The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dissident: Democratisation in Bhutan all for show

Religious freedom, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and human rights remain unsolved questions

Friday, September 18, 2009 By Asia News

Bhutan’s democratisation is all for show; it exists only “on paper” and is of little relevance to the population, this according to Karma Duptho, secretary of the Druk National Congress (DNC), a Bhutanese political movement operating in exile. He has harsh words for the Bhutan government on a number of issues, from Nepali refugees to the free press, from an independent judiciary to respect for human rights and religious freedom, issues that have not yet found a solution in the small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas, caught between China and India.

On the issue of religious freedom, the DNC secretary said that it “was absent until the promulgation of the constitution last year, but” even now “ we can never be certain whether the constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of religion will be upheld.”

“There are reports of Buddhist culture and religion being imposed on ordinary people,” he said. Members of “other faiths are at risk of attacks, arrests and other forms of persecution including arbitrary detention and arrests from officials,”

Buddhism is Bhutan’s state religion. The authorities have a past of violently cracking down on dissident sects or smaller faith communities. In 1997 for example, some Nyingmapa Buddhists were killed or arrested.

Although constitutional changes made “arbitrary arrest unlawful” last year, proselytising remains illegal” and it is not clear whether “building churches is still restricted or not.”

An “independent judiciary is a fundamental tenet of democracy and this is absent in Bhutan,” Duphto said. “There are at present some 200 and plus political prisoners in various jails throughout Bhutan. Most of them participated in peaceful demonstrations in the early and late 1990s, demanding human rights and democracy.” Some of them have been “imprisoned for more than 17 years;” in 2007 they were joined by “hundreds more” who were arrested for “engaging in political activities contrary to the belief and ideology of the Thimphu regime,” mostly “charged with sedition and treason, and sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment.”

A tool of democracy elsewhere, in Bhutan the “judiciary is under the control of the king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the country’s fifth monarch, who ascended to the throne in 2006 at the age of 26.

Finally yet importantly, freedom of the press remains a contentious issue. Restrictions are still in place and the country’s four radio stations and four newspapers must follow government directives. No newspaper has for instance “written a single article on the Bhutanese refugee issue” since it emerged in 2007, “except for state-owned Kuensel”.

As AsiaNews recently reported, many Bhutanese refugees found asylum in the West, but their problem still remains unresolved.

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