History of Bhutan


     Bhutan essentially is a land of immigrants. Broadly speaking, there are three ethnic groups in the

country: The Ngalongs that migrated from Tibet inhabit the western part of Bhutan. They follow a

sect of Lamaist Buddhism, known as the Drukpa Kargyupa sect. They speak a Tibetan-derived

language called Dzongkha and is formally made the national language of the country. The largest

ethnic group inhabits the eastern part of Bhutan. Known as Sharchokpas, they profess another

sect of Buddhism, namely the Nyingmapa sect and speak a dialect called Tsangla. The Nepalis

inhabit most of the southern belt of the country bordered with India and by and large profess

different denomination of Hinduism and speak Nepali as their common language. The numerical

strength of each of the group is contested. The government itself has publicized highly contradictory

figures regarding the total population of Bhutan and the composition of each of the ethnic groups.

That notwithstanding, the Ngalongs are a minority. The hereditary monarchs of Bhutan belong to

this ethnic stock and continue to rule the country since 1907, the time Bhutan was constituted as a hereditary monarchy.

     The current Bhutanese head of the state is the fifth hereditary monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. The ethnic and religious harmony prevailing in the country for generations was ruptured during the reign of the fourth King, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the father of the present monarch. The king evolved an overarching policy that would guide the nation-building process of Bhutan. The policy of "ONE NATION ONE PEOPLE" mandated that every governmental policy, legislation or governmental action needed to comply with this national agenda of One Nation One People. The mandatory requirement of this national policy was that every ethnic or religious group in the country needed to comply with the culture of the ruling Ngalongs and were prohibited from practicing their own culture, religion or social values.

     In order to implement this national agenda, the government took recourse to a series of legislations and policies. The following is a brief overview of such legislations and policies.

  • Imposition of Driglamnamzag, a Ngalong Social Code of Conduct: The government developed an elaborate code of social conduct based on the culture of the ruling Ngalongs and imposed it on the whole population. The hardest hit was the Nepali speaking Bhutanese population that professed their own defined culture.

  • Dress Code: The Cultural dress of the ruling Ngalongs was declared as the national dress and was made mandatory to every Bhutanese. The cultural dress of the Nepali Bhutanese was prohibited.

  • Language Policy: The Language of the ruling Ngalongs was made mandatory on every Bhutanese. The use of the Nepali language was prohibited. The teaching of Nepali language in schools in Southern Bhutan was banned and the Nepali literature gathered and burnt.

  • Amendment of the 1958 Citizenship Act in 1977 and 1987: The Nepali speaking Bhutanese were specifically granted citizenship in 1958 under the operation of its first citizenship Act (1958). The law was subsequently amended in 1977 and 1987. While the 1977 amendment incorporated a number of cultural concerns of the ruling Ngalongs as compulsory requirements of getting formal citizenship, the 1987 amendment brought about a retroactive provision which was purported to denationalize a huge population of the Nepali speaking Bhutanese.

  • Selective Census Exercise in 1988: The government conducted a selective census exercise in 1988 in Southern Bhutan which categorized the Nepali speaking Bhutanese in 7 categories. The whole exercise was arbitrary, capricious and mala fide in its intent. The census officers required illiterate villagers a 30 year-old (of 1958) land tax receipt to be produced as the only qualification for Bhutanese citizenship, in contravention to the earlier citizenship Acts. This was done purposefully to denationalize as many Nepali speaking Bhutanese as possible, because compulsory land tax (through payment of cash) began in Bhutan much later in 1964. There was no system of recording the payment of tax in kind until cash payment was mandated in 1964.

  • TSA WA SUM  (3 main elements) doctrine: The King, Country and the government (later on changed to people)  were declared the 3 main elements of Bhutan and anyone criticizing any of the three was considered an anti-national and charged under treason.

    These and many other policies were clear in their purpose: One, to remove as many Nepali speaking Bhutanese as possible from the country and two, to obliterate their culture. This was a strategic plan of cultural extermination. When these policies touched the very existence of the Nepali speaking Bhutanese, they appealed to their King through one of their representatives in the parliament, Mr T N Rizal. MR Rizal’s action was considered seditious and he was immediately stripped of all his governmental responsibilities and subsequently forced to go into exile.

The atrocity perpetrated by the government increased manifold. In order to bring this to the notice of the king the Nepali speaking Bhutanese organized peaceful protests requesting the government to reverse its draconian policies under the ONE NATION ONE PEOPLE agenda.

The government retorted with martial rule in the whole of southern Bhutan. Mass arrests, killing, arson, rape and beating became common measures adopted by the militry forces. The only way one could be physically safe was by signing the government sponsored VOLUNTARY MIGRATION FORM. The so called voluntary migration form contained some written material in the Dzongkha language that most of the Nepali speaking Bhutanese did not understand. The government later released the translated version of the undertaking that people had voluntarily agreed to leave the country. Thus by 1992, more than 1, 20,000 people were forced out of their homestead.

      India, the first country of asylum, denied asylum on cited grounds of security concerns and people were forced to cross the border to Nepal. Nepal, a nascent democracy then, undertook its international responsibility of protecting the refugees and invited the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) the UN organ for refugees, for managing and protecting the refugees. Seven Refugee camps were established in Eastern Nepal and administered by the UNHCR and its implementing partners assisted by the government of Nepal.

Nepal and Bhutan subsequently began bilateral talks to solve the problem in 1993. Bhutan did everything to prevaricate and abort bilateralism. Under sustained international watch, it was forced to constitute and participate in a verification exercise formed by the two countries. The verification team was mandated to investigate the authenticity of the claim of the refugees that they were genuine Bhutanese. The government had contested their claims. In the verification exercise, undertaken in terms dictated by the government of Bhutan, which were indeed atrocious for the refugees, it found at least 75% of the refugees genuine Bhutanese. A host of International observers termed the verification conditions too atrocious for the refugees and further stated that under international standards all the refugees would qualify for Bhutanese citizenship.

     Alarmed at the result of the verification exercise, the government of Bhutan walked out of bilateralism. Nepal government could not urge its Bhutanese counterpart to continue with the bilateral exercise. In the meantime, the life of the people in the 7 refugee camps deteriorated. A serious humanitarian crisis was in the making. It was at this state of play, that eight western countries offered the solution of third country resettlement for the refugees.

     USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, the UK and Sweden came forward with the offer of resettlement for willing refugees. The US alone offered resettlement of more than 80,000 Bhutanese refugees. Thus, the first group of Bhutanese refugees began arriving in USA in 2008.

     Philadelphia alone has more than 3,000 Bhutanese refugees. Considering their resettlement concerns and their difficulty in integrating in the new society, need for founding an organization to cater to the need of the people was immensely felt. Therefore, the Bhutanese American Organization- Philadelphia was officially founded on February 22, 2013. The community members have multi-pronged problems ranging from a sense of cultural shock to the lack of English language ability and a myriad of mental and physical health concerns. While several humanitarian and non-profit organizations and individuals have been actively involved in helping the newly resettled refugees, much needs to be done ahead to integrate this population to the mainstream, help them protect and preserve their culture and religion for which they became refugees, enable them explore better job opportunities, direct them to pursue higher education and maintain good health, among others.  WIth the robust support from community members and several mainstream Americans, BAO-P is a 501 (C) 3 and several programs like ESL classes, health orientations, Yoga and Geetha classes, Bhajan and Kirtan, temple visits, and other social activities are regular activities here.

© Bhutanese American Organization – Philadelphia (BAO-P)