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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Lhotshampas in Bhutan

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Bhutan Facts
Area:    46,620 sq. km.
Capital:    Thimpu
Total Population:    1,908,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Lhotshampas have the following factors encouraging rebellion or protest: territorial concentration in southern Bhutan, where they constitute a majority of the population, and significant political, economic, and cultural discrimination. As of the end of 2006, the leaders of Nepal and Bhutan remained in talks regarding the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.


Analytic Summary

Bhutan, a land-locked territory the size of Switzerland, is located in the eastern Himalayas. The Wangchuck dynasty from the Drukpa ethnic group has ruled Bhutan since 1907. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-72), considered the father of modern Bhutan, began a program to move the kingdom into the modern world from medieval seclusion. 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. Land and legal reforms were also initiated. His son expanded upon those policies while emphasizing Bhutan's traditions and seeking to limit Western influences on the small, isolated country. Bhutan crowned a new king, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and held its first parliamentary elections in 2008.

Bhutan's official population consists of two broad groupings -- the Drukpas of the north, the original inhabitants, and the Lhotshampas of the south (GROUPCON = 3), who are immigrants of Nepali origin (RACE = 1). Lhotshampas constitute approximately 35 percent of Bhutan’s total population and differ from the plurality Bhote (or Ngalung) linguistically (LANG = 1), culturally (CUSTOM = 1) and religiously (BELIEF = 2). At the turn of this century, some Nepalese were brought in as laborers while others migrated to the southern plains of Bhutan. As a one time only measure, in 1958, these immigrants were granted Bhutanese citizenship.

In 1952, ethnic Nepalese set up the Bhutan State Congress (BSC), reportedly following the example of Nepal's Congress Party. The BSC, Bhutan's first political party, pressed for democratization and the provision of citizenship rights and political representation for Nepali settlers. The Drukpa majority refers to this period as the "first anti-national revolt." The Congress parties in India and Nepal are alleged to have provided support to this Bhutanese campaign.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Nepali laborers reportedly entered Bhutan and never left. Ethnic Nepalis were estimated to constitute around 30 percent of Bhutan's population by the 1980s. The Buddhist Drukpas began to fear that they would lose their majority status in the tiny kingdom. Two other events also likely heightened their perceptions. Nepali migration to the independent Himalayan state of Sikkim led this group to outnumber the Buddhist Sikkimese and was seen as critical in leading the state to become part of India in 1975. Further, an ethnic Nepalese campaign to establish a separate state in India arose in the mid-1980s (led by the Gurkha National Liberation Front). The Drukpa-dominated government worried that Bhutan would soon be faced with a similar situation.

Ethnic conflict began to sharpen in Bhutan in 1985 when the citizenship law was retroactively applied. Under this law, anyone born after 1958 who had only one Bhutanese parent had to apply for citizenship, demonstrate fluency in the national language of Dzongkha, and produce evidence of 15-20 years of residence in the country. In 1988, the law was followed by a census to identify Bhutanese nationals. The census reclassified as "illegal" about 100,000 Nepalese who had arrived in recent decades. Many Lhotshampas were reported to be falsely registered for years as "southern Bhutanese" citizens.

In addition, a 1988 edict required Bhutanese to wear national dress on public occasions. Another enjoined a code of conduct based on Buddhist precepts and the teaching of Dzongkha, the national language, in schools. Schooling in the Nepali language was stopped in 1989. In 1990, many primary schools in southern areas heavily populated by ethnic Nepalese were (and still remain) closed. Today, discrimination is widely prevalent against Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in education, seeking employment and obtaining business licenses (ECDIS06 = 4).

Bhutanese language laws require the use of Drukpa for all official purposes and positions, and these laws also explicitly ban the use of Napalese in education, business, and government. Moreover, the Nepalese names of places in southern Bhutan have been replaced officially with Drukpa names (CULPO206 = 3). While Bhutanese law allows for freedom of religion, the Bhutanese government restricts this right in practice, recognizing only one official religion: Buddhism, specifically the Drukpa Kargupa sect. For instance, as the U.S. State Department noted recently: "The King declared that major Hindu festivals were national holidays, and the royal family participated in them. However,...NGOs reported that permission from the Government to build a Hindu temple was required but rarely granted" (CULPO106 = 2).

Growing discontent among the Nepalese led to the formation of the opposition Bhutan People's Party (BPP). The BPP dismisses the validity of the National Assembly claiming that they are under-represented and that the Assembly is not democratically elected. The BPP has called for a constitutional monarchy to be established. It also seeks multi-party democracy, amendments to the citizenship act, including an end to the 1958 cutoff, abolition of the traditional judicial system, and the right to preserve Nepali dress, language and culture including the right to carry the traditional knife, the khukri.

Clashes between the Nepalese and government forces during the early 1990s, widespread human rights abuses against the Nepalese by state security forces, and the forced expulsion of large numbers of Nepalese under the country's citizenship law led to a large-scale exodus from Bhutan's southern region. Around 90,000 Nepalis remain in refugee camps in Nepal while another 30,000 are in India awaiting a return to Bhutan. Some analysts refer to this period as an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Nepalese. Bhutanese citizenship laws continue to deny citizenship to Lhotsampas and thus largely exclude them from the political system (POLDIS06 = 4).

Both Nepal and Bhutan (whose foreign and security policies are determined by India based on a 1949 agreement) are within the Indian sphere of influence. Although dissidents say Indian support is crucial, New Delhi has not pressed Wangchuck to institute political reforms. The reason could be Delhi's shared fear about a "Greater Nepal" bringing together close to 30 million Nepali speakers in the Himalayas -- 20 million in Nepal, over 8 million inside Indian borders and the rest in Bhutan. In recent years, India itself has "pushed back" 25,000 Nepalese who were illegally living in Assam and other northeastern states.

Doubts remain as to whether ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan will soon experience an improvement in their political, cultural, or economic status. In July 1998, the King instituted some political reforms, including giving the national assembly the legal power to call a no-confidence vote against him. However, the government also tightened restrictions on the employment of Nepalis in the civil sector and began resettling northerners on land that belongs to Lhotshampa refugees. There are limited reports about some unrest in the south, often attributed to the Bhutan People’s Party, but given the closed nature of Bhutanese society, it is not possible to get a clear picture of these events.

The future of the 120,000 Bhutanese refugees who have spent most of the past decade in Nepali or Indian camps also remains bleak. Since 1996, the refugees have held numerous demonstrations and hunger strikes to press for their repatriation and the institutionalization of democracy in Bhutan. The Indian government's continual refusal to allow the refugees to cross its territory to return to Bhutan is viewed by some as a sign of India's position on the issue. To date, New Delhi says the issue should be resolved bilaterally and thus has refused calls to mediate.

In 2001-2003, Nepal and Bhutan held several rounds of negotiations to discuss the refugee issue. After years of deadlock, in 2001, the two countries agreed to intensify the process of verifying and repatriating Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. At the same time, Bhutan maintains that most of the refugees are not legitimate citizens. In addition, there are continued reports of the resettlement of Bhutanese people on land that formerly belonged to the Lhotshampas. This will be formidable block to the successful repatriation of the refugees.

In 2003, Nepal announced that thousand of refuges will start returning to Bhutan in early 2004. This apparent breakthrough should, however, be viewed with skepticism. Several human rights organizations have condemned the process of refugee screening as a serious violation of international and human rights norms. Under the complicated scheme of ethnic classification, only about 2.5 percent of the refugees were placed in category I and therefore eligible for repatriation to Bhutan. An additional 70 percent, under Category II, would be required to reapply for Bhutanese citizenship. Approximately 24 per cent will have their citizenship rejected, and the rest classified as criminals. Only about 9,000 refugees will be allowed to return to Bhutan, leaving the majority stateless.

Unless more concrete steps are taken to address both the refugee situation and democratic reforms in Bhutan, the possibility of increasing violence cannot be ruled out.



Asiaweek. Various reports. 1990-97.

Dahlburg, John-Thor. 12/23/1995. "Bhutan: A Shangri-La No Longer?." The Los Angeles Times.

Keesings Record of World Events. Various reports. 1990-95.

LexisNexis. Various reports. 1985-2006.

Rizal, Dhurba. 2004. "The Unknown Refugee Crisis: Expulsion of the Ethnic Lhotsampa from Bhutan." Asian Ethnicity 5:2.

Sinha, A.C., "Bhutan in 1994: Will the Ethnic Conflict be Resolved?", Asian Affairs, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, 1995.

U.S. State Department. "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Bhutan." 2000-2006.


© 2004 - 2023 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006