About us | Links
Low graphics version

Video testimony from Bhutanese refugee living in exile


Bhutan’s 650,000 people comprise three main groups, along with other small groups.

The Ngalongs of the western mountains and the central Bhutanese with whom they have intermarried form the elite. They form a minority alongside the more numerous Sharchhops (“easterners”). Both Ngalongs and Sharchhops are Buddhist.

The Lhotshampa, who live mainly in the south of the country, are the third largest group in Bhutan. Originally from Nepal, they speak Nepali and most practise Hinduism.

Analysis of population statistics provided by the Bhutanese government, in which the population is shown to have increased steadily despite the expulsion of more than 80,000 people in the early 1990s, can reveal that Bhutan has attempted to hide the exodus of a large part of the Lhotshampa community.

The figures also suggest the potential for further discrimination against the Lhotshampas in future.

Many Lhotshampas are vulnerable because of their precarious citizenship status. Even those recognised as Bhutanese citizens face discrimination.

Read on:

Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan: a vulnerable group of people

In 1958, Bhutan passed its first Citizenship Act. People of Nepalese origin had migrated to Bhutan from the end of the 19th century as contractual workers.

They and their descendants had very little security in Bhutan until they were granted full citizenship under the 1958 Citizenship Act.

During the 1960s and 1970s, it was government policy to promote integration of people of Nepalese origin (known as Lhotshampas) into the Bhutanese mainstream, and many Lhotshampas rose to occupy influential positions in the bureaucracy.

During the 1980s, the Lhotshampas came to be seen as a threat to the political order.

The section A Brief History of the Refugee Crisis and the Timeline outline the repression and expulsion of tens of thousands of Lhotshampas. Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan today face an uncertain future, with continuing discrimination and the possibility of being excluded from the emerging democratic process.

Population statistics for Bhutan have been notoriously problematic. The figures for the years 1984 to 1998 are stated in Bhutan’s National Human Development Report, 2000, to be population estimates. They mask the exodus of tens of thousands of Lhotshampas in the early 1990s.

Year   Population
1984    452,000*
1985    460,278
1986    468,708
1987    477,292
1989    494,935
2004    730,340
2005    634,972**

Alongside population figures, it has been the practice to record the numbers of migrant workers in Bhutan. The population of migrant workers has remained fairly constant, at approximately 40,000.

The published results of the nationwide census carried out in 2005 show a new population category: non-national residents. Out of the total population of 634,972, 81,976 people have been placed in this category. How can this be explained?

The citizenship status of Lhotshampas has been eroded by various measures taken since the end of the 1980s. In 1988, Lhotshampas were divided into seven categories, as follows:

  1. genuine Bhutanese;
  2. returned migrants;
  3. people not available during the census;
  4. a non-national woman married to a Bhutanese man;
  5. a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman;
  6. children legally adopted;
  7. non-nationals - migrants and illegal settlers.

Placement in the seven categories was often arbitrary, and could be arbitrarily changed. The categorisation was used as a tool to evict Lhotshampas. In some cases members of the same family have been, and still are, placed in different categories.

The declaration that 81,976 of the resident population are “non-national” may mean the effective “denationalisation” of many of the Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan.

The Royal Government does not publish disaggregated data to show the proportion of different ethnic groups in the population. It maintains that 25% of the population are Lhotshampa. 25% of the 552,996 Bhutanese citizens? Or 25% of the total resident population of 634,972?

In 2005, the Bhutanese Home Ministry began the process of issuing new citizenship cards with biometric data to Bhutanese nationals. Citizenship cards have been issued to Lhotshampas falling into categories 1 and 4 of the 7 categories into which they have been placed.

There is no indication of what will become of the people who do not fall into either category 1 or 4. It is likely that many of the 81,976 people declared resident “non-nationals“ are Lhotshampa. If this is the case, they are stateless in their own country. For the majority there is no nationality other than Bhutanese that they could possibly claim.

back to top

Lhotshampas recognised as Bhutanese citizens face discrimination

If people with no nationality status are vulnerable, being recognised as a citizen of Bhutan does not guarantee security for Lhotshampas, as the following compilation of testimonies shows.

Although the Royal Government of Bhutan has stopped using direct means to evict people or dismiss them from government service, it continues to persecute Lhotshampas through what is described as a process of slow poisoning.

The modus operandi of the government is almost invisible to outsiders, making it extremely difficult for them to believe the human rights violations that exist in Bhutan.

The hidden agenda of the Royal Government of Bhutan has been the following:

1. To exclude as many Lhotshampas as possible from citizenship of the country by using complicated census exercises, in some cases dividing members of the same family into several different categories.

2. To persecute those who qualify as Bhutanese citizens so that they leave of their own free will.

3. To keep Lhotshampas from personal prosperity by denying them education, business and employment opportunities.

For example, the 219 civil servants who were forced to retire in January 1998 are not allowed to open their business to make a livelihood.

Some of them pay huge fees to northern Bhutanese citizens willing to use their name to obtain business licences.

Lhotshampa children have no alternative but to go to urban areas like Thimphu and get employment as domestic servants. Some of the adults have joined the National Work Force, which is a construction labour force regarded as a low-grade job in society.

4. To exclude children from education by various means. Denial of education does not happen in Thimphu, where the international community might hear about it, but it is common in the villages where people are scared to report their case to higher authorities.

Once a child completes primary school, she needs another Census Clearance Certificate to continue her schooling or to go for vocational training in any government-run or private institution.

Every student appearing in the Class X board examination has to fill in their citizenship card number on the registration form. Most Lhotshampas are not issued with citizenship cards, especially relatives of “anti-nationals”.

If, finally, a student gets clearance and continues her education at third level, she is almost sure, as a graduate, to fail the Royal Civil Service Examination.

Since 1993, hardly any Lhotshampas have passed this examination.

back to top


Site design Area 17 web site design