By Akshay Tarfe:
The media narrative about Bhutan still remains as a peaceful Himalayan utopia with a green economy. Most of that, might be true. But perhaps what we don’t know is that Bhutan is home to some of the most draconian and dictatorial laws coupled with a glaring history of xenophobia and ethnic hatred.
In 1996, the population in the refugee camps of Nepal exploded. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) declared that the camps had more than 100,000 people from Bhutan. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR had to start a large-scale rehabilitation program for those people who had suffered due to the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan. The main reason was that they were not ‘Bhutanese enough’ to stay in a country where they had lived for generations. The Bhutanese army forced them to sign the forms which said they are leaving the country voluntarily. Overnight, these hardworking people became refugees and were forced to settle in 10 camps across Nepal.
It was part of a massive project sanctioned by the government to protect the culture and the identity of Bhutan. The Citizenship Act of 1985 was mostly targeted against the ‘Lhotshampas’ community in Bhutan. This ethnic group consisted of people of Nepalese origin who migrated to Bhutan after economic reforms were announced in 1960s. They came here as construction workers and labourers and settled in the southern parts of the country. Their distinct language, culture and religion were considered to be against the ‘Driglam Namzha’, the Bhutanese national dress and etiquette code.
After Sikkim became part of India, the political masters in Thimphu saw it as a victory for the Nepali migrant majority over the monarchy of Sikkim. This, combined with other factors, forced them to pass draconian and dictatorial laws to make Bhutan a homogeneous country with one language. Immigration is strictly prohibited in Bhutan today. The so called ‘One Nation, One People‘ policy enacted by the government pushed the Himalayan Kingdom into long lasting ethnic violence.
The importance of Buddhism cannot be denied in the national identity of Bhutan but the country has rejected idea of secularism by making Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism as the state religion. The constitution of 2008 provides religious freedom but it has remained largely on paper. The International Religious Freedom report published by the U.S. State Department says that societal and governmental pressure for conformity with religious norms was prevalent.
The country is also very particular about their language and clothing style. People are expected to wear clothes prescribed by the government during business hours. After 1985, Bhutan slowly eliminated languages other than Dzongkha out of its school syllabus. It began the process of becoming a uni-lingual country. This upset many ethnic groups, including people of Nepalese origin, who were forced to learn Dzongkha.
Till recent time, the media was completely government-owned. The private newspapers and magazines in Bhutan are also at the mercy of the government because advertising from the private sector is very small in Bhutan and the tradition to advertise products is almost non-existent. This also makes it difficult to run critical stories on the government.
While I am not trying to project Bhutan as a North Korean-styled dictatorship, my aim is to highlight certain aspects generally ignored by the world media while praising its Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) and carbon negative economy.