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Bhutan: Shangri-La or Ethnic Cleanser?

A few years ago when the Fourth King of Bhutan voluntarily stepped down to make way for democracy, there was a spate of articles in the media about Bhutan. Almost all these articles – with a few exceptions – could be grouped into two camps: one glorified Bhutan as the last Shangri-la, the others claimed that it practiced ethnic cleansing.

The National Geographic aired a documentary which named Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom as the world's last Shangri-La. It celebrated its mountains, glacial walls, alpine highlands and misty forests and mentioned “Bhutan is a Living Eden where respect for life, in all its many incarnations, endures like the land itself”.

Landscape of Bhutan. Image by Flickr user Jmhullot, used under a creative commons license

Landscape of Bhutan. Image by Flickr user Jmhullot, used under a creative commons license

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar at Real clear World said:

Bhutan has done many things to deserve its Shangri-La reputation. Its forest cover is a very high 72%, and it has pledged to keep this above 60 % for eternity.

Meanwhile, Nanda Gautam at Ex Ponto countered:

A new trend in the sphere of human rights violations is flourishing! In contrast to Bhutan’s development philosophy called ‘Gross National Happiness,’ which many delegations visiting Bhutan are proclaiming a ‘good lesson’, Bhutan also offers a bad lesson: strategic violence in the form of ethnic cleansing, a lesson the world powers will find difficult to deal with. The ordeal of Tel Nath Rizal reflects how the state’s violation of one person’s rights spilled over to affect an entire minority. The minority population has already been reduced dramatically.

Most of these writers, if not all, were not Bhutanese. So how is it that they came to view this small country – the size of Switzerland and a population of 600,000 – in such extremes?

The first group, the admirers, usually came from the west where capitalism has led to a way of life that may have equipped them with material contents, but left many with a gaping spiritual void. They are people seeking for things they do not find in their own cultures; yet find it elsewhere. Often in places like Bhutan – largely mysterious, exotic and peaceful. So when they find it, they tend to see only the things they want to see and find only the things they want to find.

But this also applies to the second camp, the ones who hate Bhutan. They have little or no understanding of the country’s geo-political situation. They don’t understand the history or the complex nature of the refugee problem; and they are either sympathizing with the cause, or they just need a cause.

For the first camp, the search for Shangri-la didn’t just happen; it has been ongoing since 1933 when James Hilton depicted a Shangri-la in his novel, Lost Horizon based on an article by Joseph Rock about his travels to the Tibetan borderlands. But more often than not, it is Hilton’s version that they are after thus refusing to see Bhutan as a country like any other – inhabited by human beings, with its share of problems.

Bhutan is far from being the Utopia despite its largely tranquil history. As a poor country Bhutan has its share of social problems and challenges and the biggest blight to its good reputation so far has been the issue of the refugees.

A nation-wide census in the 80’s found thousands of illegal settlers along the country’s southern borders. Most of these people were Nepalese people from Nepal and India who came to Bhutan seeking economic opportunities and utilize the large tracts of free agricultural land along porous borders. Free health and educational facilities were also an added attraction. At around this time, some Lhotsampas (Ethnic Nepali-speaking Bhutanese) who were educated by the Bhutanese government in overseas universities like Harvard and Cambridge returned to Bhutan nursing their own political ambitions.

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Image by Sudeshna Sarkar, ISN Security Watch

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Image by Sudeshna Sarkar, ISN Security Watch

The problem came to a head when the Bhutanese government demanded all illegal settlers, leave the country. This decision was opposed by the ambitious Lhotsampa leaders who sympathized with the settlers and so mobilized protests against the Bhutanese government demanding democracy and overthrow of the monarch. The environment to nurse their political ambitions was extremely favorable. They galvanized the southern people’s discontent with violent protests in which they decapitated heads of two Bhutanese and planted them at a government office. The Bhutanese government who had never experienced anything like this cracked down and arrested many of the leaders while some escaped to Nepal.

What resulted was a situation where both sides accused the other of what unfolded. Lhotsampas claim that anybody who was Nepali-speaking was forced out of the country. As the Bhutanese Community of South Australia blog mentions:

From 1988, the human rights situation aggravated, when Royal Government enacted discriminatory policies to depopulate the Lhotshampas – Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, predominantly Hindus.

The Royal government treats Lhotsampas as second class citizens. They are persecuted, discriminated and denied the most basics like access to education and health facilities. They are deprived of their cultural rights and are forced to adopt the cultural tradition, costume and language of the ruling elite. In the late eighties, the Royal Government adopted retroactive citizenship legislation and started to disenfranchise and depopulate the Lhotshampas. Tens and thousands of them were forcibly evicted, who ended up in the United Nations established refugees camps in Nepal. [..]

Having failed to see the possibility of repatriation, a vast number of Bhutanese refugees have accepted the offer given by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway and United States for third country resettlement.

The Bhutanese government claimed that while some were asked to leave, many citizens left voluntarily under threats from their own leaders. Bhutan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley wrote at Bhutannica:

The situation in the south is not a simple problem. Its causes are complex and perplexing as the resultant human drama that is unfolding before us. Just who is the victim or villain is a valid question. The answer must be sought with a deeper understanding of the problem. [..]

Among the villagers in’ the south, every day is a nightmare. But their voice is not heard by the media, and their human rights appear not to be of any importance. Explanations by the Government are dismissed as propaganda and plain untruths. Even concrete evidence is seen as fabrications.

The Bhutanese feel that they have been betrayed by a people they had welcomed, in whom they had placed their trust and with whom they were willing to share a common destiny. But the general attitude of the Bhutanese toward their southern compatriots do not indicate any rancour.

The adoption of human rights is a convenient banner that the dissidents and the Nepalese supporters have raised before the international community. But their greater aim is to generate international sympathy for the dissident cause, which is to grab political power.

The story got complicated as the refugees arrived in Nepal. UNHCR set up camps for the Bhutanse refugees in which free food and stipend was given and in a few years the numbers rose from 5000 (1991) to 100,000. The handouts attracted many people other than Bhutanese to those camps as more than half of Nepal's population live on less than a dollar a day.

Ethnic cleansing is a very serious charge. People who make that accusation about Bhutan should visit the country and see that thousands of Nepali-speaking people still live and work there; that even before the crisis the Fourth King encouraged integration of the ethnic groups through inter marriage with special cash incentives. Many even hold very senior positions in the government.

So what is Bhutan? A ‘Shangri-La’ or ‘ethnic cleanser'? Neither, is the answer. And it would be nice if people really stopped imposing their dreams of an Eden, or their disillusionment of failed political causes and ambitions, on this little Country.


  • tshering dorji

    finally! an article with reason, on this website!

    Good job Sonam. It is such a refreshing change to see a name like yours, after having to read articles authored by such names as Adhikari and Basnet and and Giri and Powdyel and their other incarnations.

    Please keep it up!

    • Karen

      I agree, great job Sonam. It’s so helpful to learn a more balanced perspective about the whole situation. And how apt – the title of the article … nice to finally hear the view expressed that Bhutan is too often characterized (inaccurately) by extremes.

  • I dont care what other from outside say about Bhutan. Everything is fine in bhutan, except the citizenship issues that is not yet solved fully. There are still thousands of people in southern bhutan who are stateless, called Form 5. Hope our government will solve this issue soon and make the citizenship act as simple as possible. They are our own people. let us solve their problem..then we can say Bhutan is really a last shangrila!Thank you.

  • Tek

    Bhutan is a Ethnic Cleanser. There are ample example how we can prove it. Example only Southern and eastern Bhutanese were evicted from the country.Who see the Ghalong are evicted from the country. This is only a simple example.There are many example like this.If you go to south of the county no one see the colleges and and other high level institution. NOC is compulsory to the people. It is paradox of GNH . I strongly say that Bhutan is ethnic cleanser.

  • Karma Tshoms

    Sonam, once again…great piece of journalism. Concise, yet made all the points necessary and provided the factual background and I love your conclusion about how it’d be nice ‘if people really stopped imposing their dreams of an eden, or their disillusionments of failed poilitical causes and ambitions on this little country’.I feel exactly the same, and the perceptions here in Nepal is actually even more interesting. The expatriates either love and admire everything bhutanese or are extremely judgemental and aggresively attack and write about Bhutan with no personal experience or facts to support how they feel. There is however another group of Nepali educated minority, the other citizens don’t really care as they face a fate far worse than any refugee on a daily basis, being exploited by all political parties in the name of ‘civilian supremacy’. They would happily exchange places with anyone in the refugee camp, which is any day a far better place to live in than any village in Nepal in current times and with the prospect of repatriation to a western country that they normally would have had to pay heftily to go to. This group, from my conversation with them, seem to perceive that our government was justified in the manner they dealt with the problem otherwise they feel we would have headed in the same direction as Nepal, leading to ‘god forbid’ ‘people’s war’ (as in Nepal) and wherein the agenda of a group of people promoting division in order to gain and maintain political power would have prevailed. Look whats happening to Nepal every day in the name of ‘civilian supremacy’, and us, at present, as residents of ktm have to bear … sadly disgraceful…!
    Sonam, thanks agin for the wonderful piece of writing!

  • Tek, I am sorry you feel this way. As for your accusations that there are no colleges and other high level institutions in Southern Bhutan, let me tell you that in all of Bhutan (during the 80’s) there were only 4 high level learning institutions: The Royal Bhutan Polytechnic Dewathang southern Bhutan, the Royal Polytechnic Institute Phuntsholing southern Bhutan, the National Institute for Education Samchi southern Bhutan and Sherubtse College Kanglung Eastern Bhutan. Of all four only one was located in the east. None in north-western Bhutan. It is only this year, 2009, that Thimphu got its first college (Royal Thimphu College).

  • Suzanne

    Anything written from anyone “inside Bhutan” is highly, highly suspect. Now, if I saw even ONE article from a Lhotsampha or a resident of southern Bhutan, that would mean something. Currently, the Bhutan government continues to ban even the UNHRC from visiting southern Bhutan.
    So please, don’t use the old story “if you are not from Bhutan you do not know the story.” There were even MINISTERS here a few years ago who LAUGHED when they were asked about the over-100,000 refugees. They thought it was totally made up!

    • karma pem

      As a Bhutanese comments like yours “ anything written from anyone inside Bhutan is highly, highly suspect” irks me-the fact that a foreigner is ready to pass quick judgments and create the so called ‘social and racial division” which is so prevalent in the west without realizing the harm that one does. Why are people like you adamant on creating a rift between sections of people in the country.
      I thought that “global voices” was a forum where people could discuss issues and speak out their thoughts. I for one like to believe that every story has two sides. What’s your excuse for calling people within Bhutan “suspect” when a Bhutanese writes their opinion from Bhutan. Why would it matter to you whether we are southern, northern, western or eastern Bhutanese. To us, we are all one and a part of this nation.
      To think that one is an pseudo expert on the south Asian region without even being there would be foolhardy proof of one’s ignorance, isn’t it?

      Talking about the UNHCR, a very highly credible international organization, it has played a role in aggravating and encouraging the situation in the beginning when it started providing food and shelter to the “so called refugees” without properly verifying their true identities. I don’t blame the Bhutanese government for being cautious

    • Tshering C Dorji

      Well, Suzanne,

      Isn’t 100,000 a laughing number? Even if whole of Samtse, Tsirang and some part of Phuentsholing and Dagana went, the number in 1990 would not have been more than 30,000. By the ways, not all people followed the mob.

      You should accept the fact that there are millions of Nepali originated people living along in India along the corridors between Nepal and Bhutan. They have fairly good idea about Bhutan so it is easy for these people to claim that they are refugees being forcefully evicted by Bhutan. However, their actual intention is to get free rations and money from UNHCR. Further, many children must have been born in the camps.

      When the problem started in 1990, I was in Samchi. They started burning the ghos, kiras and what not in the tea garden and started created disturbances. Many of the people, especially students, left the country because they received thereatening letters from the people in the camps located in Garkata.

      Many people have gone out, and I agree that many innocent must have also been dragged into such situations by the long nosed leaders like Teknath Rizal but Khatiwada or whoever. People have protested for democracy and cultural acceptance. Now, I see in the Youtube that refugees are wearing ghos and trying to celebrate dasain in US.

      I am very sure that rich ones would not be living in camps. They would have started business, legally or illegally elsewhere and moved out. Those poor ones will have nowhere to go and thats why they get support from UNHCR. They should be happy that they are getting chances to settle down in US or else where. People from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Africa are taking perilous journey by sea to get asylum in Australia, Us and elsewhere. If the so called “Bhutanese Refugees” cannot accept such a chance, then let GOD Shiva save your asses from Teknath Rizal or whoever. These people will die at one point of time and so will you all and us. Think about your children and your children’s children. Honestly, Teknath is a disillisioned maniac leading a huge masses to tragedy. He has already led you all to misery with many stories. He will hold on to his ambition and travel across the world being an activist but at the end of the day, you have choices to make. If you believe that you are a true refugee and deserve human right, first find a place to keep ur back straight. By the ways, please get the facts straight. For us in Bhutan, we are happy without the so called refugees. We wish you good Americanisation. Maybe you can become an American Ngolop now. All the best

  • vermont

    Now, iam a suppoter of Sonam Ongmo being a Lhotsampha. Actually Lhotsampha has to faced the difficulties coz of their own political ambitions leaders. bhutan couldn’t be A ‘Shangri-La’ or ‘ethnic cleanser’.

  • tshering dorji

    Suzanne, your ignorance is confirmed from your mention of the ‘UNHRC’, when i’m sure you mean the UNHCR. The UNHCR actually made the situation worse when they opened the camps offering more cash per day than the average person made in the region.

    Even in the camps in Kenya, it is a known fact that the UNHCR still does not know how many people are actually in the camps. They’ve tried doing a census many times but cannot figure it out. Many of the refugees enter the camps, get the food card, then walk all the way 120km back to the Sudan border and re-enter the camps just to get another food card. This problem is so bad, it is estimated that more than 30% of the cards issued are suspected to have been issued this way. This is what aid in poverty stricken areas can cause and the situation in Nepal is no different.

    The population in the camps in the 1990s swelled from a mere 5000 to 100,000 in a matter of months as soon as financial support was made available.

    The UNHCR also had no basis to distinguish bhutanese from non-bhutanese in a situation where ethnic nepalese were entering Nepal through ethnically dominated areas in India.

    In that sense, the UNHCR, the primary aggravator of the problem, does not have the credibility to even be considered to be allowed to enter bhutan!

  • Karma Tshoms

    Karma Pem,
    Thanks for the well thought out reply to Suzanne, thats why we guys can’t write like you and Sonam. lol
    Suzzane, I totally agree with Karma, why can’t you and others like you just read the facts so well presented by Sonam without feeling the need to attack her or to question her ‘location’. Is it difficult to read anything that doesn’t support your preconcieved notion of a topic and may possibly take away from the ’cause’ that you have taken on yourself? Is it difficult to be just better informed and more educated about an issue than you presently are and feel the need to delve further to either prove or disprove with what is presented to you? Oh, but thats what educated open minded people would do… I forgot! Sorry!

  • Karuna Karn

    If you all say its an ethnic cleansing policy… discriminatory strategy against the ethic nepalis by the druk regime, a large chunk of Nepali speaking people are still living in the south, probably more than the number of refugees living in Nepal.This fact and figure speaks for itself….But at the same time I don’t even say that country is the last SANGRI-LA..

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