Jigme Y. Thinley
Government of Bhutan
Dear Prime Minister:
Congratulations on your party’s victory in the recent elections to the National Assembly in Bhutan. We welcomed the sight of Bhutanese citizens coming out in large numbers to participate in the vote and begin a democratic political system.
Your party won the election on the promise of enhancing the “gross national happiness” of Bhutanese citizens. We hope that, as the first democratically elected leader in Bhutan, you will ensure that Bhutan becomes an inclusive nation that addresses the needs of all its citizens.
We would like to draw your attention to the fact that many Bhutanese citizens are treated as non-citizens. Although 79 percent of those on the voting lists exercised the right to select their representatives, many Bhutanese citizens were denied that privilege. Approximately 13 percent of the population was excluded from voting. An estimated 82,000 people, most of them ethnic Nepalis, were found to be “non-nationals” in the 2005 census and thus were ineligible to vote. While we welcome the fact that nine Nepali-speaking candidates were elected to Bhutan’s National Assembly, and we hope that this representation will ensure the protection of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, the end to discriminatory treatment of such a large number of your citizens should be a priority for your government.
Unfairly restrictive citizenship laws have excluded many people who rightly should be regarded as Bhutanese nationals. This appears to be the result of a series of discriminatory measures aimed at the political, economic and cultural exclusion of many of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepali citizens.
Since 1989, a decree requiring all citizens to observe the traditional Drukpa code of values, dress and etiquette and the removal of Nepali language from school curriculums has led to a culture of discrimination against Bhutan’s ethnic minorities, which was eventually reflected in the exclusion of many from participation in the elections. International monitors have criticized the restrictions on minority language use during the election process because voter education, campaign and election materials were printed only in Dzongkha and English.
Over 100,000 Bhutanese citizens have paid an even greater price to maintain the monarchy’s vision of Bhutan’s cultural integrity. They were driven out in the 1990s and remain refugees in Nepal. Some of the Bhutanese refugees will be resettled in the United States, Australia and European countries, while others have chosen to remain in Nepal. However, the vast majority of the refugees hope that one day they will be allowed to return to their homes in Bhutan. Your government has an international legal obligation to allow refugees who want to return to Bhutan to do so.
The repatriation of refugees to Bhutan will become feasible only when the Bhutanese government takes real steps to protect the rights of ethnic Nepalis by guaranteeing their physical safety and respect for their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. However, ethnic Nepali citizens who were not evicted and remain in Bhutan face persistent discrimination and threats to their citizenship status. They also face harassment in obtaining “No Objection Certificates,” which are required for enrollment in higher education, employment in government service, buying and selling land, and obtaining business licenses and travel documents. While Drukpas are routinely issued No Objective Certificates, there are delays and unjustified refusals when ethnic Nepalis seek the certificate.
A culture of discrimination and exclusion can foster violence. There have been reports of the emergence of Maoist groups in Bhutan, such as the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, which has taken responsibility for the bomb blasts in Thimphu and three other locations on January 20, 2008. While we condemn the bombings, we also condemn the government’s reported arbitrary detentions and use of torture in response. We urge your government to take serious steps to address the grievances of all persons in Bhutan, including ethnic minorities. Action against those who commit criminal offenses should be in accordance with international legal standards.
Democracy will be truly successful only when Bhutan is able to embrace difference and pluralism. To enable this, we urge your government to promptly take the following steps:
- Ensure the protection of the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of all groups in Bhutan, including ethnic Nepalis;
- Amend the citizenship laws so that all Bhutanese are protected from arbitrary denationalization and statelessness;
- Abolish the system of No Objection Certificates and grant equal rights to all Bhutanese citizens;
- Respect the safe right of return of all Bhutanese refugees;
- Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and
- Ratify the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Thank you for your consideration of these recommendations. Again, we congratulate you and wish you great success as you move forward.
Executive Director, Asia division