BHUTAN'S CURRENT CRISIS - A VIEW FROM THIMPHU by Kinley Dorji
A chronology of events
The Bhutanese crisis - an ethnic time bomb - exploded in 1988. But the wisdom of hindsight indicates that it had been ticking for quite a while. As an observer of the problem since it surfaced from a silent conspiracy into a rumble of dissent, and then escalated into an open rebellion, I will first present a chronology of the key events of the uprising.
Nepalis formed the Bhutan State Congress to wrest a greater share of political power from the government of Bhutan. The movement collapsed with no popular support. The present Nepali Prime Minister claims to have organised the movement from Chirang.
The Bhutan Citizenship Act was passed: According to this Act, a person was entitled to Bhutanese citizenship if the father was a Bhutanese. Those who had lived in the country for 10 years were also eligible to apply, if they owned land.
Bhutan implemented the national integration policy. The National Council for Social and Cultural Promotion, headed by a senior Southern Bhutanese official, was established to encourage integration between northern and southern Bhutanese. Cash incentives were offered for inter-marriage. Development polity emphasised reverse discrimination, favouring the south.
The Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985, was passed. This Act upholds the 1958 Act, and interprets it more liberally by doing away with the conditions of 10 years residence and ownership of land.
The King toured all the districts to discuss the budget and priorities of the Sixth Plan. Top among the priorities was the policy of driglam namzha, aimed at preserving the Bhutanese national identity.
A nationwide census was started- in Thimphu, Paro, Tashigang, followed by the other districts.
Teknath Rizal, Royal Advisory Councillor for Chirang, reported to the king that the southern Bhutanese people were on the verge of a revolt because of their unhappiness with the cadastral survey and census.
The king briefed the Cabinet about the report by Teknath Rizal. May/June, 1988 The king toured all the southern districts to seek the views of the Lhotshampas and explain the census, immigration and citizenship laws.
June 1, 1988
The cabinet discussed reports that Teknath Rizal was conducting subversive activities. A Royal Enquiry Team was commissioned.
June 6, 1988
A special meeting of the High Court Judges, the Royal Advisory Council, and Government Ministers Indicted Teknath Rizal for subversive activities and recommended legal proceedings.
Teknath Rizal was expelled from the Royal Advisory Council.
June 7, 1988
Teknath Rizal admitted, in court, that he had spread false allegations to agitate the Southern Bhutanese. He signed a pledge that he would not take part in activities against the country, king, and people of Bhutan.
June 8, 1988
Teknath Rizal was pardoned by the king.
January 16, 1989
The king issued an edict on the importance of the national dress, national language, and driglam namzha. District Development Committees (DYT) were asked to discuss the edict with the people, and to submit the views of the people to the government.
The king toured Southern Bhutan to meet the people personally and confirm their support of the policy which they had submitted through the DYTs. The people of Southern Bhutan reiterated their support of the policy.
The king toured all the other districts to discuss the policy. The people in these districts also pledged their support.
The first open signs of dissent was seen as antigovernment pamphlets were distributed to the press and posted to officials in Thimphu. September, 1989 The 101st session of the Cabinet discussed the reports of the "anti-national' literature.
The Home Ministry reported the distribution of the pamphlets and threat letters to the 68th session of the National Assembly. An investigation team of the Minister for Social Services, Chief Justice, three High Court judges, seven Royal Advisory Councillors, and the RCSC Secretary was appointed.
November 1, 1989
The leader of the team, the Minister for Social Services, submitted the report of the investigation team to the Cabinet. The team had found that underground subversive activities had been taking place for some time in the three tertiary institutions: the National Institute of Education, Sherubtse College, and the Deothang Polytechnic.
The Minister informed the Cabinet that Teknath Rizal had masterminded the anti-government campaign from Birthamod, in Nepal. Ratan Gazmere, a lecturer at NIE, had written one of the main pamphlets.
A high level inquiry team of 13 members, led by the Chief Justice, was appointed to investigate details of the movement.
Nov. 8, 1989
The enquiry team submitted its report to the Cabinet. Nov. 16, 1989 The Cabinet considered the state of the "anti-national" activities and decided that Teknath Rizal should be apprehended for his attempts to de-stabilise the country.
A total of 42 leaders of the underground anti-government movement were arrested over two months. Teknath Rizal, Jogen Gazmere, and Sushil Pokhrel were extradited from Nepal. Several students from the three tertiary institutions and some others involved in the underground anti-government movement absconded from the country.
January 4, 1990
Against the objections of the Cabinet the king Insisted on granting clemency to all detainees except the leaders.
The king extended the general amnesty until the end of February for all those who had left the country.
The king visited all the districts in Southern Bhutan to seek the views of the Lhotshampas on the "antinational" activities that had taken place. At the meetings which were attended by a member of every household, the people called for action to be taken according to the law.
The National Assembly discussed the Cabinet's report on 'anti-national' activities in the kingdom. The Assembly endorsed the clemency, but resolved that all activities harmful to the peace and security of the country should be dealt with strictly according to the law.
June 2, 1990
The decapitated heads of two southern Bhutanese, including one census team member, were left near the Gomtu police checkpost in Southern Bhutan with a message warning that all government supporters would meet the same fate.
June 27, 1990
The king met with the Samchi public and the NIE students. He told them that the family members of those who had absconded from the country should not be blamed or harmed. To the students, the king pointed out the implications of the actions against their own country. He emphasised the importance of the concept of "one nation, one people" and the need for a cohesive population in such a small country.
September 19 to October 4, 1990
About 18, 000 people marched against the government in an open revolt at nine different places in five districts and one subdivision. Armed members of the terrorist wing of the Bhutan People's Party organised the demonstrations. Security forces were forbidden to use firearms against the mobs. In Samchi district armed demonstrators threw a bomb at the Superintendent of Police and the District Administrator who had approached them to accept their petition. The Superintendent of Police and one police constable were injured.
September 24 to 29, 1990
The king toured Southern Bhutan. He called on the people of Bhutan to come together "with one heart and mind' to ensure that the subversive attempts against the country does not succeed. During the tour the king met with the people who were detained by the police for anti-government activities and granted amnesty to all of them.
Sept. 30, 1990
The government requested the heads of international organisations based in Thimphu to visit Southern Bhutan. Several journalists were also asked to visit the disturbed areas.
Terrorist activity escalated along the southern belt of the country.
October 13, 1990
By then. 66 schools were forced to close down when student attendance dropped below 28 percent and many schools were destroyed. A total of 27,635 students were displaced. Terrorist activities were stepped up and all government installations and public facilities in Southern Bhutan were destroyed or threatened.
November 3, 1990
Four militants were killed when a gang of more than 200 armed members of the movement attacked one officer and 30 men who were escorting 20 school teachers from Lamidar to Damphu, in Chirang district. Four militants were captured along with guns. detonators and 11 home-made bombs.
The king toured the northern districts to discuss the .anti-national' problem. The people condemned the ngolop (antinational) uprising and thousands of people volunteered for militia service.
December 17, 1991
On Bhutan's National Day, one policeman was killed and another injured by a bomb in Phuntsholing. In Sarbhang one soldier was killed and three injured in an ambush by terrorists.
Dec. 22, 1990
Two Lepcha village leaders of Samchi were beheaded for not joining the anti-government movement.
March 9, 1991
A total of 177 people detained by police for activities against the government were pardoned by the king during his visits to Geylegphug, Sarbhang, Chirang, and Dagapela districts.
Seven more schools were reopened in the south.
Several senior officials of the civil service - led by the Director General of Power, Bhim Subba, and the Managing Director of the State trading Corporation of Bhutan, R. B. Basnet - absconded from the country soon after the Royal Audit Authority of Bhutan began auditing their organisations.
Aug. 15, 1991
The king granted amnesty to 73 detainees held for anti-national' activities. Amnesty was granted to altogether 727 people.
Oct. 12, 1991
The National Assembly was dominated by discussions of the "anti-national' issue. People's elected representatives called for stronger action by the government. They also requested the king not to grant amnesty to the 'anti-national" detainees.
Oct. 19, 1991
The king granted amnesty to another 74 detainees arrested for anti-government activities.
December 17, 1991
The king granted amnesty to 153 detainees held for "anti- national" activities. January, 1992
A high level team, comprising the Home Minister, the Chief Justice, Chairman of the Royal Advisory Council, two High Court judges, the Chief of Police, and an official of the Home Ministry was sent to Chirang and Dagana to investigate allegations of forced eviction and misuse of authority by the district authorities. Senior district officials, the district judge and the police superintendent were subsequently tried by the High Court and punished. The king issued an edict proclaiming that the forceful eviction of Bhutanese citizens was punishable by law.
January, 8, 1992
A three-member delegation from Amnesty International visited Thimphu and Samchi. The delegates met with the king and senior government officials, people in the south. and some of the "anti-national' detainees.
Jan 18, 1992
The Education Department announce that nine more schools will be re-opened in Southern Bhutan.
March 28, 1992
Seventh Plan meetings were completed in the four southern districts. The king expressed his hope that the people would contribute to the success of the Seventh Plan to ensure a balanced development of the country.
May 2, 1992
While on tour to Samdrup Jongkhar, on his 23rd visit to the south in two years, the king announced the exemption of all rural taxes and labour tax in 1992 for all Lhotshampas.
May 19, 1992
The Sub Divisional Officer of Geylegphug, Chime Dorji, was shot and killed by terrorists while returning from a meeting with the people to discuss development programmes for the Seventh Plan.
May 23, 1992
The trial of 'anti-nationals' began. An unprecedented crowd of spectators pushed against the police cordon to see the terrorists on trial.
July 11, 1992
Notorious terrorist leader Kazi Tamang executed a man in front of witnesses for not joining the movement.
The Royal Civil Service Commission secretariat announced that another 43 Lhotsampa civil servants had absconded.
July 18, 1992
The king rushed to Geylegphug to meet 400 families who had applied to emigrate from the country. He pleaded with them not to leave the country when It was going through a difficult period.
August 1, 1992
A high-level investigation team comprising the Royal Advisory Council chairman, two High Court judges (one Southern Bhutanese), and a senior Home Ministry official, which went to Geylegphug to enquire into allegations of forced eviction by the Dungpa (SDO), cleared the Dungpa of all the charges. The team collected 121 receipts proving that the emigrants had sold all their property to Indians living across the border.
September 11, 1992
The king granted amnesty to 45 detainees held for anti-national activities.
December 5, 1992
The High Court completed the trial of 41 terrorists. Terrorist leader D. K. Rai was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Dec. 26, 1992
Trials began for the second batch of detainees for antinational activities including the killing of Dungpa Chime Dorji.
Dec. 29, 1992
The Ministry of Home Affairs registered a case against Teknath Rizal in the High Court.
Terrorist activities were stepped up and included a spate of raids and attacks on southern villages. Several people were killed and injured.
January 23, 1993
A three-member delegation from International Committee of the Red Cross visited Bhutan. The delegation met the king and senior officials in Thimphu. They also visited prisons and Interviewed the detainees and inmates.
March 6, 1993
The king visited the southern districts of Samdrup Jongkhar. Sarbhang, and Samchi to study the feasibility of implementing development programmes for the Seventh Plan. He went to villages in Samdrup Jongkhar to meet Lhotshampas who had applied to emigrate. During his talks with the emigrants, the king expressed his sadness that the people were leaving the country when it was going through a difficult period and called on them to withdraw their applications.
During his tour of the south, the king commanded the reopening of several more schools, health facilities, and projects in Southern Bhutan.
A look at the movement
Today, as a bewildered Bhutanese population looks back on these turbulent years, one of the most striking characteristics of the anti-national movement is its rapid growth. The clandestine support given to Teknath Rizal by a group of teachers, students, and civil servants first surfaced in the from of propaganda leaflets and threat letters distributed throughout the country, and then grew into an open anti-government revolt. With the arrest of 41 ringleaders, 38 of whom were later released, members of this core group moved outside the country and formed dissident organisations. In a matter of months, the country was dragged into an era of unprecedented disturbances and violence.
The tension in the kingdom escalated in 1989 as an active anti-government propaganda offensive was launched by the dissidents who formed the People's Forum for Human Rights, and the Bhutan People's Party. They also began a campaign of gruesome acts of terrorism that included raids and assault on villagers, kidnappings, killings and mutilation. By the second year, ethnic Nepalis began an exodus from Bhutan as the illegal immigrants, identified by the census, left the country and were followed by Lhotshampas. According to reports some of them left in solidarity with those declared illegal immigrants, some because of the insecurity caused by the terrorist raids, and some to join their families in Nepal. The Bhutanese government maintains that, according to the views of the Lhotshampas who are still living in Bhutan and statements by terrorists who have been arrested, many Lhotshampas were applying to emigrate and were heading for the camps in Nepal in response to the calls by dissident groups.
By the end of 1992, about 70, 000 ethnic Nepalis were housed in several refugee camps in eastern Nepal. The dissidents had formed one political organisation (BNDP), one militant group with a terrorist wing (BPP), and a human rights organisation, PFFR, which was renamed as the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB) after the PFFR was linked with terrorist activities. The people who left Bhutan received support from various international organisations including UNHCR and the dissidents were backed by the Nepalese government. Media coverage of the problem was still somewhat confused, as was the international community which began to focus its attention on the camps.
In three years Bhutan, the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism in the Himalayas, suddenly found its back against the wall in defense against allegations of state-sponsored atrocities by security troops, of human rights violations, and of holding democracy at bay. What began as "wild and ridiculous" allegations by the dissidents, which the government chose to ignore, had matured into issues taken up by the international community. In a brief but stormy period, it had become a national crisis.
A Well-planned Movement
One basic grievance of the dissident groups is that they are victims of cultural and ethnic discrimination by the Bhutanese government. The movement, they insist, was a natural and spontaneous response to this policy. The Bhutanese government, however, points out the fact that, rather than a spontaneous uprising, the movement had been planned and nurtured with meticulous efficiency. The beginning was uncanny. Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepali origin living in Southern Bhutan) school teachers, civil servants and students from tertiary institutions were meeting regularly, they wrote and published pamphlets, and even collected substantial contributions from Lhotshampas from all parts of the country. Not a single Bhutanese of non-Nepali origin knew or even suspected this.
With an effective strategy of threat letters and terrorist tactics, launched from camps based In the Duars and Assam belt, the dissidents were able to mobilise the ethnic Nepali population. The core group of rebels was joined by hundreds of youth, some reportedly under duress, and were soon followed by thousands of others as the movement picked up momentum on the promise of easy success and rich rewards made by the leaders to all ethnic Nepalis who supported them. According to the Bhutanese government, the rich rewards meant taking over political power in Bhutan.
The dissidents launched a propaganda offensive from the Duars, where they established camps or mingled with the local population, which is largely Nepali. There were stories of Bhutanese soldiers throwing hundreds of Nepalis into the rivers, raping women and forcefully cutting their long hair, forcing Hindus to eat beef, and torturing and drinking the blood of Nepali prisoners, as well as allegations of religious discrimination by the Bhutanese government. Today, much of this continues in the press in Nepal, while the Bhutanese government dismisses the reports as false allegations.
On June 2, 1990, the anniversary of King Jigme Singye Wangehuck's coronation, the nation was stunned when the decapitated heads of two Lhotshampas - one a census official - were left near the police checkpost in Gomtu. Attached was a note in English and Nepali, warning that such would be the fate of all those who supported the government. As this grim message hit home to the largely rural Bhutanese population, to which terrorism and violence was a harsh new development, it sent shock waves throughout the kingdom. The fear was especially deep among the mainly illiterate villagers of Southern Bhutan.
The terrorist tactics took on a systematic pattern. Bhutanese crossing the border were stripped, robbed, and beaten. Since the first incident, several more people have been decapitated. Others were kidnapped and tortured. The message was always the same, as every victim was described as a "government chamcha" (stooge). People were attacked for not joining the movement. The Duars belt became fraught with tension as the dissidents took up this campaign of violence. This strategy of intimidation and violence continues today, with the main thrust on attacking and robbing innocent Lhotshampa villagers of their money, valuables, tax receipts and citizenship documents. After the Indian government banned militant activities from its soil and Nepal established the refugee camps, with international assistance, the camps became the stronghold of the terrorists. In recent weeks, terrorists who were caught and arrested have provided details of the raids which are organised by the camp administrators themselves. A new dissident publication called the Bhutan Review recently confirmed the reports that the terrorist acts in Southern Bhutan were being organised in the refugee camps.
In its documentation of terrorist activities by the dissidents, the Bhutanese government lists 56 reported killings, 35 incidents of rape, 201 kidnappings, 510 armed robberies, 47 vehicle hijackings, and 453 injuries during terrorist raids. It also lists more than 200 installations destroyed, including 29 schools, 12 health units, 16 forest offices, 11 police checkposts, 56 houses, 15 bridges, 14 water supply projects, eight power pylons. and other basic infrastructure. There were 60 attacks on security troops in which six officers and 28 soldiers were Injured. Forest plantations along the southern border were plundered and destroyed. The government reports the theft of guns and explosives from official stores, and the recovery of a large cache of arms and ammunition.
But the most dramatic development of the movement came in September, 1990, when the tension and antagonism exploded into a series of demonstrations across the entire southern belt of the country. About 18,000 demonstrators marched against local government offices in five districts and one subdivision. Groups of three thousand to six thousand people were led by armed young men in camouflage uniforms. The members of this "Action Group", the terrorist wing of the Bhutan People's Party, marched behind a human shield of women and children.
With no resistance from a skeletal police force, which was prohibited by the government from firing their weapons or using force, the groups marched into government offices in the southern districts, destroyed census documents, freed prisoners, tore down the national flags, stripped school children of their uniforms, and humiliated district officials who were also stripped of their clothes. Large piles of the Bhutanese national dress were set on fire in several districts. Both Bhutanese and non-national teachers were harassed and humiliated by their own students who had joined the mobs. Several teachers were kidnapped. It was a chilling week for the Bhutanese population which had never experienced mass aggression of this nature or magnitude. Even the residents of Thimphu and the northern districts were close to panic. One official explained that the people were convinced the aggression could not be contained. Most people had already been unnerved by pamphlets distributed by the dissidents, foretelling a massive invasion and conquest of Bhutan by the entire Nepali population both within and outside Bhutan. One said:
"It would do well to remember that we, the Gurkhas of Southern Bhutan, are not only the majority but we also have 17 million brothers and sisters in Nepal and over 10 million living In India. Unless the minority Drukpas come to their senses and immediately undo the damage and great harm they have done to themselves, there is every possibility that the borders of the Gurkha state of Sikkim and adjoining areas of Kalimpong and Darjeeling can very easily be extended across the whole of Southern Bhutan."
It was, perhaps, during this peak of the movement that Bhutan became aware of the magnitude of the threat behind the anti-government campaign by the Nepalis. Security forces were rushed to the south after these incidents to guard important installations and social infrastructure. Security officials point out that the 1990 demonstrations, covering more than 700 kilometres of rugged terrain and dense forest with no public communication facilities, were organised with a ruthless efficiency. Such a coordinated programme needed planning, funds, and professional advice.
The police force suffered one dead, two kidnapped, and nine injured during the demonstrations. A forest range officer and two forest guards were also kidnapped. While a BPP spokesman claimed that up to 500 people had been killed in Samchi, and hundreds more injured, the Amnesty International report last year confirmed just one death. But the 1990 demonstrations took a far greater psychological toll than the physical impact. The cultural humiliation was symbolic, and many Bhutanese in Thimphu still describe their own helplessness and shock when, in their own offices and work stations, Lhotshampa colleagues began voicing their support for the movement. It was possibly this stage of the movement which created an abysmal ethnic chasm that is now getting increasingly difficult to bridge.
Today many people feel that, while the demonstrations unnerved the entire Bhutanese population and left a permanent scar on their minds. it had not succeeded as an invasion because it did not enjoy mass support at that stage. It was supported by the Nepali population outside Bhutan, but the economic boom in Southern Bhutan, that many Lhotshampas enjoyed dissuaded them from risking hearth and home for a movement that had not yet proved itself.
Bhutan's crisis is shrouded in issues: democracy, human rights, ethnic cleansing, greater Nepal, cultural invasion, Gurkha land, and racial discrimination, are some raised by the dissidents. But political analysts point out that there are always numerous issues in politics. Often, they are never the real causes. It is important, however, to examine the issues because, while they may be just slogans and political symbols, they can sometimes become the cause.
The 1988 census conducted by the government was aimed at identifying the illegal immigrants from Bhutanese citizens. The timing of the census was influenced by the violent GNLF agitation in neighbouring Darjeeling, which had sent many Nepalis seeking shelter in Southern Bhutan. The census assumed special urgency when the government realised that it was not possible to physically differentiate illegal immigrants from bonafide Bhutanese citizens and when it discovered that there had been large-scale illegal immigration into Southern Bhutan by ethnic Nepalis over the years.
The citizenship law of Bhutan thus became a vital issue affecting the current crisis. With the world focusing on the 70,000 people living in the refugee camps in Nepal, the key question is whether they were Bhutanese citizens in the first place. The refugees claim to be Bhutanese citizens, unfairly displaced. Bhutan maintains that they are not Bhutanese but a mixture of people who had come illegally into Bhutan, those who had worked in Bhutan and attempted to stay on, economic migrants from neighbouring parts of India and Nepal itself, and Bhutanese nationals who had emigrated of their own free will in response to the persuasion by dissident leaders.
The dissident movement picked up momentum and the outflow of people from Bhutan began in 1988, after the government census indicated that a large proportion of those living in the south were illegal immigrants who had infiltrated across the porous border. The government refused their claims to citizenship. It also rejected allegations that the entire census exercise had been held to expel ethnic Nepalis through a retroactive citizenship law. The allegation is that the citizenship law had been passed in 1985 with a cut-off date of 1958. The Bhutanese citizenship laws, enacted in 1958, 1977, and 1985, are reflected in the Amnesty International report of 1992. The laws themselves have no ambiguity: immigrants cannot claim citizenship, unless they were naturalised and were living in Bhutan in 1958. Judiciary officials also explain that 1958 was not a blind cut-off year. It was the year when the country's first Citizenship Act was passed by the National Assembly to grant Bhutanese citizenship to ethnic Nepalis who had been in the country for at least 10 years and owned agricultural land. Until then, the Nepalis had all been aliens. The relevant clause of the 1958 Act states:
"If any foreigner who has reached the age of majority and is otherwise eligible presents a petition to an official appointed by His Majesty and takes an oath of loyalty according to the rules laid down by the official, he may be enrolled as a Bhutanese national provided that - a) The person is a resident of the kingdom of Bhutan for more than 10 years: and - b) Owns agricultural land within the kingdom."
The judiciary officials also point out that the 1985 Act is a more liberal interpretation of the 1958 Act because it does not require a person claiming citizenship to prove he was a resident in Bhutan for 10 years but instead accepts his claim if he was a resident in 1958, when the first Citizenship Act was passed. The relevant clause in the 1985 Act states:
"A person permanently domiciled in Bhutan on or before 31st December, 1958, and whose name is registered in the census registration maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs shall be deemed a citizen of Bhutan by registration."
The citizenship law affected a large number of Nepalis who had come to Bhutan after 1958. Bhutanese officials point out that, while none of these people had actually applied for citizenship, many had registered as citizens with the collusion of the village headmen who had been given the authority to maintain the local records. Once the Illegal immigrants had intermarried and developed family ties in Southern Bhutan many Lhotshampas were also affected because the 1985 Act required both parents to be citizens for a person to be entitled to citizenship. Neither did the Act entitle non Bhutanese spouses to automatic citizenship.
In November, 1988, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck recommended to the National Assembly that residence permits should be issued to foreigners married to Bhutanese citizens to ease their inconvenience. The king said that it was not the intention of the government to separate parents and children and husbands and wives. Non-nationals married to Bhutanese citizens, he said, should be given special resident permits that would entitle them to health, education, and other social welfare benefits available to bonafide citizens.
Government officials point out that the dissident groups oppose the 1985 Citizenship Act because its proper implementation affects their aspirations to create a Nepali-dominated state in Bhutan. They see this intention in the dissidents' demand that citizenship should be granted to all non-nationals who were in Bhutan before 1985.
"Do long-term illegal squatters have a formal right to citizenship ?" asks a Western writer. The government of Bhutan maintains that no country can afford to absorb such a large number of illegal immigrants, least of all a small country like Bhutan. Senior government officials express their alarm at the demands already voiced by dissident leaders and point out the demographic threat that had already emerged: until 1958, the Nepalis were all aliens. In 30 years, they were claiming to be the Bhutanese majority.
Bhutanese census officials also reject the charge that, in its move to evict even Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin, the government has asked, as proof, documents that farmers do not usually keep. According to the census system, every block (group of villages) in, the south has a census team - comprising a census official and Lhotshampa village elders - to certify a person's domicile in the country before 1958 if the person cannot produce the relevent documents. If domicile in the country in 1958 is proved, with or without documents, citizenship is automatic.
One of the most misunderstood policies of the Bhutanese government is driglam namzha, literally translated as "traditional values and etiquette", which has been emphasised since the country's Sixth Plan to "promote national integration and the Bhutanese identity." While the concept of driglam anmzha itself reflects the deep roots of the Bhutanese culture and identity that evolved since the 17th century, the dissidents have described it as a new discriminatory policy to provoke the Lhotshampa population. In the context of today's problem, the loose interpretation of driglam namzha focuses on the dress code and language rule. The Ministry of Home Affairs explains that the policy on driglam namzha was implemented only after consulting the people. An edict was first issued by the king on January 16, 1989, proclaiming the importance and need to promote a national dress, language, and driglam namzha to strengthen Bhutan's unique national identity. The district development committees were instructed to consult the people and submit their views to the government. After receiving reports from all the districts that the people fully supported the policy. the king toured all the districts In Southern Bhutan to meet the people and confirm the reports submitted by the DYTs.
On the national dress, the king gave the people the option to select a distinct dress which would reflect Bhutan's unique identity. The Home Ministry points out that the people themselves had selected the gho and kira - the dress of the northern Bhutanese - as the most suitable national dress.
The national dress regulation, which requires all Bhutanese to wear the national dress at all religious institutions and functions, government offices and formal gatherings, has been frequently criticised by dissident groups. The rule applies nation-wide and is believed to "inconvenience" the trendy youth more than any other section of society but, coming at a time when tones of ethnicity had entered the movement, it was protested as cultural discrimination.
The Bhutanese government has admitted that, while the rule itself was clear and was necessary to promote the national identity of a small country like Bhutan, it had been implemented with "unnecessary vigour by some overzealous district officials" who made the dress mandatory at all times and all places and administered fines and penalties for those violating the rule. Today, this rule is implemented more faithfully, and Dzongdas invite critics to "go to the villages and see for themselves".
The controversy over the Nepali language, meanwhile, rose after the Education Department discontinued Nepali from the syllabus in the primary schools in the south. The department, however, maintains that this was done for practical reasons, with the introduction of a programme called the New Approach to Primary Education, and the Education Board's view that it was too much of a strain on small children to learn a third language in addition to English and Dzongkha. The government explains that Nepali was merely dropped from the school curriculum and not banned. It is still officially used and, in fact, the National Assembly proceedings are simultaneously interpreted into Nepali. The national newspaper is published in Nepali as well as Dzongkha and English and the national radio service also broadcasts in Nepali.
The graphic allegations of military violence against the people have been categorically denied by the Bhutanese government. But observers point out hat, under the pressures and tension Southern Bhutan saw in the last few years, it is likely that the security troops were sometimes rough In their treatment of the militants. Working under severe restraint from the government, with numerous attacks and provocation by the terrorists, it is believed that there are cases - even if rare incidents - of militants being beaten. In an extreme case in 1990, four militants were shot by security troops when an armed mob of more than 200 attempted to snatch the guns from the hands of the soldiers, not expecting them to retaliate because of the government's standing instructions not to use firearms.
The Bhutanese government has denounced, at the highest level, the misuse of authority and position by officials and the use of force by the security forces. In January. 1992, the king issued an edict that was read to the public in the southern districts:
"...Regarding this matter, any Bhutanese national who desires to give up Bhutanese citizenship and emigrate to another country is free to do so according to the law. However, it is a serious violation of the law and a punishable offence for any administrative or security official to force any Bhutanese national to leave the country..."
Subsequently, three senior government officials were tried by the High Court, Bhutan's highest legal authority, and were punished for using their position and authority to purchase property at unfair prices from people leaving the country and for pressurising one Lhotshampa family to leave. The police chief in the same district was punished for the same reasons. In a separate incident in February, 1991, a police officer and one constable were court-martialed for "over reacting" and killing a man when some miscreants attacked a police jeep. But, generally, the security troops confidentially express their frustrations with what they see as a restriction which puts their lives at grave risk. A common complaint among those posted near the borders is that the terrorists taunt them at every turn, because they are aware that security troops are not allowed to use their weapons. In several incidents during the 1990 demonstrations, police officers and constables suffered serious injuries at the hands of the mobs because they complied with the government's instructions not to use their firearms. A police officer in Pagli held on to his gun while he was slashed by some demonstrators with their khukuris, while two constables under his command were kidnapped by the mob because they did not fire their guns to defend themselves. A police officer in Geylegphug sub district was seriously wounded because he did not fire his pistol even when he was attacked with knives by members of the mob.
Government officials categorically deny that there has been any systematic intimidation of the Lhotshampas. They have also pointed out that, besides the close surveillance over the troops posted in Southern Bhutan, strict instructions have been issued that women should not be detained.
But with the Increasing consciousness and awareness among the people, the human rights situation remains a chief concern of both the government of Bhutan and the International Community. In response to the wide-ranging allegations, Bhutan invited Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the kingdom. In what was widely seen as a relatively favourable report on Bhutan, Amnesty Intemational's much-awaited comments cleared the kingdom of many allegations of human rights violations. The report also welcomed the amnesty granted by the King to more than 1, 500 detainees and expressed its concerns about six prisoners of conscience, five of whom have been released since then and one brought to trial.
The call for democracy and human rights by the dissident movement was reportedly picked up after the leaders made contact with more experienced 'advisors'. A professor of political science at the North Bengal University, which maintains a close academic scrutiny of the region, points out that It was a shrewd political move boosted by Nepal's successful transition to democracy in 1990. But he also points out that, if it is a sign that the movement is gaining experience, the call for democracy is tinged by the ethnicity of the movement the fact that there is not a single non-Nepali involved.
The Bhutanese government argues that, without a genuine commitment to the true spirit and substance of democracy, the anti-govemment movement has actually been campaigning for its own version of electoral democracy to recruit enough voting power, both from inside and outside the country, to achieve its real motive of taking over political power. Meanwhile, recent debate in Europe indicates that Western countries are beginning to accept that democracy does not necessarily mean a Westem-style government. The spirit and substance of democracy can be as effectively adopted in different forms of government.
Monarchy is seen by the Bhutanese as the essence of the 'Bhutanese system' and the unifying foundation of society. At the same time, Bhutanese monarchy is inherently democratic, and it is the king who has initiated several steps to establish democratic Institutions in the country. In recent years, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has relinquished several key positions, including the Chairmanship of the Planning Commission, and has given the Royal Advisoiy Council the authority to report to the National Assembly against the king's own actions. Another significant initiative by the king is the policy of decentralisation, aimed at taking the planning and decision-making process to the people. This was further strengthened with the establishment of 196 block-level committees throughout the, country, to encourage an increased awareness of development and politics among the rural population. In October, 1992, the king issued a decree giving the media full autonomy from the government, signalling the beginning of a free press in the kingdom.
Throughout his reign the king has been reminding the people of Bhutan that the country's future lies in their hands and that they must prepare themselves to shoulder this responsibility. He has also often told journalists that he does not think monarchy is the best form of government because it is dependent on a single individual who assumes a position of authority by birth and not by merit. "I have no objections to any political changes so long as it is a better system that will be lasting and good for Bhutan and the Bhutanese people."
Because of Bhutan's small size and because it is at the cross road of development, the king believes that it is possible to fulfill his vision of building a good system of government that Is not dependent on any Individual or personalities, a system that will function efficiently because of its built-in merits and will be of the greatest benefit to the country's future interest, security and well-being.
Historians maintain that the real causes of political movements are sometimes never identified because they are covered by a smoke screen of issues and slogans and that the only way to take a clear look at the picture Is to put It into perspective. Bhutan and the Bhutanese problem, therefore, should be put into a historical, geographical, and political frame.
This is where most of the issues share an essence - ethnicity and the politics of demography. Put into a regional perspective, Bhutan is cringing at what it sees as a demographic invasion as the Nepali population pans the entire Himalayan belt. Highlighting a ratio of one Drukpa to 70 Nepalis in the region and looking at the migratory habits of the rapidly expanding Nepali population, Bhutan sees its very survival as a distinct nation threatened.
Given this demographic map and the factors that have given today's dissident movement its tone, it is clear that Bhutan's crisis was inevitable. Surrounded geographically, politically, and in demography by Nepalis, the Bhutanese mind is constantly stalked by the threat of a cultural invasion as the eastward migration of the Nepalis swallows up the smaller cultural groups in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and the West Bengal Duars.
It was politically significant that, at this stage, the dissidents also picked up the theme of "Gurkha power". A dissident pamphlet declared: "Rather than adopt the Drukpa customs and dress we Gurkhas must insist that, as we are the majority, they the Drukpas must accept our customs and traditions. If this is not acceptable to them. then we must fight for our rights like the Tamils of Sri Lanka and like them we must call upon the support of our brothers and sisters in Nepal and India in our liberation struggle ... We the Gurkhas must all unite together and create another Gurkha state in Bhutan and extend the borders of Gurkha states along the Himalayas which has always been the rightful home of our people."
It is widely accepted that the Nepali psyche is far more politically mature than the Bhutanese mentality, which is still thawing from years of self-imposed isolation. Given the demographic threat, it was also inevitable that ethnicity entered the dissident movement In Bhutan right from its beginning. After Sikkimese Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari, consolidated his power and GNLF supremo Subhash Ghising formed his hill council, the movement was given its stimuli along ethnic lines.
These developments obviously aroused Nepali nationalism, and Thimphu could not miss the elation of the dissident movement, which began moving its bases-into Nepal in 1990. The "Greater Nepal' or Gurkhaland concept also loomed in the background as Kathmandu voiced moral support for the movement for "democracy and human rights" in Bhutan. Prime Minister G. P. Koirala himself announced that he had helped organise, on Bhutanese soil, the Nepal! dissident organisation called the Bhutan State Congress in the early 1950s.
Neither could the international scenario be more accommodating as democracy became a trend across the globe, from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe, and to Nepal itself, which overthrew a 350-year-old monarchy. Along with the new slogans for democracy came the concept of human rights, which was yet another winner with the international community. As the camps in Nepal began to swell with tenants who brought with them horror stories of physical and mental abuse. the observers began turning a critical eye towards Bhutan. With the Western governments linking aid with human rights, the allegations of government atrocities and the plight of the refugees have been translated Into pressure on Thimphu and a boost for the anti-government movement.
Thus the timing became a key factor for the growth of the movement. A dissident publication urged Nepalis to take up arms against the government:
"It is time for us to say to ourselves ... we have nothing to lose, but gain. The hour has struck for the historic conflict."
But Bhutan, too, has much to ask of itself. Why were the major steps like the census exercise taken in 1988? If the threat was a demographic invasion by the Nepalis, why was it not conducted earlier? Did the government of Bhutan lack the political acumen to foresee the problem? Was it too complacent or too naive? Was it caught napping?
According to senior Bhutanese officials, the answers lie in the question of priorities and the preoccupation of the Bhutanese leadership. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck took on himself the burden of launching Bhutan on to the path of modernisation in the early 1960s.
Soon after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck assumed the throne at the age of 17, in 1972, he turned his attention to development, and the widely acclaimed goal of "Gross National Happiness" became the priority of the decade. He was preoccupied with the policy of promoting economic self-reliance and creating individual development plans for every district. When the king did turn to the ethnic Nepali minority, his approach was integration, and the efforts to encourage the Nepalis into the national mainstream became an important national policy. But, Bhutanese officials point out, the policies aimed at promoting national integration and creating "one nation, one people" were seen by the ethnic Nepalis as a development that was "harmful to their aim of creating a Nepali-dominated state". An Indian political scientist even asks whether the kinks own development efforts were so successful that it gave this section of the population enough affluence to hunger for power. Many northern Bhutanese even feel that the kinks preferential treatment of the Lhotshampas actually contributed to this problem. Observers also continue to question the factors which led the nation into its predicament.
For Bhutan, it is time for soul-searching. In three decades of planned development, the kingdom had taken such great strides in the process of modernisation that, by the 1980s, the government may have outdone itself in development, oblivious to the ethnic cauldron brewing under the surface. Having skipped generations of the growth process, Bhutan faces many dilemmas: satellite communication has come while roads are still being constructed, computers have come in before typewriters, faxes before telephone lines. Behind the deceptive facade of sophistication is a raw and relatively unexposed society. Is the international community judging the kingdom by standards it cannot afford ? Is it expecting too much ?
Bhutan has been viewed with suspicion for what has been described as its "hermit" mentality, the self-imposed isolation that has shaped the national image and kept the kingdom hidden from the world. It was this psyche that led to a restricted tourism policy and injected a note of extreme caution into every facet of its development. It was also this thinking that has determined Bhutan's priorities and values since it emerged from its jealously guarded isolation 30 years ago.
The Bhutanese are far from being xenophobic. The relatively few people who have visited or worked in the kingdom will agree that the people are more open and uncomplicated than most Asians. But the discerning visitor also points out that the years of being cushioned in the security of their "Shangri-La" has left the people less exposed to the current realities than, for example, their Nepali neighbours. And it was, perhaps, this innocence - or naiveté - that left them oblivious to a sizzling fuse even as they sat on the powder keg.
In the past, the world spoke of subjects rat-her than citizens, territories rather than state boundaries, military power rather than cultural identity. The concept of national boundaries and nation states were only conceived this century, and the Bhutanese leadership displayed remarkable foresight by not only tuning in to this perception but by making this cultural sensitivity the very essence of Bhutan's existence.
Bhutan's political and cultural identity, drawn from the Drukpa Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism, became clearly defined in the mid- 1 7th century during the rule of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Today, it has become a cause of fierce pride to the Bhutanese that the Drukpa identity became so distinct it provided the cohesion for Bhutan to resist numerous external invasions. Bhutan was never colonised and remained a sovereign independent country.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck repeatedly told his people that, without economic or military might, Bhutan's strength as a nation lay in its unique and distinct identity. It was this identity that protected and preserved Bhutan and also provided the foundation for its major policies. Today, it is this identity which stands on trial as the demographic pressures of the region encroach on the existing balance.
Bhutan's critics describe this psyche as Drukpa chauvinism. But historians regard it as the threat perception of a small country with a small population. The Bhutanese see themselves as "an endangered species". Bhutan's survival has been threatened, and it is reacting.
But the Bhutanese response, in many ways, is characterised by the lack of political and international experience. While it has history, logic, and legal justifications on its side, Bhutan has lost on the slogans required in modem political warfare. As a result, it risks losing international sympathy. In the age of communications, Bhutan lacks the media tools and the public relations know-how to articulate its own sensitivities and to respond to aggressive propaganda. Bhutan does not yet have a media policy to deal with the issue. And this has become a major disadvantage because Bhutan has no defense when the media and international establishments view the government - especially a monarchy - with suspicion.
Within the country itself, the people have reacted to the problem with anxiety, then anger. As a series of shock waves in the first two years of the, movement appeared to threaten the country and their very existence, the Bhutanese of non-Nepali origin took a hard-line stand on the problem. Fuelled by the ethnicity of the movement, the elected representatives of the people in the country's legislative body, the National Assembly, not only rejected the demands of the dissidents, but have been criticising the government for compromising the security of the country.
In the last two sessions of the 154-member National Assembly, the 105 people's representatives directed the emotion-charged debate against the government, even critising the king for adopting what they saw as a conciliatory and weak stand on the problem. The specific demands included the punishment of all 'anti-nationals", eviction of their families, and even ridding the civil service of all Lhotshampas.
As a result, the government of Bhutan treads a delicate path, wedged between the hard-line pressure from the Bhutanese majority, allegations by the dissidents of a variety of human rights violations, and international concern for the 70, 000 people who have been displaced in the crisis.
At the helm, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is confronted with the greatest challenge a monarch could face: a threat to the survival of his country. In 199 1, the king responded to the crisis with a pledge that shook the nation: "If I, as the king, cannot protect the sovereignty and integrity of our country and ensure a secure future for our people, then it is my duty to accept full responsibility and abdicate." The National Assembly struck a deal with the king. It withdrew its opposition to the king's policy of "balanced development" and reposed in him the full responsibility of solving the "anti-national problem". Since then, the government has allocated a substantial chunk of the national budget for the southern districts in the country's seventh development plan, which began last year. Schools and health facilities have been opened and development projects, which were closed when the violence erupted, have been resumed.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has also directed much of his dynamism towards the problem which paralysed much of Southern Bhutan. He tours the southern districts by road almost every month and walks through the villages to talk to the people. He issued several edicts to protect the Lhotsampa population against the alleged abuses by district officials, and waived rural taxes to stem the flow of Lhotshampas migrating towards Nepal.
Since 1990, the king has released a total of 1,577 people detained for antigovernment activities and commanded the trials of those responsible for sedition and terrorism. Observers have viewed the moderate moves with relief, especially after the government invited Amnesty International to visit the kingdom to investigate allegations of human rights violations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to work with the government on prison conditions. Both organisations have expressed their satisfaction with these moves.
On the issue of the refugees in Nepal, attention shifted from Southern Bhutan to the camps in Nepal and now focuses on the political arena, awaiting the twice postponed meeting between King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Prime Minister G. P. Koirala of Nepal, which will be held during the SAARC summit now scheduled for April.
"History has been unkind to kings," King Jigme Singye Wangchuck once told a journalist. But if history was unkind to kings, the modern times are not any kinder. The pressures mount against the King of Bhutan as he leads the Bhutanese people in a fight for the survival of their country and for the protection of a rare and unique Buddhist culture that deserves its precious place in human history.