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The ethnic cleansing hidden behind Bhutan's happy face

After it was named the happiest country in Asia, and the sixth happiest in the world in a survey based on the Gross National Happiness index in 2006, Bhutan has seen its brand surge from an unknown dot between China and India to a tourist destination that promises peace, love and happiness – the same ideals India did in the seventies to dazed hippies.

From 300 visitors in 1974, tourism has surged and in 2011, 64,000 people visited Bhutan. “Here on the Indian subcontinent, awash in corruption, ethnic struggle, illiteracy, pollution, poverty, and the clash of civil­iz­a­tions, Bhutan’s paci­fism, pater­nal­ism, and egal­it­ari­an­ism stand apart,” raves Orville Schell in his article titled ‘Gross National Happiness’.

Bhutan is most often compared to the entirely fictional Shangri La, to the extent that the country's official tourism website is called "Welcome to Shangri La Bhutan". (Shangri La was described in a 1933 British novel as a mysterious valley in China which quickly settled in popular imagination as a heaven on earth.) The glowing tourist reports have ignored the issues of national identity that have fractured human rights in the country over the past 20 years.

A young Bhutanese boy wearing the gho, the traditional dress in Thimpu. Reuters image

A young Bhutanese boy wearing the gho, the traditional dress in Thimpu. Representational image. Reuters image

Bhutan’s transition from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with its first elections in 2007 is questionable. The government authorised the establishment of only two political parties, both of whom were closely allied with the king. Even more problematically, many of the ethnic Nepalis remaining in the country, who constitute 40% of the population, are not granted the status of citizens and therefore cannot vote.

For the Nepali population of Bhutan, the kingdom is nowhere close to heaven on earth. Since the 1990s, they've been terribly persecuted and their plight is barely known. In 1991 and 1992, over 80,000 Nepalis – part of the Lhotshampa ethnic group that has lived in Bhutan since the 1800s – were dispossessed and moved into refugee camps in Nepal. They have not been allowed entry into Bhutan ever since. Bhutan refuses any responsibility, instead choosing to focus on promoting the country on its Gross National Happiness index.

Over the last 15 years, the refugee population has increased to 1,00,000, and the UNHCR (the refugee agency of the United Nations) shifted its focus from repatriation to relocation of the refugees to third countries such as the US. USA alone has accepted 60,000 refugees and in 2007, the US embassy in Bhutan voiced its con­cern that Maoists could organ­ize dis­il­lu­sioned eth­nic Nepalis, par­tic­u­larly in the refugee camps in neigh­bor­ing Nepal.

These events were a culmination of decades of insecurity over what was seen as a demographic invasion by the Lhotshampa on the Drukpa, the northern Bhutanese people. “Bhutan saw its very existence as a nation threatened,” wrote Kinley Dorji, the editor of Kuensel, Bhutan’s English language newspaper. The Bhutanese authorities removed assurances of citizenship, forced Buddhism cultural and religious codes on the Hindu and Christian minorities and used both physical violence and intimidation to evict people belonging to Nepali ethnic groups.

Vidhyapati Mishra is the managing editor of the Bhutan News Service. Mishra is a Bhutanese journalist who lives in Nepal, awaiting resettlement. In the latest account of the atrocities against the Lhotshampa in the early nineties, Mishra has written about his and his family’s expulsion from Bhutan in the New York Times. “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell,” remembers Mishra. “They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water…they burned dried chilies in his cell to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.”

Reports similar to Mishra, of violence, abuse and forceful migration can be found here, here and here. They have been recorded both by Lhotshampa refugees as well as Amnesty International. The Bhutanese government today doesn’t deny the exodus, but insists it was “voluntary”, completely denying the multiple accounts of human rights abuse which have been placed on record.

Bhutan has a lot going for it as a largely peaceful and clean country, but elevating the country to a mythological level is clearly having harmful effects now because it erases the need for accountability. “The enormity of this exodus, one of the world’s largest by proportion, given the country’s small population, has been overlooked by an international community that is either indifferent or beguiled by the government-sponsored images of Bhutan as a serene Buddhist Shangri-La,” points out Mishra in his editorial. If we were to think more deeply about equality and human rights in Bhutan, Shangri La would do what it was always meant to – reveal itself as myth.