Bhutan, the (Un) Happiest Country in the World: The Mass Expultion of the Lhotsampa People

Bhutan, the (Un) Happiest Country in the World: The Mass Expultion of the Lhotsampa People

Globally, most people are unaware of the tiny country of Bhutan nestled in between the global powerhouses of China and India. Bhutan has been successful in promoting the image of a peaceful and picturesque kingdom of clouds, a haven from the rush and chaos, a modern-day Shangri La. Its beautiful scenery, rich cultural heritage and secretive nature draw intrepid tourists to explore its hidden beauty. Bhutan often remains a mystery to the outside world and those who do know of it usually associate it with one of two contradictory titles; firstly, the happiest country in the world, due to its unique measurement of Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product, and secondly, as the source of the largest number of refugees escaping persecution during the 1990s due to government mandated ethnic cleansing.

This article, the first of three parts, seeks to introduce and explain the origins of the conflict and ethnic tension. The second article will detail the decades long habitation of various refugee camps in Nepal, and the third article will discuss why this conflict still matters and how it pertains to current regional and global conflicts.

The Ethnic Patchwork

Bhutan is a small landlocked nation located on the Indian sub-continent. It is headed by a hereditary monarchy, wherein the King of Bhutan is the head of state and government. Bhutan’s population comprises of four main ethnic groups, the Ngalung in the northern and western parts of the country, the Sharchop in the eastern parts, the Lhotsampa along the southern border and various indigenous tribes scattered around the country.

The Ngalung are the dominant political and cultural group in Bhutan. They are historically decedents from Tibet who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Their language Dzongkha is the national language. The Sharchop are Bhutan’s earliest inhabitants and originate from northern Burma and northeast India, whilst they have a distinct culture and their own language, Tsangla, they have been mostly assimilated into the broader Ngalung-Tibetan culture. Together the Ngalung and Sharchop people form the ruling elite, or the Drukpa which seek to protect the Ngalung-Tibetan culture and ensure the absolute reign of the monarchy.

The Lhotsampa are a Nepalese ethnic group who are predominantly Hindus and emigrated to the southern regions of Bhutan as agricultural labourers in the mid 1800s. Their arrival largely begins after 1835, although they were not considered citizens until 1958. Up until the 1950s the southern regions of Bhutan were governed with minimal supervision from the northern Drukpa led Bhutan. This led to the Lhotshampa people still identifying heavily with their Nepali origins and not assimilating into the Ngalung-Tibetan culture. Thereafter, the government increased its southern influence and some things began to improve for the Lhotsampas, including more inclusion within the majority northern leadership. The Bhutanese government ran a successful integration program through the 1950s to the 1970s wherein Lhotsampa local government officials were trained for government service in the Capital. Cash incentives were also offered for Nepali-Drukpa intermarriage to encourage assimilation.

To understand the beginnings of unrest in Bhutan it is important to look at regional events during the latter half of the 20th century. Outside of Bhutan the Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling​ region of Sikkim, India was led by the Indian-Nepali community who had established themselves as a distinct cultural group from both India and Nepal. The Gorkhaland movement was based on the desire for an autonomous Indian-Nepali state. The campaigning which mainly involved strikes and civil disobedience eventually ended in violence, wherein around 200 people were killed. Around the same time, the movement for democracy had started in neighbouring Nepal, with the end result being the establishment of a constitutional monarchy through much violence and upheaval.

Domestically, the monarchy of Bhutan had been struggling with the Bhutan State Congress, Bhutan’s first political party, led by Lhotsampas and established in 1952, who campaigned for democratization, citizenship rights, and political representation. This demand for democratization and equal participation in political and civil life was originally accepted however the loss of central authority in Nepal and Sikkim brought a perception of a Nepalese minority population as a threat to Bhutanese power and rule. This led the Bhutanese government to seek measures which would prevent the inevitable uprising that they anticipated.

“Bhutan for the Bhutanese”

In 1985, the new Citizenship act was implemented, seemingly as an attempt to address the aforementioned concerns. The Citizenship act outlined major changes in various legislations, including the provision that both parents had to have Bhutanese citizenship for a child to be eligible for citizenship by birth, as well as new provisions that had to be satisfied to be granted citizenship by registration, and finally many unattainable standards that had to be met to be granted citizenship by naturalization. Among those standards was fluency and literacy in the national language Dzongkha, which was not widely spoken in the southern parts of Bhutan.

Three years later in 1988, a census was ordered to identify Bhutanese nationals in Southern Bhutan. The main purpose of this census was to guard against illegal immigration, which was a constant problem along Bhutan’s southern border with India. Those who had taken the census were divided into 7 categories which were as follows, Genuine Bhutanese citizens, returned emigrants, Drop-out cases (those who were not around at the time of the census), Children of Bhutanese father and non-national mother, Non-national father married to Bhutanese mother and their children, Adopted children and Non-nationals. The large problem with the combination of the Census and the 1985 Citizenship act, was that due to stringent new regulations it categorized many legitimate Bhutanese citizens into the categories of returned emigrants or non-nationals, even if they had citizenship cards and proof of their long-term residency in Bhutan.

Following the 1985 Citizenship Act was the implementation of the ‘Driglam Namzhag’ which translates to ‘national culture and etiquette’. This policy was made to establish the Bhutanese culture as the legitimate culture of Bhutan, and included provisions that required all Bhutanese nationals to wear traditional Drukpa dress and take classes in Drukpa etiquette and Dzongkha language. The teaching of Nepali language and history was also taken out of the curriculums of all schools and replaced with Dzongkha and Drukpa history. The ‘Driglam Namzhag’ was established under the heading of the goal of ‘One Nation, One People’ which established the superiority of the Drukpa culture and language over others that existed in Bhutan. Those who objected to the new policies were jailed or punished for speaking out which solidified unhappiness within the Lhotsampa population. The policy of ‘One Nation, One People’ was seen as a way to regain and enforce the status of the Drukpa elite on the previously Lhotsampas led southern regions. This ability to evict those citizens who disagreed with the implementation of the policies was a boon to the Bhutanese government and as the Lhotsampa people began to organize peaceful protests to have the laws repealed, they were met with resistance by the government with many thousands of protesters being arrested and forcefully evicted from their homelands. These evictions mark the beginning of the mass exodus of the Lhotsampa people from Bhutan and the unquestioned reign of the Drukpa elite.

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