In Bhutan

Much of the website focuses on the plight of Bhutanese refugees who have lived in exile outside of their homeland since the early 1990s. 

This section concentrates on the situation inside Bhutan and highlight some of the difficulties faced by the Lhotshampa population still there.

Significant numbers ofLhotshampas are still living in Bhutan. There is ample evidence that the Bhutanese government continues to discriminate against them, and that they are a vulnerable section of the population.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk propounded Gross National Happiness as the unifying concept for Bhutan’s development, yet many Bhutanese remain to be included in the project.

History and Geography

Bhutan is a landlocked, mountainous country with an area of approximately 46,500 square kilometres. The land rises from an elevation of about 100 metres above sea level in the south an altitude of more than 7,550 metres in the north. Fast-flowing rivers provide water for hydro-electric power generation.

Most of the population is concentrated in the valleys. About 70% of Bhutan's people derive a living from agriculture, livestock rearing and forestry. Bhutan's developing economy has close ties with India as a result of its geographical position and historical relationship. 

Bhutan has existed as a political entity since the 1600s. It was unified by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Tibetan leader who took refuge in Bhutan in 1616. The Shabdrung established a dual system of government in Bhutan, by which control of the country was shared by a spiritual and an administrative leader.

The late 19th century in Bhutan was marked by civil wars between rival power centres. A monarchy was established in 1907 when the first king of the Wangchuk dynasty was crowned.

Bhutan embarked on planned development in the 1960s. Trade with India expanded and use of money became widespread. With the growth of the economy, education and social services have continued to develop, in parallel with transport and communication networks. Bhutan has made great strides in harnessing its vast hydro-electric potential, and electricity is its most important export.

Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971. Development assistance flowed into Bhutan as it opened up to the outside world. Bhutan’s international development partners agreed in 2006 that they would gradually phase out long-standing development cooperation. Bhutan now has diplomatic relations with 22 countries (including the European Union), and is a member of 45 international organisations.


Bhutan’s 650,000 people comprise three main groups, along with other small groups.

The Ngalongs of the western mountains and the central Bhutanese with whom they have intermarried form the elite. They form a minority alongside the more numerous Sharchhops (“easterners”). Both Ngalongs and Sharchhops are Buddhist.

The Lhotshampa, who live mainly in the south of the country, are the third largest group in Bhutan. Originally from Nepal, they speak Nepali and most practise Hinduism.  People of Nepalese origin had migrated to Bhutan from the end of the 19th century as contractual workers.  They and their descendants had very little security in Bhutan until they were granted full citizenship under the 1958 Citizenship Act.

Analysis of population statistics provided by the Bhutanese government, in which the population is shown to have increased steadily despite the expulsion of more than 80,000 people in the early 1990s, can reveal that Bhutan has attempted to hide the exodus of a large part of the Lhotshampa community.

The figures also suggest the potential for further discrimination against the Lhotshampas in future.

Many Lhotshampas are vulnerable because of their precarious citizenship status. Even those recognised as Bhutanese citizens face discrimination.


Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan: a vulnerable group of people

During the 1960s and 1970s, it was government policy to promote integration of people of Nepalese origin (known as Lhotshampas) into the Bhutanese mainstream, and many Lhotshampas rose to occupy influential positions in the bureaucracy.

During the 1980s, the Lhotshampas came to be seen as a threat to the political order and tens of thousands were forced into exile. Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan today face an uncertain future, with continuing discrimination and the possibility of being excluded from the emerging democratic process.

Population statistics for Bhutan have been notoriously problematic. The figures for the years 1984 to 1998 are stated in Bhutan’s National Human Development Report, 2000, to be population estimates. They mask the exodus of tens of thousands of Lhotshampas in the early 1990s.

The citizenship status of Lhotshampas has been eroded by various measures taken since the end of the 1980s. In 1988, Lhotshampas were divided into seven categories, as follows:

  1. genuine Bhutanese;
  2. returned migrants;
  3. people not available during the census;
  4. a non-national woman married to a Bhutanese man;
  5. a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman;
  6. children legally adopted;
  7. non-nationals - migrants and illegal settlers.

Placement in the seven categories was often arbitrary, and could be arbitrarily changed. The categorisation was used as a tool to evict Lhotshampas. In some cases members of the same family have been, and still are, placed in different categories.

The declaration that 81,976 of the resident population are “non-national” may mean the effective “denationalisation” of many of the Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan.

The Royal Government does not publish disaggregated data to show the proportion of different ethnic groups in the population. It maintains that 25% of the population are Lhotshampa. 25% of the 552,996 Bhutanese citizens? Or 25% of the total resident population of 634,972?

In 2005, the Bhutanese Home Ministry began the process of issuing new citizenship cards with biometric data to Bhutanese nationals. Citizenship cards have been issued to Lhotshampas falling into categories 1 and 4 of the 7 categories into which they have been placed.

There is no indication of what will become of the people who do not fall into either category 1 or 4. It is likely that many of the 81,976 people declared resident “non-nationals“ are Lhotshampa. If this is the case, they are stateless in their own country. For the majority there is no nationality other than Bhutanese that they could possibly claim.

If people with no nationality status are vulnerable, being recognised as a citizen of Bhutan does not guarantee security for Lhotshampas, as the following compilation of testimonies shows.

Although the Royal Government of Bhutan has stopped using direct means to evict people or dismiss them from government service, it continues to persecute Lhotshampas through what is described as a process of slow poisoning.

The modus operandi of the government is almost invisible to outsiders, making it extremely difficult for them to believe the human rights violations that exist in Bhutan.

The hidden agenda of the Royal Government of Bhutan has been the following:

1. To exclude as many Lhotshampas as possible from citizenship of the country by using complicated census exercises, in some cases dividing members of the same family into several different categories.

2. To persecute those who qualify as Bhutanese citizens so that they leave of their own free will.

3. To keep Lhotshampas from personal prosperity by denying them education, business and employment opportunities.

For example, the 219 civil servants who were forced to retire in January 1998 are not allowed to open their business to make a livelihood.

Some of them pay huge fees to northern Bhutanese citizens willing to use their name to obtain business licences.

Lhotshampa children have no alternative but to go to urban areas like Thimphu and get employment as domestic servants. Some of the adults have joined the National Work Force, which is a construction labour force regarded as a low-grade job in society.

4. To exclude children from education by various means. Denial of education does not happen in Thimphu, where the international community might hear about it, but it is common in the villages where people are scared to report their case to higher authorities.

Once a child completes primary school, she needs another Census Clearance Certificate to continue her schooling or to go for vocational training in any government-run or private institution.

Every student appearing in the Class X board examination has to fill in their citizenship card number on the registration form. Most Lhotshampas are not issued with citizenship cards, especially relatives of “anti-nationals”.

If, finally, a student gets clearance and continues her education at third level, she is almost sure, as a graduate, to fail the Royal Civil Service Examination.

Since 1993, hardly any Lhotshampas have passed this examination.


During his reign, from 1972 to 2006, one of the many achievements of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk was to set Bhutan on course towards democracy.

In 1998, the King introduced changes in the governance of the country, including vesting the Council of Ministers with full executive powers. The Chairman of the Council would now be Head of Government.  The first draft of a constitution for the Kingdom of Bhutan was published in 2005 and the first Bhutanese elections took place in 2008.

The reign of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk was a period of strong economic growth, and of political reform. It was also a time in which more than one sixth of Bhutan’s people were forced into exile, and in which many Lhotshampas (Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin) were pushed to the margins of society. Bhutan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, yet thousands of its children have yet to enjoy the right to non-discrimination and the right to a nationality.

In December 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, whose coronation as fifth king of the Wangchuk dynasty took place in 2008.  The young King and the Government face many challenges.

How will Lhotshampas fare under Bhutan’s constitution?

The drawing up of a constitution was widely welcomed in international fora as a step in Bhutan’s progress towards democracy. It has, however, been criticised on several grounds. The Lhotshampa community was not represented on the drafting committee.  Elements of the draft constitution confirm fears about the nationality status of Lhotshampas still living in Bhutan.

A significant number of the 81,976 non-national residents referred to in the 2005 census figures may be Lhotshampas whose citizenship status was eroded in successive census exercises throughout the 1990s.

Will these people be allowed to “apply” for citizenship? If so, it will be very difficult for them to satisfy some of the stringent conditions set down in the 1985 Citizenship Act and included in article 6.3 of the draft constitution.

Of the 20 fundamental rights set out in article 7 of the draft constitution, only six are available to all people. The majority are reserved for Bhutanese citizens. Non-national residents may be denied the rights reserved for citizens.

Only citizens have voting rights. Only a “natural born citizen of Bhutan” as defined in the 1985 Citizenship Act may hold an office or post under the Constitution.

Many Lhotshampas, under current arrangements, have already been denied rights outlined in the draft constitution (such as the right to education, to freedom of movement and residence within Bhutan, to join the public service, to own property, to not be deprived of property, to practise any lawful trade, profession or vocation).

If the nationality status of Lhotshampas is not regularised, they may become a permanent underclass with no guaranteed rights, stateless in their own country.

Bhutan’s partners in development cooperation, UN agencies and bilateral partners, now have a responsibility to work with the Royal Government of Bhutan to promote inclusion of those now marginalized in all development programmes.   If they fail to do this, the claim that they are supporting poverty reduction has no credibility.  The stated objectives of Bhutan’s tenth 5-year are poverty reduction and achieving the Millenium Development Goals.  Yet Bhutan’s marginalisation of its Lhotshampa community has resulted in massive poverty creation. That this has happened, in addition to the forced exile of more than one-sixth of Bhutan's population, belies UNDP's claim to have ensured "that progress is based on people, their needs, their aspirations and their rights."

Gross National Happiness

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk propounded Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the unifying concept for Bhutan’s long-term development. A sense of what this may mean is given in the Bhutan National Human Development Report, 2000:

"If happiness is among the cherished goals of development, then it does matter how this happiness is generated, what causes it, what goes with it, and how it is distributed - whether it is enjoyed by a few or shared by all…

"Bhutan seeks to establish a happy society, where people are safe, where everyone is guaranteed a decent livelihood, and where people enjoy universal access to good education and health care. It is a society where there is no pollution and violation of the environment, where there is no aggression and war, where inequalities do not exist, and where cultural values get strengthened every day. (…) A happy society is one where people enjoy freedoms, where there is no oppression, where art, music, dance, drama and culture flourish.

Ultimately a happy society is a caring society, caring for the past and future, caring for the environment and caring for those who need protection…"

The challenge for Bhutan is to translate the aspiration to Gross National Happiness into realisable goals.

The Centre for Bhutan Studies has identified nine provisional GNH indicators:

  • Standard of living
  • Health of population
  • Education
  • Ecosystem vitality and diversity
  • Cultural vitality and diversity
  • Time use and balance
  • Good governance
  • Community vitality
  • Emotional well-being

Bhutan promulgates the concept of Gross National Happiness with pride. 

Yet during the period in which GNH has been advertised and promoted, and received endorsement in international fora, tens of thousands of Bhutanese people, both inside and outside their country, have lived in insecurity and in fear for their future.    

For GNH to become truly embedded in policy and planning, all Bhutanese must be included in the project.