Main minority groups: Nepali–speakers (also known as Lhotshampas or Bhutanese-Nepalis), indigenous and migrant groups
Main languages: Dzongkha (national language)
Main religions: Buddhism (state religion), Hinduism, Christian
Four ethnic groups – Ngalong (also known as Bhote), Sharchop, Kheng, and Nepali-speakers – make up 98 per cent of the population. Ngalongs, Sharchops, and Khengs are all adherents to the Drukpa Kagyu school of Mahayana Buddhism, although each group has a distinct identity as well. Ngalongs are people of western Bhutan and of Tibetan origin; they dominate the country’s ruling and social elite.
Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, is derived from Ngalong speech and has been imposed on the entire country since 1988. Sharchops are possibly the earliest settlers of Bhutan and share the same religion as the Ngalong, but locate their ethnic roots in Arunachal Pradesh and are of Indo-Mongol 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.
Bhutanese of Nepali descent are a mostly-Hindu group, predominantly based in the southern lowlands of Bhutan. They are commonly known as Lhotshampas, ‘people of the south’. Although no universally agreed-upon figures are available, it is estimated that at least a third of the population of Bhutan comprises Lhotshampas. Despite their significant numbers, Lhotshampas have been the victims of severe discrimination and persecution by the state in recent decades.
Numerous other ethnic groups are present in Bhutan on a much smaller scale, including Adivasis, Birmi, Brokpa, Doya, Lepcha, Tibetans and Toktop.
Three-quarters (75 per cent) of the Bhutanese population are Buddhist, according to US government estimates, with Hindus making up the largest religious minority at 22 per cent. The remainder belong to other faiths including Christians, who are believed to number between 2,000 and 15,000 (some estimates reach 20,000).
Updated May 2020
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While Bhutan has in recent years undertaken a number of positive steps, including its first democratic elections in 2008, the country has yet to come to terms with its legacy of discrimination against its minorities. This is particularly the case for its largely Hindu, Nepali-speaking population, also known as Lhotshampas. Following a series of repressive measures against the community in the 1980s leading to protests and the development of a Lhotshampa-led insurgency in 1990 against the government, the Bhutanese authorities launched a brutal and indiscriminate crackdown against the community, ultimately forcing the expulsion of some 100,000 Lhotshampas from Bhutan into Nepal. Many of these remained effectively stateless in the ensuing years as they were unable to either secure Nepali citizenship or return to Bhutan.
While a decade-long resettlement programme led by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has resulted in the resettlement of some 112,000 resettled by the end of 2017, primarily to the United States, some 7,400 Bhutanese refugees remained in camps. With the programme scheduled to end by the end of 2018, their future remains uncertain; while many young Bhutanese wish to resettle in Europe or North America, elderly Bhutanese are reluctant to resettle, with some 2,000 Bhutanese wishing to return to Bhutan.
The remaining Lhotshampa community in Bhutan also continues to face discrimination, a result in part of decades of assimilationist policies enforcing the traditions of the dominant Drukpa Buddhist elite on all members of the Bhutanese population. The ‘One nation, one people’ policy that began in the late 1980s saw a crackdown on the religion, language and even dress of non-Drukpa members of the population. This has had lasting implications for those Lhotshampas remaining in the country, many of whom also found themselves stripped of citizenship and so unable to access education, employment, heath care or housing.
Following protests against government policies in the early 1990’s, a number of Lhotshampa activists have remained imprisoned in Chamgang Central Jail in Thimpu. Taking the view that those who continue to be held have been convicted of violent crimes, the government recorded 57 Nepali-speaking prisoners serving sentences under the National Security Act and related provisions as of December 2016. Human rights activists considered that 28 of these should be considered political prisoners. There has been a slow process of release, with 47 political prisoners having been released between 2010 and the end of 2016.
An ongoing issue in Bhutan is the state’s opposition to the right of religious minorities to freely practice their faith and obtain legal status recognizing their religious identities. Buddhism remains the national religion and is privileged and promoted by the state at the expense of other faiths. In the 2008 Constitution, Article 7(4) specifically provides for religious freedom, but Articles 3 and 4 emphasize the specific role Buddhism has played in the history of the country. The Constitution also stipulates that Buddhist organizations must receive government support, meaning that public funds are used to support only one particular religious community. Religious organizations are obliged by law to register with the Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO): however, of a total of 96 registered organizations, all are Buddhist except for one Hindu umbrella organization, while no Christian or Muslim organizations are registered.
The law is also used to restrict the free practice of religion by impeding the construction of non-Buddhist religious buildings. All new construction requires a government license, and many Lhotshampas, who are majority-Hindu, complain that Buddhist temples are given preference in the licensing process. Aside from the construction of a temple in Thimphu, which began in 2012 but has faced many delays, permission was last granted to build a Hindu temple in 1990. While proselytism remains illegal for all except Buddhists, the government continues to pressure non-Buddhists to observe ‘traditional Drukpa values’ and participate in Buddhist prayer rituals. This ranges from compulsory Buddhist prayers in schools and at government ceremonies. Christians state that they face discrimination in a variety of ways, including occasional exclusion of their children from schools and societal pressure to conform to majority norms and practices.
The name ‘Bhutan’ is thought to have been derived from the Sanskrit phraseology ‘Bhu-Uttan’ meaning ‘High Land’; Bhutan’s environment and geography reveal the reasons for such a name. Bhutan is a small, mountainous, land-locked, officially 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, which is ruled by China. The whole of the country is mountainous with the exception of a 13-16 kilometre-wide strip of subtropical plains in the south. Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan, is also its capital.
Bhutan is the centre of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Mahayana Buddhism, the state religion. The different peoples who are followers of the sect are collectively known as Drukpa, though this label is also sometimes used indiscriminately to refer to all the people of Bhutan. The diverse ethnic groups who are Drukpa Buddhists primarily include the earliest inhabitants of the country as well as Tibetan and Mongol peoples who settled in Bhutan as late as the tenth and eleventh centuries.
From the seventeenth century, when the foundation of present-day Bhutan coalesced 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, while in control of the British East India Company and as colonial rulers of India, maintained an interest in the affairs of Bhutan. Territorial interests in the region led to the Duar War (1864-5) between Bhutan and British India. The end of the war resulted in a treaty ceding the Duars to British India and a recognition of Britain’s control over Bhutan’s external affairs. Plagued by local feuds and instability, the Shabdrung’s government was supplanted in 1907 by the establishment of the hereditary monarchy of the Wangchuck dynasty. Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the King by an assembly of Buddhist monks, heads of prominent families and other officials. Following India’s independence from British rule in 1947, the Indian government took over control of Bhutan’s foreign relations, with Bhutan remaining closely allied to India primarily to balance against Chinese geopolitical ambitions.
For many decades the monarchy instituted measures to protect what was regarded as Bhutan’s unique culture, with the country opening up to international tourism only in the 1970s. While foreign influence and the effects of globalization have grown, particularly since the government allowed internet and television usage in 1999, Bhutan remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world.
The foundations of a democratically governed Bhutan were laid down by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who in 1953 formed a legislative National Assembly. A cabinet-style 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 succeeded his father on the throne at age 16, was the fourth of the Wangchuck dynasty to occupy the throne.
During the 1980s, Bhutan’s treatment of its citizens, in particular its Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa population, became a matter of international concern. In its efforts to stop what it considered a demographic and cultural threat, the Bhutanese government introduced discriminatory citizenship laws aimed at Lhotshampas, which stripped them of their citizenship. In particular, the 1985 Citizenship Act allowed the government to exclude thousands of Bhutanese of Nepali descent from claiming Bhutanese nationality through naturalization, effectively designating them either as illegal immigrants or refugees within Bhutan. Following years of harassment, in 1991 Bhutanese security forces began a campaign of expulsion in which more than 100,000 Lhotshampas were forced to flee to Nepal. International observers consider these acts to have constituted ethnic cleansing.
Talks began on the refugee and immigration question in November 1992 between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, but negotiations made little headway. The Bhutanese government refused to recognize exiled Nepali-speakers as citizens, asserting that only a small number could be legitimately repatriated to Bhutan. Further attempts were made to resolve the crisis through mediation and deliberation. Talks in July 1993 led to the establishment of a joint ministerial committee with the mandate to determine the different categories of people claiming to have come from Bhutan in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal; specify the position of the two governments on each of these categories; and 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 claimed it was not in a position to keep the refugees indefinitely in its territory.
The situation persisted for decades, with tens of thousands effectively caught in a limbo, many of whom lacked the basic rights of citizenship. By 2010 there were approximately 89,000 Lhotshampa refugees living in Nepal who did not have citizenship in any country and were thereby rendered stateless. However, a large-scale resettlement programme launched a few years before by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2007 saw more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees resettled in third countries, though thousands of Bhutanese refugees are still living in Nepal, waiting for resettlement or repatriation. Nepal has called on UNHCR to persuade Bhutan to accept the voluntary repatriation of the remaining Bhutanese refugees once the third-country resettlement programme has come to an end.
Bhutan evolved from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy when a new Constitution was enacted and parliamentary elections were held in 2008; the pro-monarchy Bhutan Harmony Party winning 44 out of 47 parliamentary seats while another pro-monarchy party took the remaining seats. While international monitors considered these elections to be free and fair, they also noted that Nepali–speakers had been turned away from voting because they were deemed ‘non-nationals’. In a second election in 2013, Lhotshampa and Sharchop voters and representatives were again restricted in their ability to participate in electoral politics. The Election Commission restricted the use of languages other than Dzongkha, which is not widely understood by most people in the south and east, the majority of the country’s population.
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- South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020 – Minorities and shrinking civic space (2020)
- South Asia State of Minorities Report 2019 – Migrants, refugees and the stateless (2019)
- South Asia State of Minorities Report 2018 – Exploring the roots (2018)
- South Asia State of Minorities Report 2016 – Mapping the terrain (2016)
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- Covid-19 further restricts already diminished space for civil society in South Asia, report finds (7 December 2020)
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