all of the 129 persons detained in Chemgang Prison in connection with anti-national activities may be political prisoners. Tek Nath Rizal, an ethnic Nepalese and internationally recognized political prisoner, remained in prison following his 1993 conviction under the National Security Act.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

There are no laws providing for these rights, but cultural traditions are highly respectful of personal privacy. However, the Government has undermined these traditions by its emphasis on promoting national integration. For example, a royal decree issued in 1989 made Drukpa national dress compulsory for all citizens. Anyone found violating the decree may be fined or sentenced to jail for a week. Although observance of the decree is lax, there are occasional drives to stiffen enforcement, which exposes ethnic Nepalese to intimidation. According to human rights groups, police regularly conduct house-to-house searches for suspected dissidents without explanation or legal justification.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

With an adult literacy rate around 30 percent, Bhutan's population is relatively uninfluenced by the print media. Kuensel, the Government's weekly newspaper, with a circulation of 10,000, is the country's only regular publication. The authorities allow indirect criticism of the King in the National Assembly and Kuensel sometimes covers such criticism. Indian and other foreign newspapers are available, but authorities confiscate and censor editions carrying articles critical of the royal family or government policies. Bhutan has no television broadcast service. In 1989 the Government ordered the dismantlement of all private television antennas and satellite receiving dishes. The government radio station broadcasts each day in the four major national languages (Dzongkha, the language of the western highlands; Nepali, English; and Sharchop). At the end of 1990, the Government banned the Nepali language as a medium of instruction in Bhutanese schools.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

These freedoms are restricted. Citizens may engage in peaceful assembly and association only for purposes approved by the Government. Although the Government allows civic and business organizations, there are no political parties. The Government regards two parties organized by ethnic Nepalese exiles--the the BPP and BNDP--as "terrorist and antinational" organizations and has declared them illegal. The parties do not conduct activities inside the country. The BNDP advocates a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. The BPP seeks an ethnic Nepalese government. A third exile-based opposition party, the Druk National Congress, was launched in mid-1994 by reform-minded persons of the Drukpa elite.

c. Freedom of Religion

Buddhism is the state religion. The Government subsidizes monasteries and shrines and provides aid to about a third of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. The monastic establishment enjoys statutory representation in the National Assembly and Royal Advisory Council and is an influential voice on public policy. Citizens of other faiths, mostly Hindus, enjoy freedom of worship but may not proselytize. Under the law, conversions are illegal. The King has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays, and the royal family participates in them. Foreign missionaries are not permitted to proselytize, but international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests are active in education and humanitarian activities.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Some citizens enjoy considerable freedom of movement, but many reports indicate that ethnic Nepalese face travel restrictions within Bhutan. The southern border with India is open, and people residing in the immediate vicinity cross it freely. The Government has informally limited the admission of tourists to 4,000 a year, a limit which includes Indians who enter the country by airplane or stay in hotels. There were 2,985 such arrivals in 1993. By treaty, citizens may reside and work in India.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Bhutan is an absolute monarchy, with sovereign power vested in the King. The Government has resisted democratic changes. Decisionmaking is centered in the royal palace and involves only a small number of officials in the civil and religious establishment. Although the present King and his father have made some attempts to integrate women and ethnic Nepalese into the body politic, the system is still dominated by the male members of an aristocracy of Mahayana Buddhist ancestry. Political parties do not legally exist, and their formation is discouraged by the Government. The Government prohibits two parties established by abroad by ethnic Nepalese (see Section 2.b.). The National Assembly, established in 1953, is composed of 105 members elected by limited franchise: by village headmen in Buddhist areas and heads of families in Hindu areas. Twelve members of the Assembly are elected by monastic establishments and 33 members are high-level government officials appointed by the King. The Assembly enacts laws, approves senior government appointments, and advises the King on matters of national importance. Voting is by secret ballot, with a simple majority needed to pass a measure. The King may not formally veto legislation, but may return bills for further consideration. The Assembly occasionally rejects the King's recommendations or delays implementing them, but in general, the King has enough influence to persuade the Assembly to approve legislation he considers essential or to withdraw proposals he opposes. The Assembly may question government officials and force them to resign by a two-thirds vote of no confidence.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government does not allow local human rights groups. At least three groups established by ethnic Nepalese exiles, HUROB, PFHRB, and the Association of Human Rights Activists-Bhutan (AHURA), operate abroad and take depositions from ethnic Nepalese refugees arriving in Nepal (see Section 1.c.). The Government accuses these groups of working for the opposition and does not permit them in Bhutan. These groups also conduct international campaigns to put pressure on the government and provide human rights education in the refugee camps. However, they rarely report violations committed by dissident political groups. The Government continued to cooperate with humanitarian groups. ICRC representatives continued their periodic prison visits, and the Government for the first time allowed them access to temporary detention facilities in the south, an area inhabited by ethnic Nepalese. The Government also allowed a visit by a team from Refugees International, which traveled widely in the south.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


Bhutan has not developed a rigid caste system or customs that sequester or disenfranchise women. Family land is divided equally between sons and daughters, and dowry is not practiced, even among ethnic Nepalese Hindus. A study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that boys and girls receive equal treatment regarding nutrition and health care. This equality is reflected in data showing little difference in child mortality rates between the sexes. UNICEF found that among Among urban dwellers, girls are given "equal or nearly equal opportunities" to pursue education. However, government data indicate that girls account for only about 40 percent of the school population nationwide. Although traditional cultural patterns place girls in a lower status than boys, girls are still cherished, as women generally care for parents in old age. The sexes mix freely, and polygyny is sanctioned as long as the first wife gives her permission. Marriages may be arranged by partners themselves as well as by their parents. Divorce is common. Recent legislation requires that all marriages must be registered and favors women in matters of alimony. About 10 percent of government employees are women. Women in unskilled jobs are generally paid less than men. Rape was made a criminal offense in 1953, but that law had weak penalties and was poorly enforced. In 1993 the National Assembly adopted a revised Rape Act with clear definitions of criminal sexual assault and stronger penalties. In cases of rape involving minors, reportedly a growing problem, sentences range from 5 to 17 years. In extreme cases, a rapist may be imprisoned for life.


Children enjoy a privileged position in society and benefit from international development programs focused on maternal and child welfare. There is no known pattern of societal abuse against children.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic Nepalese arrived in Bhutan in large numbers at the turn of the century. The Citizenship Law of 1958 granted citizenship to all ethnic Nepalese adults who owned land and had lived in Bhutan for at least 10 years (also see Section 2.d.). However, the Government maintains that large-scale illegal immigration continued and was not detected until the 1988 census. The discovery that ethnic Nepalese were close to becoming a majority prompted the Government to launch an aggressive campaign to reassert Bhutanese, or Drukpa, culture, restrict immigration, and expel many ethnic Nepalese. The ruling elite feared that Bhutan's Buddhist society would be overwhelmed by the Hindu ethnic Nepalese--as happened in neighboring Sikkim, which was annexed by India in 1974. Early efforts at halting the unfavorable demographic trends focused on limiting immigration and attempting to assimilate the existing ethnic Nepalese. Attempts at assimilation included financial incentives for intermarriage, education for some students in regions other than their own, and direction of economic development funds to the south. By 1989 assimilation gave way to policies aimed at "Bhutanization." Measures intended to preserve a national identity required the wearing of Bhutanese dress, made the teaching of Dzongkha compulsory, and banned instruction in Nepali. Beginning in early 1988, the Government sought to reduce the ethnic Nepalese population by enforcing a 1985 law that significantly tightened the requirements for citizenship. Until 1985, citizenship was confered upon children if their father was a citizen under the 1958 Nationality Law. However, the 1985 act raised this standard by requiring that both parents must be citizens to confer citizenship on their children. The Government declared as illegal immigrants all residents who could not meet the new requirement. Residents who lost their citizenship under the 1985 act may apply for naturalization, but only after satisfying a rigorous set of standards that include proficiency in the Dzongkha language and proof of residence during the previous 15 years. Exile political groups complain the law makes unfair demands for documentation on largely illiterate people in a country that has only recently adopted basic administrative procedures. They claim many ethnic Nepalese whose families have been in Bhutan for generations were expelled because they were unable to document their claims to residence. The Government denies this and asserts that the word of village leaders is an acceptable substitute for written documentation. Refugee groups claim that village elders are not present when citizenship interviews are carried out. The 1985 Citizenship Act also stipulates the revocation of citizenship of any naturalized citizen who "has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the King, country and people of Bhutan." The Home Ministry, in a circular notification in 1990, advised that "any Bhutanese national leaving the country to assist and help the antinationals shall no longer be considered as a Bhutanese citizen ... such people's family members living under the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship." Human rights groups charge this provision was widely used to revoke the citizenship of ethnic Nepalese who were subsequently exiled from southern Bhutan. Arrivals of refugees in the eight camps run by the UNHCR and its cooperating agencies in Nepal peaked during 1992. By mid-1994, arrivals had fallen to slightly more than 60 per month, reflecting a significant decrease in the number of families emigrating from Bhutan. Independent NGO's reported that many of the refugees arriving in Nepal in 1994 had unquestioned Bhutanese citizenship and made no claims of political persecution in Bhutan. Most of the arrivals reported that they departed Bhutan because of the depopulation in the southern districts, a heightened sense of apprehension and insecurity, and the desire to be reunited with family members already in Nepal. A group of 284 who arrived in April was reportedly composed of bona fide Bhutanese citizens who left because of a land dispute. By May 83,817 refugees were registered in the UNHCR camps, of whom about 66,000 arrived in 1992. Between 5,000 and 15,000 other refugees are believed to have settled with family members in India. The total outflow of approximately 100,000 people in 2 years is equal to about 15 percent of Bhutan's population. The Government maintains that those who have been expelled are Nepalese or Indian citizens who arrived in Bhutan after the enactment of the 1958 Nationality Law. It also claims the majority of those in Nepal departed Bhutan voluntarily after selling their land and property. Nonetheless, there are credible reports that these "voluntary" emigrants were compelled to sign away their property by government officials. A Nepal-Bhutan joint ministerial committee met in February, April, and June to discuss ways to determine which refugees might be entitled to return to Bhutan. These discussions achieved little progress. As concern spread about the growing refugee population in Nepal, international pressure mounted on the Government. In response, the Government tried to reduce the outflow of migrants from southern Bhutan. The Government issued a royal decree which made the forcible eviction of a citizen a criminal offense. Three government officials were convicted on charges of intimidating ethnic Nepalese. The decree also exempted ethnic Nepalese from paying rural taxes and contributing labor for development projects in 1992. However, the exodus had gained momentum and by early 1994 visitors reported that much of southern Bhutan had become depopulated (see Section 2.d.)By law southerners may own land and establish business in the north, and northerners have the same right in the south. Nonetheless, it is reportedly still difficult for ethnic Nepalese, except government officials, to buy property in Buddhist areas. Residents are required to provide certificates issued by the police for admission to school and government jobs. For example, a February 16 advertisement in the national newspaper required a police certificate from students seeking to enter a government-supported training course. Human rights groups claim these certificates are used to prevent ethnic Nepalese citizens from taking jobs or educational slots in many districts of Bhutan. Exiles student groups accuse the Government of revoking the scholarships of ethnic Nepalese students who were accused of supporting the dissident movement. Government critics claimed families with ties to the palace and senior levels of the Government are strongly favored in their access to government employment and state scholarships for foreign education. The Government contends it has made a serious effort to send qualified minority candidates for education overseas.

People with Disabilities

There is no evidence of official discrimination toward people with disabilities but the Government has not passed legislation mandating accessibility for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Trade unionism is not permitted, there are no labor unions, workers do not have the right to strike, and the Government is not a member of the International Labor Organization.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no collective bargaining or labor legislation pertaining to industry, which accounts for about 25 percent of the gross domestic product but only a minute fraction of the total work force. The Government affects wages in the manufacturing sector through it control over parastatal wages. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Government uses a system of compulsory labor taxes to compensate for its low financial tax base. Under various rural development schemes, a typical family of 8.5 persons may be required to provide up to 40 worker-days each year. There is no evidence to suggests that domestics or children are subject to coerced or bonded labor.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

There are no laws governing the employment of children. Children are not employed in the industrial sector but many assist their families in the traditional economy. In road-building, eligibility for employment determined by ther applicant's height, not age. Although most workers are at least 15, a UNICEF study suggested that children as young as 11 are sometimes employed with road-building teams.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

As noted above, there is no labor legislation, no legislated minimum wage, standard workweek, or health and safety standards. Labor markets are highly segmented by region, and monitoring wage developments is inhibited by the preponderance of subsistence agriculture and the practice of barter. The largest salaried labor market is the government service, which has an administered wage structure last revised in 1988. Only about 18 industrial plants employ more than 50 workers. Apart from a few of these larger plants, the entire industrial sector consists of home-based handicrafts and some 60 privately owned small- or medium-scale factories producing consumer goods. Bhutan's rugged geography and land laws that prohibit a farmer from selling his last five acres result in a predominantly self-employed agricultural labor force.

[1]* The United States does not have an embassy in Bhutan. Information on the human rights situation is therefore limited.

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