Human Rights in Bhutan: Struggle of a Hidden Minority

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THIMPHU, Bhutan — The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), an aggregate measure of a country’s economic output alongside net environmental impacts, the spiritual and cultural growth of citizens, mental and physical health and strength of corporate and political systems, originated in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Since the term “gross national happiness” was coined by its fourth king in the 1970s, the country secured its status as first in economic freedom, ease of doing business, and peace. It is also second for per capita income in South Asia.

Despite Bhutan’s current standing, the United Nations (U.N.) long considered it one of 48 most vulnerable countries in the world. However, a recent 2016 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on Least Developed Countries, stated that Bhutan could escape from the low development category by 2025, suggesting possible improvements in the quality of life and human rights in Bhutan.

This change is largely a result of Bhutan’s significant export of hydroelectricity to India. From electricity sales alone, Bhutan’s per capita GDP became one of the highest in South Asia, increasing to $1,615 in 2006 and $2,580 in 2015. Rapid improvements in basic services, healthcare and education, industrial and commercial developments, and thus human rights in Bhutan are expected to follow the continued rise in GDP.

Although these improvements will undoubtedly benefit the majority of Bhutanese citizens, they won’t provide many benefits to the Lhotshampa people, a minority population of Nepalese descent. Colloquially referred to as “Southerners,” citizens of this group are also known as Bhutanese Refugees, a remnant status from ethnic cleansing that took place in Bhutan during the 1990s.

Like many nations across the globe today, Bhutan’s population consists of several ethnic groups. In the 1980s, the Southern Bhutanese (Lhotshampa people) were perceived as a threat to the country’s political order. As a result, new citizenship acts were passed mandating “Southerners” to produce proof of citizenship. By the end of the decade, the Nepali language was removed from the education curriculum nationwide, and those who ventured outside of the Northern traditional costumes were liable to fines and imprisonment.

When public demonstrations took place to protest these legal restrictions, “Southerners” were imprisoned and tortured, their houses were demolished and their human rights became nearly nonexistent.

As the 1990s progressed, the Lhotshampa population gained its refugee status which continues to present day. Many have resettled in countries including the United States and the United Kingdom since government resettlement efforts and United Nations refugee agency projects began in 1998 and 2007, respectively. 90 percent of refugees now live abroad. However, an estimated 10,000 Lhotshampa who continue to view Bhutan as “home” will remain in refugee camps and continue to face severe discrimination and persecution.

The U.N. Refugee Agency will continue to work towards alternative solutions as resettlement programs begin winding down this year. It will face difficulties as the government remains firm in its decision to continue policies from decades ago. Human rights in Bhutan are still denied to its own citizens.

Katherine Wang
Photo: Flickr

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