The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, March 31, 2012

GNH, Gross National Happiness: Continuation of Lies and atrocities.

Amid Bhutan Happy Talk, Its PM Calls Refugees "Hordes" That "Threaten Stability"

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, March 29 -- When Bhutan's Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley appeared at the UN Thursday promoting his country's Gross National Happiness concept and a conference set for April 2, Inner City Press asked him a less happy question: what about the refugees chased out of Bhutan?

Some have called this ouster of Lhotshampa people akin to ethnic cleansing; people have languished in refugee camps in Nepal for well over a decade. Inner City Press asked, what about their happiness?

Thinley essentially argued that the Lhotshampa were or are not Bhutanese, that they came as "hordes" of economic refugees but Bhutan could not afford them. He told Inner City Press, "Bhutan became an attractive destination to people driven from their homes by ecological issues, economic and political instability, mostly coming from one particular country, Nepal."

Sounding like a number of other countries, Thinley said the Bhutanese "government had to take steps to assure its own security. Tt was the later hordes of people, numbers that threatened stability [and] led to certain administrative measures -- legal, constitutional -- led to situation you mention."

In a final burst of happy talk, Thinley said that it's "showing signs of a durable solution, Nepal and Bhutan are engaged in dialogue on how the should share the responsibility over those people located in refugee camps in the event these people have no options."

The option, which opened only after a decade of unhappiness or worse, has been resettlement out of the region. Perhaps after much suffering some refugees are made happy. But it seems incongruous. Watch this site. Click here


Those fulfilling set criteria will be accepted back home : PM Thinley

Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley on Thursday told media persons in Thimphu that his government was positive about solving the long running problems of “people in camps in Nepal” that has persisted over two decades.

PM Thinley
He told that the government serious to find a solution to the problem of people in the camps in Nepal that has often been blamed for taking Bhutan-Nepal relations into ransom, reports from inside said.
The Prime Minister expressed the government’s concerns over the people in the camps being one of the biggest problems, which continue to threaten the peace and stability of the country.
“Presently the position of the government is, we will take back anybody who fulfills the criteria agreed upon between Nepal and Bhutan in the bilateral discussion,” online edition of the Business Bhutan quoted the PM as saying.
He also reinstated that the bilateral talks on the repatriation between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan were stalled after a Bhutanese delegation was assaulted by the mob in the camps.
However, during the press meet, the PM also claimed that Bhutan is interested to initiate bilateral talks with the Nepal government soon.
“We need to resolve the issue quickly but a solution has not been easy to find as the two countries have struggled to find a solution for many years,” he said adding,” Almost a decade after the two governments broke talks on repatriation of people in the camps.”
According to Thinley’s claim, it was he who asked his Nepalese counterpart Dr Baburam Bhattarai to resume discussions on exiled citizens
“Now it appears that the majority of people in the camps have already registered for resettlement in the third world countries,” added the PM.
Interesting he maintained that whatever the status, background or the rights or the lack of rights of the people might be, the fact is because Bhutan is directly associated with the huge population in the camp, it has very strong security and political implications for Bhutan.
Shameless Bhutanese rulers and the refugees
Like the tyrant of Libya, who labeled his oppositions as cockroaches and drunkards, the Bhutanese ruler too labeled us as economic migrants, without knowing that our forefathers were migrated to Bhutan much before even the present Wangchuk dynasty arrived in Bhutan to seize power.

Dr Bhampa Rai

Dr Bhampa RaiIn his recent visit to Nepal, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley did not speak like a responsible executive of any democratic country thereby raising a question whether Bhutan is a democratic nation. Taking advantage of the present position of the Government of Nepal and ignorant Bhutanese refugees, he casually defied all the decisions and steps taken by the two governments after constituting a Joint Verification Team (JVT) that verified one of the seven UN-administered camps in eastern Nepal and proved at least 74 percent refugees as genuine Bhutanese. The remaining 26 percent were not recognized as Bhutanese by the JVT as they could not produce their documents which were confiscated by the Bhutanese authority during military crackdown on them before eviction. Shamelessly, Thinley is back to the square questioning the identity and background of the Bhutanese refugees that he also knows as Bhutanese. Thus, a question arises as who decides such matter of the kingdom of Bhutan? It is not the Prime Minister for sure.

As the tyrant ruler of Libya, who labeled his oppositions as cockroaches and drunkards, multi-faced Bhutanese ruler too labeled us as economic migrants, without knowing that our forefathers were migrated to Bhutan much before even the present Wangchuk dynasty arrived in Bhutan to seize power. Shameless Thinley or his king can label us as disgruntled Bhutanese, terrorists and anti-nationals, but these are all allegations for refugees in camps of Jhapa and Morang as none other than bona fide Bhutanese citizens. In this regard, we are ready to prove ourselves to be bona fide Bhutanese if the Bhutanese ruler really dares to sit across the table in the presence of the international community. Is Thinley who currently heads the Government of Bhutan ready for that?

After Thinley assumed the position of Prime Minister of Bhutan, he started labeling us as "illegal immigrants". He might have thought that this nomenclature will be suitable for convincing international community that so far has been blessing on Bhutan. But, interestingly, he changed his tone during visit to Nepal by saying that “most of the refugees came from India". If what he said is true, why India doesn't show responsibility to solve the problem? Is he also thanking the international community for taking Indian refugees or fooling the international community? Thus, it would be easier for him to advocate in such a manner if he becomes bold enough to term Bhutanese as non-Bhutanese with evidences after sitting across the table with refugees and the international community.

By now the world knows that Bhutan is still ruled by the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk in the name of “unique democracy". That is why it is called “unique democracy” that does no resemble with democracy of other countries. In such situation, the present Prime Minister certainly cannot take decision on the Bhutanese refugee issue, but talked with multiple tongues without proper perspective as he just tried just to do what he was instructed for. If he takes decision to take back the Bhutanese refugees, the bonafide Bhutanese as he knows, he may lose his position within no time and may even be evicted from Bhutan, and labeled as "illegal immigrant".

Media persons, who attended Thinley's media briefing on April 16 in Kathmandu, got an opportunity to know that he arrived in Nepal as chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in a confused state of mind. The scene appeared so interesting that he was instead questioning to journalists asking if they have any proof that the refugees in camps are Bhutanese. He tried a lot to sensitize the matter by repeatedly changing his tone. He was quoted as saying that people in camps are environmental refugees, refugees of political instability and so on. He uttered those words in hurry without accepting the fact that such allegations would instead prove refugees as Bhutanese. There was political instability in Bhutan and the Bhutanese regime promoted green belt policy in the southern belt by expelling the citizens by mobilizing a lot of donations from the United Nations and donor countries. Thus, Bhutanese refugees are both political and environmental refugees. Above all, they are the victims of legal ethnic cleansing practiced by Thinley and his king.

Finally, it can be easily concluded that the most capable and authorized ruler for repatriating the exiled Bhutanese back home is none other than Jigme Singye Wangchuk. It was Wanchuk who evicted more than 100,000 of bona fide Bhutanese during early 90s as they demanded for democracy and human rights. Also, it is the fourth king but not Thinley who dramatically decided to step down from the throne in 2008 for giving so-called democracy to the Bhutanese. Therefore, until such melodrama keep on prevailing from shameless ruler like Thinley the Bhutanese refugees cannot be repatriated.

(Based at Damak of Jhapa, Dr Rai is chairman of the Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee.)



Hon’ble Prime Minister arrives in New York

His Excellency Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley arrived at the JFK international airport in New York City on 28 March, 2012 to attend the “high level meeting on well being and happiness: defining a new economic paradigm”, a first ever conference of this magnitude to be hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan at the United Nations Head Quarters in New York City.
The conference will begin on 2 April and end on 4 April. Apart from the conference, Lyonchhen will also attend a Workshop on Happiness and Sustainable Development at the Low Library, Columbia University on 1 April 2012.y Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley arrived at the JFK international airport in New York City on 28 march 2012 to attend the “high level meeting on well being and happiness: defining a new economic paradigm”, a first ever conference of this magnitude to be hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan at the United Nations Head Quarters in New York City.
More than 30 years ago, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”. Thus began a unique development path and a higher goal for human development than the existing global interpretation of development purely as economic development.Under the intellectual guidance of the present Prime Minister, Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) then began the academic construction of this profound philosophy that the royal government is now translating into policies and focussed activities. And Bhutan is no longer alone in its search for a more integrated approach that joins social, economic, and environmental objectives.
As the world faces multiple ecological and socio-economic crises, Bhutan’s holistic development approach is drawing growing international attention, acceptance, and support. President Sarkozy of France noted that the global financial and European debt crisis “doesn’t only make us free to imagine other models, another future, and another world. It obliges us to do so.” And the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has brought wellbeing into the UK’s core measures of progress, declaring: “Improving our society’s sense of well-being is…the central political challenge of our times.”
This emerging international consensus was manifested in July last year when 68 countries joined Bhutan to co-sponsor a UN resolution on “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” which was adopted by consensus by the 193-member United Nations. The resolution stated that “happiness is a fundamental human goal and universal aspiration; that GDP by its nature does not reflect that goal; that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption impede sustainable development; and that a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance wellbeing”.
On 2nd April, 2012, Bhutan will host a major high-level meeting at the United Nations in New York to discuss and draw up a new global wellbeing and sustainability-based economic paradigm to replace a system that is in rapid melt-down world-wide. The meeting will be attended by the United Nations Secretary-General, Nobel Laureates like economist Joseph Stiglitz and the President of Costa Rica which was last year ranked the “greenest country in the world”, and 450 eminent participants from governments, international organisations, civil society and media, top economists and scholars, and spiritual and faith leaders. This unique meeting of minds and spirit will not be a talking shop but a vigorous discourse in an earnest effort to design and launch a new economy.
The conference will produce practical policy recommendations that governments can adopt to move towards a new economic paradigm, a communications plan, an expert task force to flesh out the details, structures, principles, and regulatory mechanisms of the new economic model, and strategies to build a global movement and bring the new paradigm into the Rio + 20 summit deliberations.
Bhutan believes that the global community can find a sound basis for this new thinking in the enlightened philosophy of Gross National Happiness. As a small country with big ideals Bhutan hopes that this guide to development and change will inspire the changes that the world desperately needs today.
To watch Hon’ble PM at a press conference in New York, go to



Bhutan's road to happiness

Two very defined commitments in Bhutan — one to democracy, the other to cultural preservation — seem about to collide.

Bhutan gross national happiness 2011 09 21
A Bhutanese schoolchild stands on a make-shift bridge in Thimphu on Aug. 18, 2011. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK — Bhutan has a thing for happiness.
As if it weren’t enough that the mountainous country falls amid some of the most pristine and profitable rivers in the world, the right to happiness is actually prescribed by royal decree and the national constitution.
Rather than your run-of-the-mill gross-domestic product, Bhutan — a country of less than 800,000 residents sandwiched between China and India — instead favors its homegrown GNH: Gross National Happiness.
But there appears to be a growing confusion over what this happiness means.
Bhutan, emerging from centuries of isolation tucked away deep in the Himalayas, teems with paradoxes and dichotomies.
“We’re not a democracy yet. We’re an emerging democracy.”
~Bhutan’s first-democratically elected prime minister, Jigme Thinley
While clinging to centuries-old traditions, it races for development. Sometimes, cultural preservation trumps profit. Other times, it doesn’t. Officials say democracy, which only came to Bhutan in March of 2008, is paramount. But people don't always understand why.
More from GlobalPost: Why Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness" is a joke
“Democracy came not by the will of the people, but by the will of the king,” said Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister, Jigme Thinley, in New York on Monday for a United Nations summit.
“The [international community] all says, ‘Bhutan’s democracy has been successful.’ And my response is: ‘We’re not a democracy yet. We’re an emerging democracy.’ The biggest challenge that we are faced with is the promotion of, or the development of, the democratic culture,” he said.
Indeed, the country only held its first local elections last June. Yet, Bhutan’s central government, led by the Penn State-educated Thinley, appears to be a solid one, pursuing a classic model of state formation in communities unfamiliar with what a state is.
Before democracy can thrive, Thinley continued, the benefits of a strong centralized state must assume salience. He reasons that if the government can provide actual benefits to the people, then a communal commitment to democracy — not just happiness — will follow.
Bhutan’s recent budgets routinely throw more than 20 percent of its allocations at education and health care.
Health centers have sprouted in even the most inhospitable areas and the infant-mortality rate has plummeted from more than 10 percent in 2005 to less than 5 percent today, according to CIA records.
Photos: Bhutan's forgotten exodus
A nascent grid of roads and electricity has stitched together the hinterlands, driving a steady stream of young people to the cities and towns for education. Modernization has become a buzz word.
But for exactly these reasons, there are murmurs of concern across Bhutan. Many ask, what’s more important — culture, or development?
“It’s a difficult balance, and it will continue to be a difficult balance,” said Druk Zom, 40, who came to the United States 10 years ago from rural eastern Bhutan. “Especially for teenagers and anyone in the next generation, because for them, they feel so cool when they can dress up like foreigners.”
Such trepidations contrast Bhutan and its people with other developing Asian nations that have come under criticism for allowing teeny-bop development to outpace substantive education. Cambodia, for instance, pursues skyscrapers in Phnom Penh while rural schools atrophy.
“In the pursuit of happiness, it’s important to balance your material needs with your mental needs,” Thinley said. “As some countries become richer materially, they become poorer spiritually, so [development] often comes at the cost of spiritual impoverishment.”
But happiness, it turns out, can make for fastidious decision-making. Especially for a country like Bhutan.
There are endlessly complex laws regulating foreign investment. The Bhutanese government prohibits foreign timbering, tobacco products, hotels below three stars, or anything else that may damage the environment or taint Bhutanese culture.
In the Heritage Foundation’s freedom of foreign investment index, Bhutan received a score of 20 out of 100, 30 points below the international average. Last year, Bhutan got a score of 15.
More from GlobalPost: Penis worship in Bhutan
Only a few 100-percent direct foreign investments have wriggled into the isolated kingdom — the first such experiment being hazelnuts. That’s right, within six years, Bhutan will be mass-exporting a key ingredient of chocolate, Nutella spread, and Ferrero Rochers.
“Our team feels a profound sense of responsibility to make this venture a success,” wrote Daniel Spitzer, chief executive officer of Mountain Hazelnut Venture, in an email. “Bhutan is at an inflection point transitioning from a traditional society into a ‘market-based economy, with Bhutanese-characteristics.’”
Outside of hazelnuts, though, “a lot of foreign investors aren’t coming forward,” said Bruce Bunting, president of the Bhutan Foundation in Washington D.C.
“Bhutan is a niche market and very unique,” he said, adding that he doesn’t blame the country’s hyper-selective financial policies. “Foreign investors just don’t see it. They don’t get the point in Bhutan.”
Two very defined commitments in Bhutan — one to democracy, the other to cultural preservation — seem about to collide.
If Thinley is to be believed, and the country’s democracy does hinge on spreading societal benefits, the government will need more money in the coming years.
But it may not have its rivers as a reliable source, which currently contribute more than half of the country’s $650 million in revenues through hydropower sales to India. As the grip of climate change tightens around South Asia, Bhutan’s waterways will likely continue their already steep declines.
“It’s a big concern,” Thinley said. “A major concern. Our rivers are withdrawing very fast. Bhutan could lose the very way nature creates the flow of water.”
As such, the country could either potentially throw itself open to rampant tourism — think Thailand — or team up with foreign investments that aren’t culturally palatable. Or Bhutan could forego dealings with foreigners, lose out on some money, and jeopardize its “emerging democracy.”
Neither option seems particularly happy.



Erie refugees get mini-makeovers, empowered

By ERICA ERWIN, Erie Times-News

Tila Adhikari sat in the stylist's chair, waiting for a good chunk of her long black hair to disappear.

Nine-plus inches and more than a half-hour later, she looked in the mirror.

And she smiled.

"I feel very good," Adhikari, a 42-year-old native of Bhutan and a refugee from Nepal, said later through an interpreter. "I like it because it feels lighter. It was too heavy before. I feel like I'm pretty."

Adhikari was one of four women refugees, all Bhutanese, who received mini-makeovers earlier this week courtesy of Simplee Hair, 1008 E. 38th St.

St. Benedict Education Center, a nonprofit agency that offers language classes, workforce preparation, job placement and other services to the refugees, arranged the trip to the salon.

The center also took the same group of women to Dress for Success Erie, a nonprofit on Eat 38th Street that works to outfit women for the workplace.

The idea behind the new clothes and new hair? Empower women.

See Sunday's Erie Times-News and for more coverage.


From this Blog

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Taste of Harmony

MERYL NAIDOO | March 21, 2012 09.54am

RHH staff members from left, Hayyani Jasmin of Sandy Bay, Carly Williams of Montrose and Anila Drew of Hobart

EMBRACING multiculturalism in the workplace and raising awareness in the community is the focus of A Taste of Harmony, with more than 200 different nationalities represented in Tasmania.
The top five nations for refugees in 2009-10 were Bhutan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.
The top five nations for non-refugees in 2007-08 were Britain, New Zealand, China, India and South Africa.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics also estimates that in 2006, 30 per cent of Tasmanians had one or more parents born overseas and about 3 per cent spoke languages other than English at home.
The languages most increased in number between 1996 and 2006 were Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog (Philippines) and French.
The Royal Hobart Hospital is one of the local organisations taking part in this year's event, having enjoyed a successful multicultural lunch at their cafeteria last year.
"We found A Taste of Harmony was one of the most popular days for the cafeteria," refugee migrant liaison officer at the hospital Jenny Forward said yesterday.
"We will be celebrating the diverse range of culture again by preparing a multicultural menu of Indian, Italian, Morrocan and Chinese dishes," she said.
The Harmony hospital cafeteria will be open to the public and staff on Friday.
Judith Sweet is the Tasmanian ambassador for A Taste of Harmony.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nepali-speaking Bhutanese (Lhotsampa) Cultural Profile

Author(s): Maya Maxym, MD, PhD
Reviewer(s): Pradeepta Upadhyay; Mitra Dhital
Date Authored: March 01, 2010


The author interviewed approximately 12 recently arrived Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees in the Seattle area. Topics discussed included experience with traditional and Western medicine in Bhutan, in the refugee camps in Nepal, and in the USA, as well ascommon cultural beliefs and practices, particularly as they affect attitudes toward health, health care, and medical providers. Additional and background information was obtained from the websites of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Center for Applied Linguistics, as well as the official government website of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Country of Origin, History, & Politics

The Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, also called Lhotsampas (“People of the south”), are Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin, a large number of whom are refugees from Bhutan. The first report of Nepalese origin in Bhutan was around 1620 when Shamdrung Ngawong Namgyal (a Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan) commissioned a few Newar craftsmen from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to make a silver stupa (monument) for his father, Tempa Nima. There are no references to any further movement of people from Nepal to Bhutan until the beginning of the 19th Century. People from Nepal were invited to populate the lowlands of southern Bhutan in the mid- to late- nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contact between the Druks (Bhutanese) in the north and the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese (Lhotsampas) in the south was limited. Despite living in Bhutan for up to five generations, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. However, they did participate in public life and politics, even attaining positions of significant leadership. The Lhotsampas coexisted peacefully with other ethnic groups in Bhutan until the mid 1980s, when Bhutan’s king and the ruling Druk majority became worried that the growing Lhotsampa population could threaten the majority position and the traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk Bhutanese. The government therefore initiated a campaign, known as “One country, one people,” or “Bhutanization” to cement Bhutanese national identity. The policies imposed the Druk dress code, religious practices, and language use on all Bhutanese regardless of prior practices. These changes negatively impacted the Lhotsampa people, because they did not wear the same traditional dress, practice the same religion, or speak the same language as the northern Bhutanese. The use of the Nepali language was prohibited in schools, many Lhotsampa teachers were dismissed, and textbooks were burned.
Refugee camp in Nepal
Nepali Bhutanese residents of refugee camp in Nepal. Photo by: Mitra Dhital
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a crisis had developed. Human rights violations, including detention, imprisonment without trial, and torture, were not infrequent. In addition, stringent and unrealistic requirements for proving citizenship were imposed on the Lhotsampa people, most of whom were denied recognition of their citizenship even when they were able to provide documentation. By the end of 1992, more than 100,000 Lhotsampas had fled or been forced out of the country, mostly into refugee camps in Nepal, where many remain to this day.
The combined stress of failed bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal, nearly two decades of life in the refugee camps, and poverty, created significant strife between those Lhotsampas who wanted to immigrate to the USA or another Western country and those who felt that accepting resettlement was equivalent to accepting defeat and would make them less able to advocate for the right of return to their country of origin.
Map of Bhutan
A map showing Bhutan's main towns and selected villages. This map's author is CJMoss and the file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License -

Geography, Economy, and Agricultural Practices

In the late nineteenth century, immigrants from Nepal began moving to the southern lowlands of Bhutan. This is a generally temperate area, with abundant, though imperfect, land for farming.
The majority of the Lhotsampa economy in Bhutan was based on agriculture. Predominant crops included wheat, rice, oranges, lemons, sugar cane, peas, squash, soybeans, and especially lentils. Farm animals included buffalo, cows, and goats. Household pets are rare, and dogs are considered to be worthless, to the point where it is an insult to compare a person to a dog.


The Lhotsampas had lived in Bhutan for up to five generations. As a result, most members of the Lhotsampa refugee community are multilingual. At home, Nepali (a language related to Sanskrit) is spoken, but most Lhotsampas also speak the Bhutanese language, Dzongkha. Although not all Lhotsampas had access to school in Bhutan, those who did were exposed to English at an early age, since it is the national language of instruction in Bhutan. Even younger Lhotsampas, who largely grew up in the refugee camps in Nepal, have been regularly exposed to English. Thus, many Lhotsampa refugees feel relatively comfortable communicating in English, although they note that American English, especially when spoken quickly, can be very challenging for them to understand. In the refugee camp, many Lhotsampas were exposed to Indian culture and language via radio and geographic proximity to India. Social circles commonly included Indian friends who didn’t understand Nepali language and so communication would happen in Hindi.

Interpersonal Relationships

A Lhotsampa person is generally known by a first name and a family name. Children are usually given two first names at birth or within the days following. The first name is given to the child by a priest. The second name is given by the parents, which is the name used on the birth certificate. Parents may decide that only one name is needed if they like the priest’s name choice. Parents also decide which of the two names the child will go by.
Like the Nepalese in Nepal, the Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin in Bhutan (Lhotsampas) traditionally divided themselves into castes; a person’s family name often denotes the caste to which s/he belongs. The caste system creates a social hierarchy, identifying individuals’ position in society and influencing their choice of spouse, as well as other social relationships. Caste also typically dictates an individual’s choice of profession and role in society. Historically, among more traditional Lhotsampas, members of different castes did not visit each other’s homes, pray together, or share meals. Southern Bhutanese society is becoming increasingly quite liberal; among those living in Bhutan, the remnants of the caste system are now confined mostly to the Brahmin (priest) community. In the refugee camps in Nepal, and now in the U.S., caste may no longer an issue for some people, while still having importance for others. Some members of the community are casual/nonobservant of caste rules, while among others, an active awareness of caste still has social and behavioral consequences. This system is kept somewhat underground vis-a-vis interactions with Americans.
Living arrangements typically include many members of an extended family, and the younger generation assumes the responsibility of caring for elderly relatives. Within a family, respect is owed to elders, particularly – and regardless of age – by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. The Lhotsampas remove their shoes upon entering a house and consider it good manners to offer tea to any guest. Eye contact during conversation is standard and is not a sign of disrespect.

Marriage, Family, Kinship

Traditionally, marriages took place between members of the same caste and were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. Based historically on customs from Western Nepal, typically when a Lhotsampa boy reached the age of 7 or 8, his parents would begin seeking his bride. When they reached an agreement with the parents of the chosen girl, preparations for the marriage would begin (usually around the age of 7 or 8, though sometimes up to the age of 14). In more recent times, nuptial traditions have changed and even among elders, some unions were made by choice as 'love marriages' as opposed to arranged marriages.
Traditional weddings are great celebrations. Families spend up to a month preparing food and drink, including rice, lentils, a kind of sweetened bread that resembles a doughnut, and a special kind of pickle, called dhulae achar. They also go to the forest to collect many sacks of leaves, which they press and stitch into ceremonial plates that will be used during the wedding celebration.
The wedding celebration occurs at the home of the bride and includes prayers and rituals led by a group of Brahmin (priests), as well as ceremonial drum playing, which is traditionally performed by members of the lowest caste. The bridegroom brings clothes, jewelry, and a bead necklace to the bride’s home, signifying her married status. After the wedding, the bride travels to the bridegroom’s home for a few days. Then she will return home until she reaches the age of 15 or 16, at which time she will move permanently into the home of her husband and his family. Upon marriage, the woman takes the family name of her husband.
There have been many changes in the Lhotsampa community especially in the last two decades, and the tradition of arranged child marriage is fading due to Western influences, displacement and refugee status, and improved education for girls and young women. Many young people are choosing their own partners, and improved secondary and tertiary education, which were available to a significant proportion of the refugees in the Nepal refugee camps, have resulted in career and personal choices that are quite different from those available in traditional Lhotsampa society.

Gender Roles

Traditionally, women participate in equal measure to men in the hard labor associated with farming and other work outside of the home. In addition, women are the primary caregivers for the children in the family and are expected to do virtually all the housework and cooking. An exception is the four-day period during each month, at the time of the woman’s menses, when she is expected to rest. Because she is considered unclean during this time, she may not touch, prepare, or serve any food or drink, and there is a widely held belief that any fruit tree touched by a menstruating woman will become sick and cease to bear good fruit. During this time, other women in the household may take over her work, men may cook and clean, or, where economically feasible, the family may choose to pay a woman from outside the family to prepare meals and help keep the house in order.
In the U.S. Lhotsampa women and men are adopting the American way of life, with women and men sharing family and household responsibilities and women working outside the home. Many are planning to go to community college but first need to take ESL classes in order to be proficient enough in English to enroll.
Lhotsampa refugees in camp
Residents at the Sanischare refugee camp in southeastern Nepal. Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

Family and Kinship Structure

The average family size ranges from 6 to 8 children. Family is one of the highest priorities among the Lhotsampa people. Doors are usually open, and members of the extended family, as well as friends and neighbors, will come and go quite freely. Meals typically include anyone who happens to be at the house at the time.
The community is very tightly knit, and people remain closely connected throughout the life cycle. The elders in the community command deep respect and affection. Very often family issues, health problems, and financial issues are first discussed with the elders in the family. The elders, in turn, may decide to involve additional community elders to deal with the situation and/or find solutions to the problems. The community is generally patriarchal in structure; sons are expected to take care of their parents and provide for them financially and emotionally.
Within the family, there are strong bonds of love and obligation. A daughter-in-law is obligated to care for her mother-in-law (regardless of her age or state of health) from the moment she joins the family. The new bride’s priority must be to keep her mother-in-law happy by preparing food, doing her washing, and massaging her legs in the evenings. This tradition is fading with the transition to life in the refugee camps, and now with the beginning of the transition to life in the USA; however, respect and courtesy will still define this relationship. In the U.S., the demands of work on the younger generation make it difficult to care for elders in traditional ways.

Sexuality, Reproduction, and Pregnancy

Women were required to receive routine prenatal care while in the refugee camps in Nepal. Prior to that, prenatal care was limited (mostly by distance from a physician or clinic), but used when available. Women typically worked in the fields and in the home throughout their pregnancies.
Contraception is now widely accepted and used except by a very few highly traditional individuals. Sexual practices, sexuality, and gynecological conditions, however, are awkward for Lhotsampa women to discuss, particularly those in the older generations, and they may feel more comfortable talking about these topics with female providers. There is limited understanding of the concept and value of preventive health care, particularly among women, many of whom may never have had a mammogram or pap smear in their lives.
In traditional Lhotsampa society, sexuality is a taboo subject, and the ubiquity of sexuality and sexual images in the American media is a cultural shock for many members of the refugee community, especially the elders. Women, particularly younger and/or more educated ones, do discuss sensitive topics amongst themselves, but almost never with elders, male friends, or family members. Sex education did not really have a place in Lhotsampa culture or education, but was standard in the refugee camps; therefore, most refugees under about the age of 35 have been exposed to a relatively standard, if limited, sex ed curriculum.


Childbirth practices have changed with changing access to medical care. Typically, wherever available, medical care (either in-hospital birth or midwife-attended home birth) has been sought. Particularly in remote areas prior to the expulsion from Bhutan, however, home birth with or without a lay midwife was the norm, and some children were even born in the fields where their mothers were working. According to the individuals interviewed for this article, infant mortality was significant, although statistics are not available.

Postpartum Practices

After giving birth, a new mother traditionally rests for eleven days. During this time, she will stay with the baby and nurse the baby, but she does not perform any work or prepare any food. On the eleventh day, the child is named, and a purification ritual, which consists of sprinkling a holy mixture of cow’s urine, yoghurt, milk, a seed named til, and grass on the mother and her home, will be performed by the Brahmin. After this time, the mother will return to work. When the Lhotsampas lived in Bhutan, the mother would often leave her child alone in the home while she went to collect water or work in the fields, although another common practice was to use a cloth to tie the baby on the back and carry water for the day’s work at her side.
Infants are typically breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their life. At six months, solid food (usually rice) is started, a transition called pasni. In Bhutan, if the mother did not have breast milk, babies were typically fed cow’s milk from a bottle; however, in the refugee camps, baby formula (known by its brand name, Unilitto) was widely available.
In Nepal and Bhutan, when babies begin crawling, they are massaged with mustard oil and are placed in the sun to give them strength.
Nepali Bhutanese refugees - child and woman
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN

Child Rearing Practices

Children are generally taught by “guidance” – explanation and example – and are rarely subjected to physical punishment. At the age of 7 for girls and 8 or 9 for boys, the formal transition to adulthood occurs. Girls are given their first sari before puberty and take increased responsibility for household work, while boys receive a symbolic holy thread from a Brahmin in their community. At that time, the Brahmin formalizes the teaching a boy has received from his parents: he tells the boy never to tell lies, to be studious, never to steal, and to respect his elders. The receipt of the holy thread and teachings has traditionally been taken very seriously and marks the transition from boyhood to manhood.
In the U.S., elders may increasingly take on responsibilities of childcare while the mother and father work outside the home.
Food aid in refugee camp in Nepal
Food supplied by UN World Food Program carried by residents of refugee camp in Nepal. Photo by: Mitra Dhital

Nutrition and Food

Many Lhotsampas, like most other Hindus, are vegetarians, although there are certainly exceptions to this rule.
The World Food Program (U.N. food agency) supplies food rations to tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Staple foods include rice and lentils, known as dal. Supply of other foods in the refugee camps was limited, whereas, in Bhutan, the season and farming practices determined other foods that were consumed at various times of the year. Specifically, most Lhotsampas will not touch or eat beef or pork, as this is considered sin in the Hindu religion. It is therefore essential to be respectful of these dietary restrictions when counseling Lhotsampa patients about nutrition. In addition, when religion prohibits touching beef or pork, work in meat processing plants is not feasible. Some members of the younger generation may not adhere to these restrictions.
Meals are generally eaten together as a family. However in the U.S., individuals may be more likely to prepare and eat meals alone in order to balance the demands of work and competing schedules. The kitchen of the home is traditionally considered a sacred space and should not be entered without permission. The caste system is at the root of this belief, intended to keep persons of lower caste from entering.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

The majority of the Lhotsampa people are Hindu, in contrast to the northern Bhutanese, who are almost exclusively Buddhist. However, significant minorities among the Lhotsampas are Buddhist or Christian. Among Hindus, religious leaders and teachers are chosen early in life and taught by the previous generation of Brahmin. They have many responsibilities in the community, including teaching the next generation, leading ceremonies such as weddings and baby-namings, and providing prayer leadership to members of the community on a regular basis. Practices among Buddhists or Christians are largely dictated by their individual religion.
In the U.S., assistance from resettlement agencies typically ends just a few months after refugees arrive in the U.S., rarely enough time for individuals and families to successfully establish themselves in their new lives. Christian churches (many of them Protestant) have been a source of much-needed support for Lhotsampa refugees, inspiring a spirit of conversion and leading some families to choose baptism.
In the Seattle metropolitan area, there are three Hindu temples where Hindu Lhotsampas worship. They are in Kent, Maple Valley, and Bothell.

Death and Dying

The Lhotsampa Hindus believe that reincarnation occurs after a period of 84 million years. Those who have acted well during their lifetimes will be reincarnated as human beings, while those who have acted badly will be boiled in oil in hell and then reincarnated as dogs.
At the time of death, members of the deceased person’s immediate family spend thirteen days in formal mourning. This is challenging for those in the U.S. who are employed and do not have bereavement leave. Some Lhotsampa have lost their jobs after taking time off to observe the mourning period. The deceased person’s sons traditionally isolate themselves in one room of the house and are not allowed to speak to female family members or other friends, extended family members, or neighbors. The mourners shave their heads and dress in white cloths that are not permitted to have any stitching. They smear the floor with cow dung and then cover it with straw; this is the surface they will sit and sleep on for the duration of the thirteen-day period of mourning. They will refrain from eating salt or meat, and generally will limit their intake to one meal of plain rice per day, as well as fruit, pickled ginger, lemon, and water. The women in the immediate family will engage in similar rituals, but they must be separated from the men. The ritual mourning activities are believed to assist in the purification of the deceased family member’s soul, allowing a smooth transition to heaven, where he or she will await reincarnation. If mourning is not performed properly, there is a risk that the deceased person’s spirit will not be able to make the transition to the afterlife and will remain on earth in the form of a ghost to disturb the living.

Traditional Medical Practices

Traditional medical practices vary by religion, region of origin, and socioeconomic status. The more educated and/or higher socioeconomic status members of the Lhotsampa community tend to prefer Western medicine to traditional, but this preference is not universal, and it is not uncommon to try one pathway first and then the other if the first does not achieve the desired results.
The practice of using home remedies to deal with illness is very common. Many times people will try one or two home remedies and seek external medical help only if their symptoms worsen or do not resolve. Examples of common home remedies include basil for the treatment of cough, colds, and certain kinds of pain; garlic, turmeric, ginger, and cardamom for stomach pains; and heated mustard oil for massages to relieve muscle pain in the elderly.
Traditional healers or shamans are called dhami-jakhri. Their skills include being able to enter into a trance and sometimes speak in languages they have not learned, reading leaves and rice to diagnose illness and recommend cures, and chanting incantations to heal their patients. Sickness is generally seen as an imbalance of passions or a result of the influence of evil spirits, and the dhami-jakhri focus their attention and prescriptions on re-establishing balance to bring about cure. Core methods of healing include incantations and reading rice, although they may also include prescribing special diets, sprinkling hot water on the patient, or touching the patient with a meaningful object, such as a yak’s tail. Lhotsampa refugees, particularly more educated members of the community, may require encouragement and explicit statements of acceptance before they will share their use of traditional healing modalities with their Western-trained health care providers.
Hindus who are ill may seek the assistance of a priest to perform a cleansing ritual called a puja.

Concepts of Health and Disease

Disease / Cause

karma ko phal / bad karma
graha dasha / planetary positions affect life
pitri and kul deota / The ancestors are not doing well; their spirits may affect you. The spirits must be propitiated to get them to a better place.
bhoot pret / ghosts and spirits
bokshi lagnu / witches, witchcraft
satho janu / loss of soul, especially when very small: “Don’t shout loudly, the baby may lose his soul.”
aahar (from Ayurveda) / what you eat affects your body
aachar (from Ayurveda) / what you do (e.g., exercise, smoking, drinking alcohol) affects your body
behar (from Ayurveda) / how you live and the environment affect your body

Common Remedies

jhar phuk / mantra chanting, blowing air into the mouth
graha jap and puja / read planets

Types of Traditional Healers

dhami jhakri / shaman
vaidhya / traditional Ayurvedic healer
drungtso / traditional Tibetan healer

Experience with Western Medicine

In Bhutan and Nepal
In Bhutan, most Lhotsampas were exposed to both traditional medical practices and Western medicine, available through the government-run health care system. Although members of rural communities often had little access to Western medical care, it is typically, though not universally, the preferred type of care among Lhotsampas. In the refugee camps in Nepal, health care was limited and sometimes sporadic, depending largely on the availability of international aid agency volunteers and supplies; however, basic interventions were almost always available and were preferred over traditional medicine by the majority of the Lhotsampas interviewed for this article.
Challenges facing the health care provider include patients’ limited familiarity with the concept and practice of preventive health care (e.g. routine well child care, mammograms, pap smears), as well as cultural factors that may impede delivery of reproductive and other health services. Generally speaking, community members often avoid seeking medical services unless they are gravely unwell. The reluctance to seek care may be exacerbated by the fact that refugees receive seven months of Medicaid coverage upon their arrival, but are unlikely to have adequate employer-sponsored health insurance coverage after that time. Also, refugees will likely be unfamiliar with state and federal programs providing health care coverage and services for children, pregnant women, the disabled, and the elderly.
Traditional gender roles significantly impact health care utilization. For instance, women may hesitate to discuss their own health problems, but express deep concern regarding the health of their spouses and children. The refugee community would benefit greatly from preventive health care orientation programs, which would assist them in understanding the services available to them, as well as the implications of neglecting their health.
In the United States
At the time of writing, the majority of Lhotsampa refugees have been in the U.S. for between one and eighteen months. When asked whether they felt they could trust American medical providers, they unanimously agreed that they had had good experiences with medical providers here and that they were convinced doctors and other care providers with whom they had interacted had their best interests at heart. They were acutely aware of the differences in resources (e.g., diagnostic testing, variety of medicines and treatments available) between the refugee camp and their new home.
Reportedly, there is some frustration with the health care system in the U.S. When clinics require that patients make appointments weeks in advance to see a doctor, some patients then feel forced to seek more immediate care in an E.R. Patients have high expectations of medical doctors and may experience dissatisfaction when a provider seems rushed, impatient, or impolite in an encounter. Some Lhotsampa refugees, particularly young- and middle-aged adults, are finding it difficult to access affordable health care coverage and services, once their resettlement benefits run out. This age group does not usually qualify for other assistance as may be available to children and seniors.
Western concepts of mental health and illness may be unfamiliar to Lhotsampas. Traditionally, mental illness is known as a stigmatizing condition in which a person is considered “crazy”.

Common Health Concerns

Most Lhotsampas will have seen loved ones suffer or die from preventable causes. Common health concerns among Lhotsampa refugees include malnutrition, depression and other mental illness due to forced displacement and cultural alienation, poor oral health, and reproductive and gynecologic care. Read more about The Health of Refugees from Bhutanpdf file in a fact sheet by the International Rescue Committee.
Several refugees from Bhutan who have resettled in King County in recent years are deaf. The number of those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing represent only a small percentage of the Bhutanese refugees but caseworkers say it is an unusually large number compared to other refugee groups. No one is certain why. Read more in a Seattle Times article, written by Allison Barrett, a UW student, who wrote this piece for a global-health reporting class.

Transition to Life in the USA and Common Acculturation Issues

Life in the United States represents an almost unimaginable change for most refugee immigrants, and it is no different for the Lhotsampas interviewed for this article. Many have at least some proficiency in English, but many others speak little or no English and have skills that are not relevant to the U.S. labor market. There has been no exposure to computers as the refugee camps do not have electricity. Many do not know how to drive, so transportation to places of work, clinics, and other sites is a great challenge. Although they have largely been able to find the necessary ingredients to make foods they feel comfortable eating, shopping in an American grocery store can feel quite overwhelming. Certain things that Americans take for granted, such as soda, were described as “something that was in the display case at the refugee camp, but it wasn’t for us.” Upon tasting soda, the Lhotsampas interviewed for this article decided they didn’t like it anyway. Due to the fear, trauma and persecution they have undergone with the Bhutanese government and the fear of the police, Lhotsampa refugees are afraid and fearful about calling the police for assistance or seeking any help from them.
There are many aspects of American culture that are in stark contrast to some of the core practices and values of Lhotsampa culture. For instance, the tendency of American families to retreat into the privacy of their own homes is quite different from the Lhotsampa practice of welcoming anyone into their home without advance notice. The concept of privacy, and the value that is placed on it in American culture, is new and may be perceived as somewhat strange. In addition, the culture of consumerism, the language differences, and the overt presence of sexuality (e.g., on television) are all significant culture shocks common for recently arrived Lhotsampa refugee immigrants.
Isolation, substance abuse, domestic violence, depression and other mental health issues are common major concerns in refugee communities, especially where people have not been able to find jobs and resettlement benefits have ended. A Lhotsampa refugee community leader in Seattle expressed worry that his community will be facing these same issues. There have been at least eight suicides among Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees in different states in the U.S. since 2009, with some of these cases being younger, literate, newly arrived refugees. While each suicide occurred under unique circumstances, some community leaders suspect resettlement issues may have influenced decisions. Read about efforts, resources and tools developed by the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center in response to reports of suicides among Bhutanese and other refugees resettled in the U.S. in RHTAC's September 2011 Suicide Prevention Update including a webinar and suicide prevention workshop, and a suicide prevention training model being used with Bhutanese refugees.
Common resettlement issues include: loss of close proximity to neighbors, relatives and friends resulting in loneliness and isolation; reality not meeting the (often high) expectations of those coming to the U.S., especially as pertaining to the availability of jobs, pressures of bills and time management, and lack of secure housing; lack of community security and lack of outlets for cultural expression without the existence of ethnic organizations or places for community gathering and worship. See also: and
After initial resettlement in the U.S. in places like Seattle, Austin, St. Antonio, Houston, Syracuse, Rochester, and Atlanta, secondary migration of Lhotsampa refugees to other cities and states with large established Indian communities is happening. Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Chicago and Indiana are some of these places.
This Washington Post article and slideshow offer a glimpse into the lives of hundreds of families from Bhutan who have been resettled in Maryland.
It is estimated that as of February 2010, 850-900 Nepali Bhutanese (Lhotsampa) refugees are living in Washington State, 700 in King County in cities including Kent and Seatac. Approximately 25,000 Lhotsampa refugees have resettled in the U.S. overall, with thousands more expected to arrive .

Recommendations for Assisting Refugees

  • Empower refugees as soon and as much as possible.
  • Provide support groups.
  • Develop culturally-appropriate elder programs.
  • Pay special attention to vulnerable groups such as the elderly, widows, the mentally and physically disabled and those who have experienced torture.
  • Provide long-term case management services to vulnerable groups.
  • Provide access to community gardens.
  • Enlist the assistance of Hindi speakers, if interpretation services are limited, as most refugees speak Hindi (especially the younger generation) and have been exposed to Indian culture.
  • Educate the host community about the historical and cultural background of the refugees.
  • Organize and conduct cultural competency programs for service providers and other personnel who need to come into contact with the community
  • Refugees have high expectations of American clinicians. Many expect to be greeted kindly and that the provider will take a little time to establish rapport. It is important to give refugees the opportunity to ask questions.

Other Resources

This video is the story of Khem Rizal and his family, Bhutanese refugees who after living in a UN camp in SE Nepal for 18 years, were recently resettled in Seattle's Rainier Valley. In this short piece, originally produced for the The Seattle Channel's program City Stream , the producer visited the bamboo hut where the Rizal's used to live, documenting the journey Bhutanese refugees make as they begin new lives here in the Pacific Northwest.
Bhutanese Refugees: The Story of a Forgotten People
This website is a collaboration between PhotoVoice and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, two organizations which have worked closely with the Bhutanese refugees. Includes photos taken by children in the refugee camps.
January 2008 Supplement to COR Refugee Backgrounderpdf file
Additional information about the Lhotsampas since publishing the October 2007 Backgrounder.
Cultural Orientation Resource Center: Cultural Orientation Highlight – Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal
Information from the Center for Applied Linguistics about cultural orientation for the U.S.-bound Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Includes slide-show documenting life in the refugee camps and orientation activities.

The other face of Bhutan: a report on the latest refugee arrivals in the U.S.
This Twin Cities Daily Planet article features statistics about the refugee population and excerpts from a talk given by refugee community leader Mangala Sharma to members of the Minnesota refugee consortium, April 10, 2008.
Malnutrition and Micronutrient deficiencies Among Bhutanese Refugee Children, Nepal 2007
CDC Report on acute and chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies found in Bhutanese children in refugee camps in Nepal.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TB Notes Newsletter No. 4, 2008
Cultural Competency Update: Resources on Ethnic Nepalese Refugees from Bhutan

Includes background information, health and TB resources, and some patient education materials in Nepali.

Bhutan tiptoes back into Assam

Nirmalya Banerjee, TNN Mar 13, 2012, 09.46PM IST
KOLKATA: Almost 10 years after joint operations along the Indo-Bhutanese border to flush out militant groups from the northeast taking shelter in the Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan is feeling confident enough again to increase its exchanges with Assam in education, health and business, Bhutan government sources said on Monday. With the improvement in the security scenario in Assam, "the confidence level has gone up," they added.
Last week, Bhutan government officials met Assam authorities in Dispur and discussed the possibility of sending students from Bhutan to medical and engineering colleges in Assam under the "foreign students quota." Initially, the possibility of sending two students to Guwahati Medical College and two to any of the government engineering colleges was discussed. Later, Bhutan could send students also to private engineering colleges in the state. But Bhutan would still like its students to be placed in places like Guwahati and Silchar, and not in upper Assam towns like Dibrugarh where the anti-talks faction of Ulfa was active.
Since the launch of "Operation Flushout" in December, 2003, in which the Royal Bhutan Army had taken a leading role in dismantling camps of Ulfa, NDFB and KLO in Bhutan, a sense of uncertainty had prevailed on the Assam-Bhutan border for fear of retaliation. Under advice of Indian authorities, all vehicles with Bhutanese registration number plates used to be escorted by Indian security force vehicles on the Indian side of the border. "Not 10, but for 20 years we did not send Bhutanese students for studying in Assam for security reasons," said a source.
For students of Bhutan, Assam was the natural destination as 70 per cent of the southern border of Bhutan was with Assam, it was pointed out. Border towns in Bhutan like Gelephu and Samdrupjonkkhar were only a few hours drive from Guwahati. But a disproportionately larger number of Bhutanese students were studying in places like Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Bhutanese consul general in Kolkata Tsering Wangda estimated that about 1,400 students were studying in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Cooch Behar and Kolkata in West Bengal.
"While the arrangement for escorting vehicles from Bhutan on the Assam border is still on, some Bhutanese, in their private vehicles are now driving to the Indian side of the border on their own," a source said. A few patients from Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan were also being sent to Guwahati now for treatment in hospitals. It was believed that the security situation had improved because people in the Bodoland Terriitorial Autonomous District, too, had understood that normalization of relations with Bhutan would help the Bodo population economically.
Nearly 1,000 people from BTAD area, mainly electricians, carpenters and plumbers, travel to the border towns of Bhutan daily for work, it was estimated. Bhutan depended for much of its supply of meat, too, on the BTAD area and Jaigaon in Bengal, as there is a ban on animal slaughter in Bhutan.