The Silent Cost of Shangri-La? The Human Rights Controversy in Bhutan
For many in the Western Buddhist world, Bhutan has become a quasi-mythical land. Bhutan is an officially Buddhist Kingdom with ties to internationally popular Lamas. It has become famous for it’s lauded vision of “gross national happiness”. In 2006, 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 inspired by Bhutan itself. In 2012, as a result of an initiative of the Bhutanese government, the UN named March 20 “The International Day of Happiness”. More recently the environmental media declared Bhutan one of the few countries in the world to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.
Bhutan is venerated for resistance to modernization and westernisation. The fact that it is difficult to even visit Bhutan due to its limitations on tourism only increases its mystique. In addition many Western students of Vajrayana dream of retreats in the green mountains and valleys of the “land of the dragon”, where pure teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages are still to be found.
Gross National Happiness
In the 1970’s the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began instituting his vision of “gross national happiness (GNH)”, which included strong measures to protect Bhutan’s dominant ethnic culture and the religious tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism (which it shares with Tibet). In the 1980s, the Bhutanese government was worried about illegal immigration and preserving the country’s cultural identity in the face of Nepali influence as well as the power of it’s neighboring giants China and India. Bhutan adopted a “one nation one people” policy and introduced mandatory Driglam Namza, the ancient code of social etiquette practised by the dominant ethnic group- people from west Bhutan, who are of Tibetan origin. The government decided to deport thousands of people of Nepali ethnicity, many of whom had lived in the south of Bhutan for generations and are known as lhotshampas (“southerners”). The government passed laws requiring people to wear traditional Bhutanese dress and banned the Nepali language in public, and, human rights groups say, tortured those who spoke out.
In a harrowing 2013 NY Times article Vidhyapati Mishra wrote an account of the expulsion of his family from Bhutan. He recalls an idyllic childhood on a farm that grew “maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes.” After the 1989 declaration of the “one people, one country” policy things began to change. Hindu seminaries were closed, “traditional Bhutanese” customs were imposed on all and Mishra’s elementary school, which served the Lhotshampa population, was closed down. One day in 1991 Mishra reports, men in uniform came to his house and seized his father. After insisting he put on his bakku (traditional Bhutanese dress), they dragged him from the house kicking and slapping him. As Mishra describes it, “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell. They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, 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.” At the time of writing that NY Times article Mishra had been in a refugee camp known as Beldangi 2 for 21 years.
Bhutan’s governmental policies had dreary results beyond the camps for those sentient beings who happened to be Nepali in origin. One refugee, who spent 17 years living in a camp before immigrating to the US, said that when he first arrived in the camp “two or three’ dead bodies” were being taken away every day due to crowding and lack of medicine. The U.N eventually arrived with help, but the governments of Bhutan and Nepal refused to take responsibility for the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps. In 2007, the U.N. decided there was no hope of either country taking them in and started sending the refugees around the world to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Amnesty International says that “the Bhutanese refugee situation has become one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”
Many refugees have had difficulty integrating into their new homes abroad. The rate of depression among surviving Bhutanese refugees has been found to be three times that of the general public, and their suicide rate almost twice as high. Vidhyapati Mishra has now relocated to North Carolina, but 27,000 refugees are estimated to remain in the camps.
To this day, the Bhutanese government claims that the exodus of over 100,000 lhotshampas from Bhutan was voluntary. Some students of the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who I contacted justified Bhutanese governmental actions with the assertion that some Nepali Bhutanese did not just speak out but engaged in acts of violence against the government and even acts of terrorism against Bhutanese citizens in response to laws perceived as creating a monocultural Bhutan that excluded lhotshampas.
Jigmi Thinley, who wrote an article for the “Mindful Politics” compilation put out by Wisdom Publications in 2013, and was given an honorary degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium in 2014, and was the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2008–2013. Thinley worked in the Bhutanese government since 1976. He is currently the president of the Council of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. In 2011, when Prime Minister of Bhutan, he announced that the government was open to repatriating lhotshampa refugees following “screening.” He stated: “They are economic refugees, they are environmental refugees, they are refugees of political instability. And they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But I maintain that the question of whether they are refugees from Bhutan is a subject of discussion.”
This statement sparked outrage among the refugee community. The Bhutanese government disputes the claim that the camps are filled with Bhutanese of Nepali origin, claiming that some of them were illegal immigrants in Bhutan only for a short time or agitators from within Nepal seeking to enter and gain power in Bhutan.
Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others contest this, as does the US State Department. According to Human Rights Watch, who refers to Bhutan’s policies as “ethnic cleansing”: “The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.” In 2008 HRW noted that Bhutan had not repatriated a single refugee, which is still the case. In 2007 the United States recognized the refugee status of the lhotshampas and accepted 60,000 people from the camps. In 2011 Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Program at Human Rights Watch, wrote an article pleading with the Bhutanese government to at least repatriate some of the elderly refugees in the camps who did not want to be resettled abroad but wanted to return to the homes they remembered. His plea went unanswered.
“What I would like to see,” says Vidhyapati Mishra today, echoing Frelick, “is for the government to admit the remaining unsettled refugees. Some of them have refused to be resettled in the US or elsewhere because they just want to go home. At least the government could admit those who have been resettled on tourist visas to be able to see their own country, but even with a US passport the Bhutanese government will not let us in to see our homeland again.”
When asked whether the refugee camps have been infiltrated by “fake refugees” Mishra says it has not. “A small amount have joined themselves to the refugees through marriage perhaps,” he says, “But their children, once they reach adulthood, must leave the camps and enter Nepal. Perhaps there are a small number of people who have become parts of the families of refugees, but there have been no masses of people coming in. Everyone knows each other in the camps and groups of people coming in from Nepal and claiming to be refugees would be obvious and unwelcome.”
According to the Diplomat, “Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.”
Nevertheless only Buddhists and Hindus are legally allowed to form organizations. 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist and about 20 percent of Bhutanese are lhotshampas, most of whom are Hindu. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Vajrayana Buddhism. In practice the government reportedly harasses Hindus and obstructs their activities. Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, say they are treated like second-class citizens. Christians have applied to be able to function with a legal Christian identity but have been unsuccessful so far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no Churches, and no Christian book stores.
There are some signs of improvement. According to Freedom In The World 2015, Bhutan is taking steps towards becoming more authentically democratic and towards greater transparency in government and lawfulness in its judiciary. Since 2013, the laws requiring traditional dress in public have been repealed. When the current King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk was married, he had a parallel Hindu wedding in the south in an attempt to forge better relationships with the lhotshampas who remain in Bhutan. Local authorities are still reported to severely harass non-Buddhists however, and permits for Hindu and Christian religious activities are very hard to obtain. In March 2014, a group of Christian religious pastors was arrested for holding a worship service and held in jail for a month with no trial or charges laid. In September of the same year two Christian pastors were sentenced to prison for conducting illegal religious activities.
Western Buddhism and Bhutan
Asked whether anyone from the Buddhist community had ever approached him to offer help or hear his story, Mishra says they have not. Nevertheless, and despite his experiences at the hands of Buddhist Bhutan, Mishra retains his respect for the religion. “I have great admiration for Buddhism as a religion. What is happening in Bhutan is not being done by the real Buddhists. Buddhism is being used to justify criminal behaviour.”
Buddhist organisations in the West associated with Bhutanese traditions have largely been silent on the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Buddhist Bhutan. One webpage on a site run by Shambhala, a major force in Western Vajrayana, at one time had a link to some comments on video by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the issue. They are now nowhere to be found, removed due to issues with ownership rights over the video, according to a website administrator.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is one of the most popular contemporary Buddhist teachers, and probably the one with the strongest ties to Bhutan. As well as being a spiritual teacher he is also a writer and film-maker and made the first feature film shot in Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians (2003). Although he has been actively teaching in the West since at least 1989, the year that the deportation of the lhotshampas began, and is well known for his frank outspokenness, I could find no public statements of his dealing with Bhutanese human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. A source among his senior students supplied me with some anonymous opinion pieces written about Bhutan which argued that the actions of the Bhutanese government were substantially justified by their need to retain cultural and political stability as a distinct nation state. The pieces also argued that the Bhutanese government had taken steps to limit abuses of lhotshampas by citizens and government officials, and that the situation was more complicated than western media sources represent it to be. Finally, the anonymous essays echoed Jigmi Thinley’s assertion that the people in the camps were not definitely refugees from Bhutan. As stated above Vidhyapati Mishra, who lived in Beldangi 2 for 21 years, dismissed the claims of “fake refugees” as untrue and making little sense.
Many in the Western Buddhist community do not countenance government actions which compromise the human rights and dignities of refugees and illegal immigrants, nor those of ethnic or religious minorities. It hardly seems correct to overlook the situation when an explicitly Buddhist country chooses realpolitik over compassion, or defends its culture and borders with outright aggression, violence and ethnic cleansing, as the evidence suggests.
How should the Bhutanese government deal with these issues? The UN resolution on the rights of refugees would suggest that those in the camps, or who have been relocated, should be allowed to return. That would be a beginning toward redressing well-evidenced injustices visited upon the lhotshampas. Both Frelick and Mishra have argued that the least they could do is to allow the elder refugees still in the camps to return home. As for the repression, harassment, and persecution of religious minorities, that is both against Buddhist principles and common sense. Human societies, like gardens, flourish when there is a healthy diversity and what polyculturalists call “fertile edge”- the place where two systems meet. Perhaps it’s time for Bhutan to fear diversity less.
This post originally appeared on my blog Seeking Her Voice in May of 2016, and was also published by the Bhutan News Service.