Freedom in the World
Though local elections were delayed again in 2010, the government and election commission agreed that they would be held in 2011. Several of the country’s political parties faced financial turmoil over unpaid debts during the year. While tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who were displaced in the 1990s have been resettled in other countries in recent years, more than 77,000 remained in camps in Nepal.
Britain helped to install the Wangchuck dynasty as Bhutan’s ruling family in 1907, and a 1949 treaty allowed newly independent India to assume Britain’s role in conducting the kingdom’s foreign and defense policies. In 1971, Jigme Singye Wangchucksucceeded his father as king.
The government in the 1980s imposed restrictions on Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, to protect the culture of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. The newly formed Bhutanese People’s Party (BPP) responded in 1990 with violent demonstrations, prompting a government crackdown. Tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled or were expelled to Nepal in the early 1990s, and soldiers raped and beat many villagers and detained thousands as “antinationals.”
The king launched a gradual transition to democracy in 1998. Political parties were legalized in June 2007, and elections for an upper house of Parliament were held in two rounds in December 2007 and January 2008. Elections for the lower house, the National Assembly, took place in March 2008. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) won 45 of the 47 seats, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) took the remainder; voter turnout was nearly 80 percent. A new constitution promulgated in July provided for some fundamental rights, but it upheld the primacy of the monarchy, and did not adequately protect the rights of Nepali speakers.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck succeeded his father as king in November 2008, though he had been in power since the outgoing king’s abdication in 2006. The monarchy remained highly popular with the public, and many Bhutanese expressed reservations about the shift toward democracy.
In April 2010, it was revealed that many of Bhutan’s political parties had not settled debts from the previous round of elections and would not be eligible to participate in the 2013 elections if they failed to resolve their financial problems. Meanwhile, local elections that were supposed to have taken place in late 2008 continued to be postponed in 2010. However, in November, the government and Bhutan’s election commission agreed that elections for select administrative districts would be held in 2011.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Bhutan is not an electoral democracy, though the 2008 elections represented a significant step toward that status. A European Union (EU) monitoring team reported that the National Assembly elections “generally met international standards,” though it found problems with freedom of expression and association during the campaign. Nine ethnic Nepalese candidates were elected to office, but the EU monitors noted that a rule requiring candidates to obtain a security clearance certificate may have been an obstacle for some Nepalese. According to Human Rights Watch, many ethnic Nepalese residents were barred from voting because they were among the 13 percent of the population counted as non-nationals in the 2005 census.
The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly, both serving five-year terms. The king appoints five members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king to serve as prime minister. The cabinet is nominated by the king and approved by the National Assembly. The king remains the head of state and appoints members of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the heads of national commissions. He can return legislation with objections or amendments, but once it has been reconsidered and resubmitted, the king must sign it into law.
Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in 2007, though the Bhutan People’s United Party was denied registration. Only two parties—the DPT and PDP, both of which have ties to the royal family and do not differ significantly in policy goals—participated in the 2008 National Assembly elections. The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA), a Bhutanese refugee organization based in Nepal, reported in 2008 that the National Assembly had approved a government proposal to restrict any form of campaigning for local elections, in which candidates were required to be nonpartisan.
The government operates with limited transparency and accountability, but steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. The 2006 Anti-Corruption Act established whistleblower protections, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is tasked with investigating and preventing graft. In 2010, the National Assembly passed an anticorruption law. Bhutan was ranked 36 of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The authorities restrict freedom of expression, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. A 2006 media law led to the establishment of two independent radio stations, but it did not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. The state-owned Kuensel and two independent weeklies, theBhutan Times and theDaily Observer, generally publish progovernment articles but occasionally cover criticism of the government. Another paper, the Bhutan Daily, opened in 2008. Druk Neytshuel, the first private newspaper in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, and a private radio station in Thimpu were established in 2010. Shanti Ram Acharya, a journalist working for the APFA’s monthly Bhutan Reporter, was sentenced to seven and half years in prison in January 2009; he had been arrested for alleged “subversive activities” while visiting Bhutan in 2007. The internet is accessed by less than 10 percent of Bhutan’s population. The government monitors online content and blocks material that is seen as pornographic.
The constitution protects freedom of religion, and a 2007 election law bars any ordained religious figure or “religious personality” from voting or running for office. In 2010, the election commission maintained that even lay members of religious organizations would be prevented from voting in upcoming local elections, drawing objections from rights advocates. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion and reportedly receives various subsidies. The Christian minority is allegedly subject to harassment by the authorities, and permits for the construction of Hindu temples are apparently difficult to obtain. Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, though nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claim that the teaching of Nepali and Sanskrit is banned.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the government must approve the purpose of any protests. In recent years, security forces have arrested Southern Bhutanese refugees based in Nepal who entered Bhutan to demonstrate for the right to return home.
The constitution guarantees freedom of association, but only for groups “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” NGOs that work on human rights, the refugee issue, or other sensitive matters are not legally allowed to operate. The 2007 Civil Society Organization Act requires all new NGOs to register with the government. The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes, though some 85 percent of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. A 2007 employment law prohibited forced labor, child labor, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
An independent Judicial Service Council created in 2007 controls judicial appointments and promotions. However, critics have alleged that the judiciary is not fully independent. Until a new Supreme Court was finally seated in early 2010, the king served as the final arbiter of appeals. The APFA reported in January 2010 that the High Court, the second-highest judicial tier, was understaffed and facing a backlog. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern, and dozens of political prisoners continue to serve lengthy sentences.
Prior to the mass expulsions of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, the government had stripped thousands of their citizenship under a 1985 law that required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens. While the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that the overwhelming majority of refugees have proof of Bhutanese nationality, the government maintains that many left voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. More than 77,000 refugees live in extremely poor conditions in Nepal and have been denied reentry to Bhutan. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to third countries began in 2007. The UNHCR reported that as of August 2010, 34,500 refugees had been resettled in seven countries, with the majority going to the United States.
Women participate freely in social and economic life but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics, holding 14 percent of the seats in Parliament. The application of religious or ethnically based customary laws regarding inheritance, marriage, and divorce sometimes results in discrimination against women.