Future of Non-Resident Bhutanese (NRB) in Bhutan’s Legislative Process

By Bhuwan Gautam                                                   

NRB is a strong agenda for negotiation with the government of Bhutan. But how can the government of Bhutan open up a dialogue for negotiation under its current stance on Bhutanese Refugees? This question has risen among the Bhutanese diaspora as well as those inside Bhutan. To understand, we need to take a deeper look into Bhutan’s legislative process, policy formulation, and implementation. What went wrong in Shangri-La that forced over 100,000 of its citizen to be refugees? Bhutan propagates it Gross National Happiness. On the other hand, resettled refugees have vehemently opposed GNH as hypocrisy.



It has been almost a decade after refugee resettlement started. Currently, over 85,000 thousand refugees have been resettled in the U.S, Canada, Australia and European countries. We have heard both successes as well as sad stories. Success led thousands of forgotten refugees entering into western universities and getting their academic degrees. They changed the whole spectrum of poverty not only in their family members but have lifted their relatives above the poverty line in Nepal and Bhutan. On the other hand, we have also seen that Bhutanese suicide rate is higher than the U.S national rate. The common cause is not understood despite few reports obtained by CDC. Harvard School of Public Health and other institutions are currently conducting their research in different Bhutanese communities to develop the intervention to provide necessary support. Also, U.S State Department has been providing its resource to the various organizations.

Bhutanese refugee’s voice to public opinion was heard by the Government of Bhutan in the early 1990s but never been compromised. If we look at the level of understanding from a public policy viewpoint, we can clearly see that the government was not ready to change from its status-co. On the other hand, Lhotshampas initiated their efforts to seek justice, but they did not have any proactive measures to deal with the government officials. The outcome of the peaceful mass demonstration ended up with a hostile situation.

In the Bhutanese diaspora, Bhutanese people have not forgotten about Bhutan. Instead, their involvement in advocacy from different platforms have increased tremendously. Some Bhutanese refugees have presented Bhutanese refugee issues in NH Senate Committee. The resolution also asked request for an agreement to allow the option of repatriation, and promoting human rights and democracy in Bhutan. Those copies of resolution, signed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the senate, be forwarded by the Senate Clerk to the President of the United States and the Secretary for the United States Department of State. It was approved on June 3, 2015.

On the other hand, there are people who are in favor for national reconciliation to strengthen global GNH. Some proponents of NRB lobbied to the Capitol Hill on November 2014 and urged the State Department to put international pressure on the Bhutanese government to protect the linguistic, cultural, religious, and civil rights of all ethnic and religious minorities in Bhutan, Democratize and allow open participation by all political parties, including political parties in exile, Repatriate all those refugees, who wish to return with honor, safety and dignity, Recognize resettle Bhutanese refugees as Non-Resident Bhutanese (NRB) and establish strong US diplomatic presence in Bhutan.

Bhutan’s domains of GNH encompass nine “domains” or conditions of well-being, which are measured alongside satisfaction with life as well as positive and negative affect. The GNH “domains” are (a) standard of living, (b) good governance, (c) environment and access to nature, (d) community, (e) culture, (f) access to education and learning, (g) psychological heal, (h) physical health, and (i) time balance.

Bhutan’s GNH policies begin with the inaction of its first constitution. The second clause of the ninth article states, “(T) he State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness” (The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2008). The constitution was written after Bhutan created the mass exodus to its citizen. The current constitution does not include the rights of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese of Southern Bhutan. Policy implementation approach in Bhutan is top down authoritative. The result of GNH in the long run if failed to admit can cause severe damage to its existing Shangri-La image in the eye of the international community.  Now scholars and academicians have started to criticize the U.N for not acknowledging the fact even knowing that Bhutan violated human rights. UN contributes 60% of the money to the UNHCR, which administers refugee camp.

Royal Government of Bhutan Protocol for Policy Formulation says, “All public policies in Bhutan, irrespective of their origin but with the exception of a Royal Command or national exigencies, shall be formulated/revised, approved and adopted in line with the following Protocol for Policy Formulation. In which Clause I says, 1. Proposals to formulate/revise public policies in Bhutan can originate from the Lhengye Zhungtshog (Cabinet), sectors and the GNH Commission. But if we look at the GNH Commission, there is no Nepali-speaking Bhutanese included there.

Bhutanese royal government saw growing successful Nepali-speaking Bhutanese from The South threat in political participation. Bhutanization move was the cause.

Historically, in the early 1900s, Bhutan government accepted economic migrants from its neighboring country Nepal. Bhutan, being small country lacked the manpower to build its roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Eventually, it granted citizenship to them. Nepali Speaking Bhutanese were settled in the Southern belt, and Dzongkha Speaking Bhutanese have been living for centuries in the northern belt. Nepalese-speaking people held the highest government positions like the advisor to the king, the Member of Parliament and other key bureaucratic positions. Nepali-speaking Bhutanese provided a significant impact on the socio-economic development of Bhutan. Once the King of Bhutan said, “People in the North and South are the same”.

The crux of the political problem is ethnic cleansing policy Bhutan adopted in 1989 depriving Nepalese ethnicity. No one knew about government’s plan. The Nepali language was banned in all public and private schools, the national dress was made mandatory and other forms of surprise policies in government offices. When people started talking about the changes, they were arrested in public. Eventually, people began protesting in a peaceful mass demonstration. The huge one that changed the rhetoric was 1990 when Royal Bhutan Police killed 10s of protestors and others were arrested, tortured and killed. No one was able to stop inhuman atrocities.

Everyone in Bhutan and its neighboring countries was affected by this issue.  Bhutan became the fear of arrest and political persecution to the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. They were forcefully evicted. Jailed, nailed, tortured. Till now, Bhutan has held hostage of several Bhutanese protesters and haven’t released.  The refugees who started fleeing their country had to travel India. Some hundred refugees ended up hiding in India. India did not provide political asylum, instead, transported refugees and dumped in Nepal. Nepal became the dumping ground for over 84,000 Bhutanese refugees in between 1992 to 2003. There was an enormous public health epidemic in refugee camps, and it adversely affected refugee affected areas. The refugees started working at lower wages and affected local labor’s life. The life of remaining family members of the refugees are still living in Bhutan as Bhutanese citizen but under the fear of eviction with their ties in Nepal.

The government of Bhutan revised its citizenship act says, “A person permanently domiciled in Bhutan on or before 31st December 1958, and, whose name is registered in the census register maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs shall be deemed to be a citizen of Bhutan by registration.” Bhutan has no freedom of speech. Any citizen of Bhutan, who has acquired citizenship by naturalization, may be deprived of citizenship at any time if that person has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the King, Country, and People of Bhutan   All implemented policies were in the favor of the government of Bhutan.

On the public side, several rounds of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan did not yield any solution. The consequences of these discriminatory policies continue to hurt Nepali-speaking Bhutanese both inside Bhutan as well as in exile. On the dark side, people who fight for their rights might bear torture and potential eviction. On the other hand, people think that the present King is liberal and younger generation will bring changes.

The present citizenship act labeled all 100,000 resettled Bhutanese refugees non-nationals or terrorists in Bhutanese government’s database. A resettled naturalized U.S Bhutanese American can’t travel Bhutan even as an American tourist as Bhutan government has the discretion of rejecting visa. On the other hand, separated families can’t get reunion over decades.

Currently, the public policy is a problem because the current legislative process undermines the voice of the people. There is no vice of minority as dominant culture voice is involved in the parliament. For example, approximately 80,000 Bhutanese are declared as stateless. Bhutan continues to misuse its citizen’s right in the name of its sovereignty. The current extent of the problem is that Bhutan is facing challenges concerning its public policy.

The pioneers of NRB have started with this concept in 2009 and continued to advocate within Bhutanese diaspora. NRB’s vision is to reconcile this political imbroglio by creating socio-economic development so that resettled Bhutanese can contribute to Bhutan. On the other hand, Bhutan still claims resettled Bhutanese as economic migrants who would create demographic imbalance in the country. The political and human rights activists bust continue to work to achieve this long-term goal.