The glaring oversight in the US Congressional report on Bhutan’s long struggle for democracy

I was just nine when my family had to flee our homeland Bhutan in 1990. For the next 20 years, we lived in the Timai refugee camp in eastern Nepal until we were finally resettled in the United States in 2009.

The family of my wife’s mother is still in Bhutan.

Since getting married in New Hampshire in 2009, we want to foster a connection between our children and their Bhutanese roots. These experiences inform my commitment to promoting peace and reconciliation. I vigilantly monitor the situation in my native land while nurturing a deep bond with my adopted country, the United States.

Bhutan’s strategic location in South Asia and its commitment to environmental conservation make it an essential partner for the United States in the region. The Joe Biden administration is working to foster a normalised relationship with Bhutan and reinforce support for Bhutanese sovereignty.

This carries significant implications.

American support for Bhutan’s territorial integrity counters China’s claims to several Bhutanese regions. The Himalayan kingdom also receives crucial support from India.

The author at a refugee camp.

Border concerns

A report by the British think tank Chatham House raises concerns about the potential permanence of Chinese control over Bhutan’s northern Jakarlung Valley as part of an anticipated border agreement.

Bhutan, thus, needs strong international partnerships, particularly with the United States. Although Bhutan has chosen not to establish formal diplomatic relations with any of the United Nations’ permanent members since joining it in 1971, Bhutan and the US enjoy “warm, informal relations” and cooperate on various initiatives.

It is in this context that a US Congressional Research Service report, “Kingdom of Bhutan”, released at the end of 2023, acknowledges the role of Bhutan in “in supporting the rules-based international order, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, despite being one of the world’s newest democracies”.

However, the report is misleading in terms of how it attributes Bhutan’s transition to democracy solely to the benevolence of the monarchy: “The Wangchuck dynasty, in power since 1907, has shaped Bhutan’s democracy. Bhutan’s path to democracy was not spurred by a popular movement but was spearheaded by the monarchy.”

The report correctly notes that “previous monarchs implemented incremental social and administrative reforms” and that the “current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, in power since 2006, began the country’s top-down democratic transition.”

However, it does not acknowledge the sustained political pressure of the Bhutanese people for democracy. This glaring oversight undermines the democratic movements that have shaped Bhutan’s political landscape since the 1950s as well as the “sacrifices made by hundreds of martyrs and the endeavours of thousands of exiled Bhutanese”, as exiled activist Bishwanath Chhetry notes.

Chhetry founded the Student Union of Bhutan in 1988 and endured over two years in solitary confinement in Bhutan’s Rabuna Military Prison. Declared a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International, Chhetry was released in December 1991.

“Assigning all the credit exclusively to the king would be inaccurate and misleading,” he told me over the phone. He left Bhutan in 1992 and sought asylum in the US in 1999.

A 2008 report by SD Muni, Professor Emeritus at the School of International Studies at India’s Jawaharlal University, outlines the democratic struggles in Bhutan that began in the 1950s, long before the monarchy initiated reforms in the late 1980s.

The author waves a Bhutanese flag.

A long process

Inspired by India’s independence in 1947, an association of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in North East India formed the Bhutan State Congress. Its Charter included demands like democratising the administration and granting civil and political rights to the people.

As the movement grew in Bhutan, the government crushed it, sending the leadership back into exile. Calls for more inclusive representation continued over the decades.

Renewed calls for democracy in the 1990s met with another harsh crackdown. The oppressive measures included the retroactive implementation of the 1985 Citizenship Act, which tightened the requirements for Bhutanese citizenship, leading to the violation of cultural and nationality rights. According to the Human Rights Watch, the act stated that a child could qualify for citizenship only if both parents were Bhutanese.

The Bhutanese state also cracked down on the Lhotshampa – Bhutanese citizens with Nepali ancestry – in the 1990s, calling them a threat to the country’s cultural identity. The state’s “attempts to forcibly integrate them into mainstream Bhutanese culture” led to their mass expulsion from Bhutan, states a report by The Diplomat.

The US Congress’s House Resolution 228 and Senate Resolution 108 recognise the Bhutanese government’s responsibility for the oppression and forced eviction of over 100,000 Lhotshampa in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Lhotshampa, predominantly Nepali-speaking Hindus who adhere to the caste system, are one of three major ethnic groups in Bhutan.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Thimphu government implemented policies targeting the Lhotshampa, who comprised about 25% of Bhutan’s population (35% today), calling them a threat to the country’s cultural identity,” says the US Congressional Research report.

Approximately 63% of Bhutan’s population comprises the Ngalong and the Sharchop communities. The Ngalong, at the top of the political hierarchy of Bhutan, are Dzongkha speakers believed to be of Tibetan descent. The Sharchop are an Indo-Mongoloid ethnic community with Tibetan ancestry.

The Lhotshampa, despite being of Nepali origin, have been Bhutanese citizens for generations. Referring to us as mere “settlers” in Bhutan, as the Congressional Report does, is unjust, discriminatory, and painful. My family has resided in Bhutan for generations and we identify as Bhutanese.

While it is acceptable for communities to maintain their own beliefs, customs, and practices, it becomes problematic when one group tries to impose their own values on others or forcibly remove others against their will under the pretext of preserving culture.

In 2001, a Joint Verification Team comprising representatives of the governments of Nepal and Bhutan found that over 75% of Bhutanese refugees in one camp were Bhutanese citizens carrying Bhutanese citizenship cards and land tax receipts.

The rest reported that government forces had confiscated their citizenship cards during their forceful expulsion. The United States played a crucial role in resettling Bhutanese refugees like my family. Challenges persist for approximately 7,000 individuals who still live in two refugee camps in Nepal, lacking foreign assistance and protection of fundamental rights and prospects for a just solution.

The US Congressional resolution calls for a holistic peace-building and reconciliation process, including an independent Truth Commission investigating human rights violations during the 1990s.

Additionally, the 118th Congress introduced Senate Resolution 75 in July 2023, condemning the People’s Republic of China for expanding its territorial claims in Bhutanese territory. China’s claim to 764 square kilometres of Bhutanese territory raises concerns and requires careful diplomatic consideration.

Normalising relations promotes stability and cooperation and opens doors for collaboration on various fronts, including trade, climate change mitigation, and regional peace and security. It also sends a clear message about Washington’s commitment to fostering partnerships with nations supporting their territorial integrity.

“Bhutan should honour and uphold cultural pluralism while adhering to international human rights laws and principles,” military analyst Nar Bahadur Giri, 65, told me over the phone from Nepal.

A former captain in the Bhutan Army and an international relations graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Giri says that the Bhutan government has recognised these laws and principles as part of their commitment to the United Nations but the existing “One Nation, One People” policy violates these principles.

“I have dedicated my entire life to my beloved homeland,” says Giri, who joined the Bhutan army in 1977 as a cadet officer at age 17, was commissioned as Captain in 1981, and has served on the Bhutan-China border.

Arrested and imprisoned in 1990 during the uprising, he was dismissed from service, his bank accounts frozen, and stripped of all of his assets. Since his release in 1992, he has lived in Nepal, refusing to resettle further afield in the West despite being offered opportunities. He hopes to return to Bhutan.

Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan’s new prime minister, elected in January. Credit: Tshering Tobgay, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A unique opportunity

As the United States engages with Bhutan to strengthen bilateral ties, it is imperative to acknowledge the nuanced historical context, respecting the contributions of various democratic movements in shaping Bhutan’s political landscape.

Simultaneously, diplomatic efforts must be intensified to address the ongoing border situation with China and safeguard Bhutan’s sovereignty. It is also imperative to address the unresolved Bhutanese refugee issue and protracted family separation among Bhutanese Americans.

I do not agree with many foreign policies of the United States but I believe it is important to have a policy in place. In this context, formalising the United States’s foreign policy towards Bhutan is a welcome step. Nevertheless, the US also needs to emphasise the need to prioritise human rights and democratic principles in Bhutan.

On January 9, Bhutan re-elected Tshering Tobgay as Prime Minister for the second time – he served as prime minister in 2013 and was earlier opposition leader in the parliament in 2008.

The new prime minister has a unique opportunity to lead Bhutan towards full democracy, establish diplomatic ties with foreign nations, and foster a sense of lasting peace within the country by addressing various challenges, including the situation of the exiled Bhutanese.

Suraj Budathoki is a doctoral student at Saybrook University, California, exploring approaches to transforming societies in conflict into harmonious and peaceful communities.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.

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