Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1991

* Bhutan and the Uni;;ed States have not exchanged diplomatic
representatives, and U.S. officials travel there infrequently.
Since few scholars have published studies on the contemporary
Bhutanese polity or society, information on Bhutanese practices
which bear on human rights is neither readily available nor
The Wangchuck dynasty of hereditary monarchs has ruled Bhutan
since 1907. Isolated in the Himalayas between India and Tibet,
the small Kingdom has been able to escape domination by any
external power since the 10th century. King Jigme Dorji
Wangchuck (1952-72) took steps to move the Kingdom from
centuries of medieval seclusion toward a more representative
political system, a more productive economy, and ties with
other countries. Although he retained strong executive powers,
the King created several important institutions, including the
National Assembly (1953), the Royal Advisory Council (1965),
and the Council of Ministers (1968), to provide broader
participation in the Government. Serfdom was abolished, land
reform introduced, laws codified, and the judiciary separated
from the executive. There is no written constitution or bill
of rights. The present monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who
has held power since 1974, has continued Bhutan's social and
political evolution, although progress has been seriously
handicapped by the Kingdom's limited administrative capacity
and resources and, more recently, by ethnic tensions in the
south. Buddhists constitute approximately half of the
population, roughly divided between the ruling Drukpas and the
Sarchokpas; at least a third of the population, mostly from the
southern districts, is of Nepali Hindu ethnic origin.
Internal security is maintained by the Royal Bhutan Police. It
is assisted in this function by the Royal Bhutan Army, which
consists of 8,000 lightly armed men.
Calculating national income statistics for Bhutan is doubly
difficult. Government officials now acknowledge that the
official population figure of 1.4 million is greatly
exaggerated; the actual number is between 600,000 and 700,000.
This change alone would double the official per capita income
figure, raising Bhutan from its status as the poorest country
in South Asia to a position on a relative par with India. Even
this figure is deceptive, however, since the largely rural
population grows much of its own food and the ratio of man to
land is the lowest in South Asia. Bhutan is dependent on
foreign aid to cover much of its development costs; India is
the principal donor. The large majority of the population is
illiterate and rural, living on subsistence agriculture and
pastoral pursuits in a largely barter economy. Bhutan
continues to restrict access by the outside world in the hope
of minimizing the spread of foreign influences. The number of
tourists is limited strictly to 3,000 a year.
The human rights situation in Bhutan in 1991 showed further
deterioration due to government implementation of a nationality
law, which resulted in the expulsion of several thousand ethnic
Nepalese, as well as a code of "Bhutanization. " A resistance
movement gained strength among ethnic Nepalese in the south who
view these policies as an effort by the Government to suppress
their ethnic and cultural identity and to drive many of them
out of the country. Major human rights problems in 1991
included denial of the right of citizens to change their
government; limitations on the right to a fair public trial;
restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, peaceful
association and assembly, and worker rights. There were also
credible reports of arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, rape,
robberies, and other forms of intimidation by police and army
officials of ethnic Nepalese suspected of supporting the
resistance movement. It appeared that dissidents also were
guilty of serious human rights abuses, including beating,
kidnaping, and killing government officials and suspected
informers, as well as using intimidation and extortion against
those who do not support their cause. Thousands of ethnic
Nepalese have fled the turmoil in southern Bhutan to Nepal and
India since the middle of 1990.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
The People's Forum for Human Rights (PFHR), an organization of
ethnic-Nepali Bhutanese which operates primarily in Nepal,
claimed to have documented cases in which six ethnic Nepalese
women died following a gang rape by members of the army. In
addition, it accused government forces of both the execution of
targeted dissidents and the indiscriminate killing of innocent
ethnic Nepalese in retaliation for antigovernment actions by
dissidents. The Government denied such accusations and pointed
to an order by the King for police and army forces not to use
lethal force when dealing with dissidents or demonstrators as
evidence of its desire to avoid bloodshed. The Government
accused dissidents of carrying on a reign of terror in the
south, including arson, bombings, and assassinations which
resulted in the deaths of civilians, government officials, and
members of the police and army. There was no independent
confirmation of any of these claims.
b. Disappearance
The PFHR as well as Nepali and Indian human rights groups
interviewed hundreds of ethnic Nepalese both in southern Bhutan
and in Nepal and India. They reported widespread instances
since September 1990 of police and army forces rounding up men
suspected of supporting the resistance movement. The PFHR
claimed that hundreds of these men were never seen again after
being taken away; it presumed they were either being held by
the Government without charge or had been killed. These claims
could not be confirmed; however, the consistency of stories
among so many people, most of whom have fled Bhutan, lent
credence to their charges. The Government denied such
disappearances took place; it accused the PFHR and other
organizations such as the Bhutan People's Party and the
Students' Union of Bhutan of carrying out antinational
propaganda campaigns.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Ethnic Nepali refugees in India and Nepal recounted to human
rights groups hundreds of cases in which police and army forces
allegedly had beaten, raped, and robbed suspected supporters of
the resistance and their families. These stories could not be
confirmed but appeared credible based on the number of similar
accounts. The PFHR also claimed that government authorities
regularly tortured detainees and prisoners; the Government
denied these allegations.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
There were no reports of arbitrary arrest and detention in
1991. As far as is known, exile is not used as a form of
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated
under an 18th century legal code, revised in 1957, which
applies to all Bhutanese regardless of ethnic origin. Judges
appointed by and accountable to the King are responsible for
all aspects of a case, including investigation, filing of
charges, prosecution, and judgment of the defendant. The
judicial system consists of local, district, and national
courts. Appeals to higher courts are permitted, and final
appeals may be made to the King. The legal system does not
provide for jury trials or the right to a court-appointed
defense attorney. Prosecuting and defense attorneys are
generally not available because the number of lawyers in the
country is insufficient to serve in these capacities.
Questions of family law, such as marriage, divorce, and
adoption, are resolved separately according to the traditional
Buddhist law for the majority of Bhutanese and according to
Hindu law in areas where persons of Nepali origin predominate.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
There are no written guarantees of privacy, but cultural
tradition is highly respectful of personal privacy. At the
same time, the Government places great emphasis on promoting
national integration. For example, under a 1989 decree, the
wearing of Drukpa national dress was made compulsory for all
citizens. Anyone found violating the decree may be fined about
$10 or sentenced to jail for a week. From all reports, there
is a degree of tolerance for noncompliance in urban areas, but
in other parts, particularly in the south, officials appear to
enforce the decree more rigorously.
According to human rights groups, police regularly conducted
house-to-house searches for suspected dissidents without
offering explanations or justifications.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
With an adult literacy rate of around 12 percent, Bhutan's
population is relatively unaffected by the print media. The
Government's weekly newspaper Kuensel is the country's only
regular publication. Indian and other foreign newspapers and
publications are distributed without apparent government
control. Bhutan has no television. In 1989 the Government
ordered the dismantling of all television antennas to prevent
the people from watching programs originating outside Bhutan.
The government radio station broadcasts for 3 hours daily in
the four major national languages. Criticism of the King is
permitted in the National Assembly but not in the public
media. The use of the Nepalese language in schools was banned
at the end of 1990. As a result of ethnic unrest in the area,
most public schools in the south were closed throughout 1991.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
No written guarantees of these freedoms exist. Bhutanese may
engage in peaceful assembly and association for purposes
approved by the Government. However, political parties are
discouraged, and there are no private voluntary social,
communal, or economic associations and no professional or trade
organizations. The Bhutan People's Party (BPP), organized by
Nepali-origin Bhutanese, has been labeled "terrorist and
antinational" by the Government.
c. Freedom of Religion
Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan. The Government
subsidizes monasteries and shrines and provides aid to about
half of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. The monastic establishment
enjoys statutory representation in the National Assembly and
Royal Advisory Council and is an influential voice on public
policy. Citizens of other faiths, largely Hindus, enjoy
freedom of worship but may not proselytize (under Bhutanese
law, conversions are illegal). The King has declared major
Hindu festivals to be national holidays, and the royal family
participates in them. Foreign missionaries are not permitted
to proselytize in the Kingdom, nor were there any resident in
Bhutan in 1991.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
There is freedom of movement within Bhutan for all Bhutanese
citizens and no bar on emigration or foreign travel. For many
years, Bhutanese traveled little inside or outside the Kingdom,
but the recent construction of roads and the establishment of
air links with New Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka, and Kathmandu have
encouraged travel. Bhutan's southern border with India is
open, and there is free movement across this border of people
residing in the immediate areas. Indians from other regions
who enter Bhutan by airplane or stay in hotels must have visas
and fall under the overall limitation of 3,000 tourists per
year .
Since 1986, Bhutan has been conducting a drive to identify
illegal immigrants by implementing a nationality law which
requires people to document that they or their families have
been residing in Bhutan since 1958 or before. Those who
qualify are granted citizenship; the others must register as
aliens and are subject to expulsion. In this process, about
10,000 foreigners have been expelled from the Kingdom, mostly
ethnic Nepalese. Many more have left because of the
Government's Bhutanization policies. They complain the law
makes unfair demands for 30-year-old documentation on largely
illiterate people in a country that has only recently adopted
basic administrative procedures. Human rights groups claim
many ethnic Nepalese known to have been in Bhutan for
generations face expulsion because they are unable to document
their claims to residence.
Bhutan traditionally has welcomed refugees and exiles from
other countries in the region. However, doubts about the
loyalty to Bhutan of Tibetan refugees prompted the Government
to rec[uire that they accept Bhutanese citizenship or face
expulsion. Many sought refuge in India. Tibetans who accepted
Bhutanese citizenship have been assured by the Government that
they will be free to return to their homeland. The Government,
however, no longer accepts new refugees from Tibet.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
The citizens of Bhutan do not have the right to change their
government. Bhutan is a traditional monarchy, with sovereign
power vested in the King. It is a highly elitist system, with
decisionmaking centered in the palace and involving only a
small number of officials in the civil and religious
establishment. Although the present King and his father have
made attempts to integrate women and southerners (ethnic
Nepalese) into the body politic, the system is still dominated
by the male members of an aristocracy of Tibetan Buddhist
ancestry. Political parties do not exist, and their formation
is discouraged. The Bhutan People's Party (BPP), founded in
1989, was banned by the Government in 1990 and operates
primarily out of Nepal and India, supported by ethnic Nepalese
who have fled there. The BPP claims support in the
predominantly Nepali southern regions of Bhutan, but there are
no reliable reports on the party's actual membership.
The 150-member National Assembly is composed of 105 members
elected by limited franchise (heads of family in Hindu areas,
village headmen in Buddhist regions), 12 elected by the
monastic establishment, and 33 high-level officials of the
government administration appointed by the King. Its principal
functions are to enact laws, approve senior appointments in the
Government, and advise the King on matters of national
importance. It also provides a forum for presenting grievances
and rectifying cases of maladministration. Voting is by secret
ballot, with a simple majority needed to pass a measure.
The King cannot formally veto legislation passed by the
Assembly, but he can refer bills back to it for further
consideration. The Assembly occasionally has rejected the
King's recommendations or delayed their implementation, but the
King has always had enough influence to persuade the Assembly
to approve any legislation he considers essential or to
withdraw any proposed legislation he opposes. Government
officials may be questioned by the body, and ministers can be
forced to resign by a two-thirds vote of no confidence.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
No nongovernmental human rights groups are known to exist in
Bhutan, and the Government would be likely to discourage their
formation. The PFHR, representing ethnic Nepalese dissident
opposition (see Section I.e.), claims to be based in Bhutan but
operates primarily from Nepal. Several international human
rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have
sought entry into Bhutan to investigate human rights
conditions. The Government has not permitted such visits; it
has, however, allowed foreign journalists to travel throughout
the country.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Language, or Social Status
Although the Government over the past 10 years has adopted a
number of liberal measures that have benefited Bhutan's ethnic
Nepalese minority, more recently it has implemented a
nationality law and Bhutanization program which have had an
adverse and discriminatory impact on ethnic Nepalese. At the
root of this problem is the divisive issue of how to
accommodate the growing segment, estimated to be at least a
third of the population, of Nepali Hindu origin. The country's
Buddhist majority has long been concerned about being
outnumbered by immigrants from Nepal, as occurred in
neighboring Sikkim. In the past, the Government responded to
this concern by tightly limiting immigration and restricting
residence and employment of the Nepali population to the
southern part of the country. In an attempt to assimilate the
existing ethnic Nepalese, the Government liberalized certain
policies toward the Nepali minority by encouraging
intermarriage, educating some students in regions other than
their own, and giving priority to economic development of the
south. In the last decade, the King has allocated 2,500 acres
of land to 1,000 landless households in southern Bhutan, and
about 200 farmers and orange growers have been given special
loans, according to Bhutanese government sources. By law,
southerners may own land and establish business in the north,
and northerners have the same right in the south. Nonetheless
it is reportedly still difficult for non-Buddhist Bhutanese
(except government officials) to buy property in Buddhist
More young Bhutanese of Nepali origin are entering public
economic and administrative bodies, and laws concerning land
tenure and taxation in the south are being liberalized.
Although the language of instruction is English, there is a
requirement that Dzongkha, the language of the western
highlands, be taught in all schools, and this requirement is
said to disadvantage students from other areas. In addition,
instruction in Nepali has been terminated throughout the
country. Groups of ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan who are now
taking refuge in Nepal and India protest against "cultural
discrimination" and call for democratic reforms in Bhutan. The
size of these groups and the amount of support they attract in
southern Bhutan are not known.
Families with ties to the palace and senior levels of the
Government are strongly favored in their access to state
scholarships for foreign education. Nevertheless, the King is
making a serious effort to send other qualified candidates for
education overseas as well, drawing particularly from Bhutan's
prestigious civil bureaucracy.
Bhutan has not developed either a rigid caste system or customs
which sequester or disenfranchise women. Family land is
divided equally between sons and daughters. Bhutanese
traditionally place girls in a lower status than boys, however,
and girls receive poorer nutrition and less medical attention
than boys. Boys outnumber girls by about two to one in primary
school and seven to one at secondary level. The Government is
conscious of the disparity and has taken steps to encourage
equal treatment for girls and increased enrollment of girls at
school. The disparity between the higher mortality rates of
female versus male infants has resulted in an overall ratio of
97.2 females per 100 males, one of the lowest in the world.
The sexes mix relatively freely, marriages can be arranged by
partners themselves as well as by their parents, and divorce is
common. A man is allowed by law to have three wives, but
polyandry is no longer sanctioned. Legislation has been
enacted in recent years making marriage registration compulsory
and favoring women in matters of alimony. About 10 percent of
the persons employed by the various government ministries and
departments are women.
No reliable information is available on the extent to which
violence against women may be a problem in Bhutan.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Trade unionism is not permitted and Bhutan has no labor
unions. There are no export processing zones.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
There is no collective bargaining or legislation addressing
labor-related issues pertaining to the small industrial work
force, which makes up less than 1 percent of the population.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
As far as is known, there is no law prohibiting forced or
compulsory labor, but it is not practiced.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
There are no laws governing the employment of children.
Children are not employed in the industrial sector, but many
assist their families in the traditional economy.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
As noted above, there is no legislation addressing labor
issues. There is no legislated minimum wage, standard
workweek, or health and safety standards. Labor markets are
highly segmented by region, and monitoring wage developments is
inhibited by the preponderance of subsistence agriculture and
the practice of barter. The largest salaried labor market is
the government service, which has an administered wage
structure last revised in 1988. The shortage of labor in
Bhutan is such that the larger industrial firms, all of which
were established relatively recently, are organized along
modern lines and incorporate a considerable amount of
labor-saving technology. No industrial plant employs more than
60 to 70 workers. Apart from a few of these larger plants, the
entire industrial sector consists of home-based handicrafts and
some 60 privately owned small- or medium-scale factories
producing consumer goods.