Happiness and Human Rights in Shangri-La

by | 25 Mar 2013

In the early 1990s, Indra was forced to flee her home country of Bhutan after her father had been imprisoned and tortured. “In prison they hung my father upside down and beat him. Then they hung him over chili smoke,” she explained. “After that they ordered him to leave the country with all his family. That very night myself and my family left our house and our country empty handed. There were many tears.” Soon thereafter, Indra and her family found themselves living in a refugee camp in neighboring Nepal. More than 80,000 people endured the same fate as Indra when the Bhutanese government forcibly expelled ethnic Nepalis in an act of ethnic cleansing. The resulting refugee crisis has gone largely unnoticed internationally while much greater focus has been placed on the Bhutanese government’s efforts to achieve Gross National Happiness in this tiny Himalayan kingdom that has been labeled the world’s last Shangri-La.

In recent years there has been increased attention paid to the concept of happiness in the quest to measure human well-being. Some progressives now advocate using the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index rather than relying on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order to more accurately measure the well-being of a society. Many advocates of GNH point to Bhutan as an example of the benefits that can result from measuring the levels of happiness in a society rather than simply emphasizing the amount of economic productivity. But while there are clearly many merits to the concept of GNH, the promotion of Bhutan as the model to emulate is troubling given the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by that country’s government. The story of contemporary Bhutan raises important questions related to whether or not a society can preserve a particular ethnic and cultural identity in a world of constantly changing demographics in order to achieve “national” happiness.

In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk proposed that Bhutan focus on GNH rather than GDP to ensure that measurements of the well-being of the nation not be simply reduced to levels of economic production. GNH takes a more holistic approach towards measuring the health of a society and, as a result, according to the Bhutan government’s National Human Development Report:

Bhutan seeks to establish a happy society, where people are safe, where everyone is guaranteed a decent livelihood, and where people enjoy universal access to good education and health care. It is a society where there is no pollution and violation of the environment, where there is no aggression and war, where inequalities do not exist, and where cultural values get strengthened every day. … A happy society is one where people enjoy freedoms, where there is no oppression, where art, music, dance, drama and culture flourish. Ultimately a happy society is a caring society, caring for the past and future, caring for the environment and caring for those who need protection.

But despite “cultural vitality and diversity” being among the nine indicators the government uses to determine the country’s Gross National Happiness, a series of official acts implemented since the late-1970s have sought to narrowly define Bhutanese nationals as only those citizens who adhere to the customs, values, dress, religion and language of the Ngalongs and Sarchops—the two dominant ethnic groups that are collectively known as Drukpas. The Drukpas are Buddhists who live primarily in the north of the country while Bhutanese of Nepali descent are Hindus who live in the south and are known as Lhotshampas, or “southerners.”

People from lands that constitute modern-day Nepal have lived in Bhutan for centuries, but this relatively small number began to increase in the 1890s as Nepali migrants settled in southern regions in order to engage in agriculture. By the end of the 1950s, ethnic Nepalis were becoming involved in the political and administrative structures of the country and the Bhutanese government recognized their language, customs, dress and traditions. The 1958 Nationality Law conferred citizenship on ethnic Nepalis living in the south of the country, thereby acknowledging that Bhutan was a multicultural nation.

The ethnic Nepali population continued to grow during the 1960s when the Bhutanese government brought Nepali immigrants into the country to work on development and infrastructure projects such as road-building. While the government acknowledges that many Nepalis were brought into the country legally to work, it argues that others entered illegally during those years. During the 1970s, the government became concerned with the number of ethnic Nepalis living in the south of the country and initiated a series of official acts that would ultimately result in ethnic cleansing through either forced assimilation or forced expulsion.

The government’s fears that ethnic Nepalis would eventually constitute a majority of the Bhutanese population were fuelled in part by the history of the neighboring Indian state of Sikkim, where the migration of Nepalis who practiced Hinduism began in the 1800s and ultimately led to the Buddhist population becoming a minority. This demographic shift was a significant contributing factor in Sikkim’s political transition from being a protectorate of India to becoming the country’s 22nd state in 1975. However, one crucial difference between Sikkim and Bhutan is that the latter is not a protectorate of India but rather an independent sovereign nation.

The Bhutanese government first sought to stem the flow of Nepali immigrants into Bhutan by passing the Citizenship Act of 1977. This was followed by the introduction of the Bhutan Marriage Act in 1980, which sought to further deter immigration by discouraging Bhutanese citizens from marrying foreigners. The government’s primary objective was to reduce the number of Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent who were marrying people from Nepal and then bringing them to Bhutan.

Under the Marriage Act, any Bhutanese citizen who marries a foreigner loses their right to health care and government agricultural assistance (i.e. land, seeds, livestock, etc.), which proved particularly troubling for ethnic Nepalis because most of them were farmers. Furthermore, any citizen who married a foreigner became ineligible to receive government funding for education and training programs—and also had to refund to the government all monies previously received.

The implementation of the Citizenship Act of 1985 sought to restrict who could be a citizen of Bhutan by declaring that only children born to two citizen parents are automatically Bhutanese. If only one parent is a Bhutanese citizen then the child is considered to be a foreigner who must apply for citizenship by naturalization. The act clearly targeted the children of Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent married to immigrants from Nepal.

The most controversial provision of the act was the selection of 1958 as the cut-off year for determining citizenship. In other words, only ethnic Nepalis who could provide documentation showing they lived in Bhutan prior to the end of 1958 were considered to be citizens. As a result, the ethnic Nepalis who were brought into the country during the 1960s to work on development projects were no longer considered citizens because they were not residents of the country in 1958.

And then, in 1988, the government initiated a census to identify Bhutanese citizens according to the criteria established in the Citizenship Act of 1985. The census was only conducted in the south of the country, which was primarily populated by ethnic Nepalis. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR):

The standards set for proving residence were extremely strict and in some areas no account appears to have been taken of the difficulties that the production of appropriate documentation would pose for a largely illiterate people in a country that has only recently adopted basic administrative procedures. … Even those ethnic Nepalis who were able to produce what they believed to be evidence of their eligibility to be granted F1 status were exempted under the very strict guidelines used by the census teams. Many ethnic Nepalis who possessed citizenship certificates issued by district officials under the provisions of the 1958 Nationality Law found these declared null and void unless they could produce documents proving at least residence, and often land ownership, prior to 1958.

The census resulted in many ethnic Nepalis who had become Bhutanese nationals after 1958—and many who had lived in the country prior to that date—being stripped of their citizenship. As a result, the status of many ethnic Nepalis was transformed virtually overnight from “citizen” to “illegal immigrant.”

In April 1988, ethnic Nepalis responded to this attack on their status by submitting a petition to the king in the capital Thimphu that criticized the manner in which the census was being conducted and the retroactive 1958 requirement date for citizenship. The king declared the petition to be seditious and against the king, country and people of Bhutan. Tek Nath Rizal, who had signed the petition and delivered it to the king, was imprisoned. In return for his efforts to seek a non-violent means of addressing the perceived injustices against ethnic Nepalis, Rizal spent the next 10 years in prison and was declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.

In 1989, the government initiated a direct assault on the culture of ethnic Nepalis in order to promote a distinct national identity when it launched the “One Nation, One People” campaign. According to the UNHCR:

In January 1989, the King issued a decree which required all citizens to observe driglam namzha, the traditional northern Bhutanese code of values, dress and etiquette. The most controversial element of this was the requirement that everyone wear the traditional costume of the Drukpa people … clothes commonly worn in the north, but seldom seen in the south of the country. The introduction of this requirement was regarded by ethnic Nepalis as a clear attack on their cultural identity. Resentment quickly grew as the policy was implemented. On-the-spot fines or imprisonment for a week were the penalties for failure to comply with the new dress code, and the police, who were permitted to keep 50 per cent of the fine as an incentive to enforce the policy, did so rigorously. Concern among ethnic Nepalis about the threat to their cultural identity implied by the application of driglam namzha was heightened still further in February 1989 when the Nepali language was removed from the curriculum in schools in the south of the country.

The series of official acts implemented between 1977 and 1989 were not simply intended to curb immigration, but to also define a Bhutanese national according to the values, customs, dress, religion and language of the dominant Drukpa culture. Not surprisingly, ethnic Nepalis responded to these acts by engaging in public demonstrations and protests in defense of their culture. The government in turn responded to massive protests held in September and October 1990 by launching a military crackdown. Those ethnic Nepalis critical of the government’s policies were labeled ngolops, or “anti-nationals,” and accused of perpetrating acts of terrorism. As the government would later declare in reference to the protests, “It was unrealistic to believe that a large group of people could be moved to Bhutan without serious implications on the long-term stability of Bhutan.”

According to Amnesty International, all schools in the south of the country were closed and turned into army bases or prisons. The military and police conducted raids on homes throughout the region and people were arbitrarily detained for up to a year without being charged with a crime, and some were forced to endure torture and rape. Many were released only after they promised to leave the country. As one refugee noted, “I was tied up and beaten by police all day. My mother came to the police station and appealed for me. They said they would release me if I signed a statement (Voluntary Migration Certificate). I signed in order to escape from prison. Then I had to flee.”

By the end of 1992, some 80,000 ethnic Nepalis—almost one-fifth of the country’s total population—had been dispossessed of their lands and forced to flee to neighboring Nepal. Through a series of official acts and military repression, the Bhutanese government had sought to systematically eradicate the cultural practices of the ethnic Nepalis living in the south of the country in the name of the dominant northern culture of the Drukpas. In short, the government had perpetrated ethnic cleansing, which is defined by the United Nations as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.”

Further troubling was the fact that this cleansing had been perpetrated in part in the name of Buddhism, a religion not commonly associated with violence and repression. As one refugee explained:

Our Hindu temple was on the southern side of our house and was burnt before our eyes in 1989. We were told to worship Lord Buddha in their monasteries. … [My father] was told to stop praying to Hindu gods and goddesses and to always wear the national dress. If we did not do this we had to leave the country. My father did not obey and they kept him in prison for six months where he was severely punished. When they freed my father they burned our house in front of his eyes. … So we left our animals, our burnt house and everything else and fled towards Jhapa in Eastern Nepal for safety.

The Bhutanese refugees were housed in seven camps established by the UNHCR because Bhutan refused to allow them to return to their homes and the Nepal government would not permit them to become residents of that country. Over the next 15 years, the refugee population increased to more than 100,000. During this time, the UNHCR controversially shifted its focus from repatriating the refugees to resettling them in third countries. Many refugees objected to the policy shift, claiming that it relieved Bhutan of its responsibility to repatriate its expelled citizens. Nevertheless, the UNHCR moved ahead with its plan and in 2008 the first Bhutanese refugee arrived in the United States, which would accept 60,000 in total over the next four years. Refugees were also resettled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

Many of the refugees have struggled to adjust to life in their new countries. For example, Bhutanese refugee communities in the United States have experienced abnormally high suicide rates. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the principal reasons for the suicides are language barriers, worry about family back home, separation from family, and difficulty in maintaining cultural and religious traditions. Meanwhile, some 40,000 Bhutanese refugees remain in the camps in Nepal, where they have now lived for more than 20 years.

Given the number of refugees around the world that cannot gain asylum in the United States, Washington’s decision to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees is curious to say the least. It appears to be motivated, at least in part, by a fear of Maoism. Maoist guerrillas had waged war against the Nepal government for ten years (1996-2006) before becoming the country’s dominant political party following the signing of peace accords that decreed an end to that country’s monarchy and the holding of elections.

Similarly, Bhutan transitioned from an “absolute monarchy” to a “constitutional monarchy” when it held elections in 2007. However, the government authorized the establishment of only two political parties to participate in the elections, both of which were closely allied with the king. Furthermore, many of the ethnic Nepalis that remained in the country were still not considered citizens, therefore could not vote. As the Norwegian Refugee Council stated in reference to the forced expulsion of ethnic Nepalis and the marginalization of those that remained in Bhutan, “Exclusion of an ethnic group before an election cannot be considered real democratization.”

Shortly before elections held in December 2007, the U.S. embassy in Bhutan voiced its concern that Maoists could organize disillusioned ethnic Nepalis, particularly in the refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. A confidential cable released by Wikileaks that was sent from the embassy in Bhutan to Washington explained that Bhutanese Prime Minister Kinzang Dorji believed “the Maoists could pose a significant threat” and claimed that “the BCP [Bhutan Communist Party] openly threatened to use the refugees in the Nepali camps to overthrow the monarchy and the new government.” That same year the U.S. government had agreed to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. Some analysts have suggested that Washington was motivated more by the opportunity to empty the camps of potential recruits for the Maoists than by humanitarian concern for the refugees.

Meanwhile, the new “democratic” government in Bhutan has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing regarding the country’s treatment of ethnic Nepalis and continues to deny the right of return to any of the refugees. The government has instead sought to keep the international spotlight on its efforts to promote Bhutan as a country concerned with both the spiritual and material well-being of its citizens through its concept of Gross National Happiness. Many progressives around the world that are looking for alternatives to the materialistic culture that dominates under global capitalism have held up Bhutan as a model alternative society. As a result, the forced expulsion of almost one-fifth of the country’s population is rarely addressed in the many reports examining Gross National Happiness in Bhutan. Nevertheless, the two issues—GNH and ethnic cleansing—are intrinsically linked, and turning a blind eye to Bhutan’s human rights violations might ultimately contribute to discrediting the concept of Gross National Happiness, which would indeed be unfortunate.

It is important that progressives address the inconvenient contradiction between Bhutan’s efforts to improve social well-being and the government’s gross violations of human rights—a contradiction that is not unique to Bhutan. For instance, many leftists around the world pointed to the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th Century as a shining example of what socialism could achieve with regard to rapid industrialization as well as the provision of healthcare and education for the masses. Meanwhile, they turned a blind eye to the inconvenient human rights abuses being perpetrated on a massive scale by Stalin’s regime.

Similarly, in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s, right-wingers celebrated the economic successes of the Pinochet dictatorship while conveniently ignoring the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by that government. Obviously, implementing draconian economic reforms is much easier if all political opposition to them is eliminated, which is precisely what occurred in Chile when Pinochet killed some 10,000 people and forced more than a million into exile. Ultimately, in the eyes of many, the human rights abuses perpetrated by Stalin and Pinochet discredited the social models, socialism and neoliberalism respectively, that each advocated.

In the case of Bhutan, the cleansing of ethnic Nepalis makes evident that the “national” in Gross National Happiness only applies to certain sectors of the Bhutanese population. And the government’s concept of happiness clearly requires that the population adhere to the values, customs, dress, religion and language of the dominant Drukpa culture. For its part, the government claims it is important to understand “Bhutan’s dilemma in its struggle for survival” given the fact that there were so many ethnic Nepalis in the country who “posed a genuine demographic threat.” And, in reference to the ethnic Nepali protesters in the early 1990s, the government notes that “we all saw, very quickly, that the problem would have been much greater for Bhutan if they had waited a few years.”

In other words, the timing of the protests provided the government with a convenient opportunity to address the “demographic threat” posed by ethnic Nepalis by forcibly expelling those who refused to adhere to the cultural practices and behaviors required by the state to be considered a Bhutanese national. As the government noted, “Bhutan cannot forget that the roots of the problem are embedded, not in human rights, but in the demographic changes taking place in the region.” And now, as it continues on its quest to achieve national happiness, the Bhutanese government proudly acknowledges, “Such a trauma is being quickly forgotten by most people and the younger generation does not know much about this period.” This memory lapse has been aided significantly by the government’s censorship of any public discussion related to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the early 1990s and what it calls the “so-called refugee problem.”

Similarly, the growing numbers of foreigners visiting Bhutan as tourists are largely oblivious to the fact that the country’s national happiness is built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing. These tourists are often enticed by the media’s idyllic portrayals of the tiny kingdom, such as that in an article penned by Orville Schell, originally published in Red Herring magazine and then reprinted on the website of PBS Frontline. The article, titled “Gross National Happiness,” does not make a single mention of the forced expulsion of ethnic Nepalis. Instead, Schell states that “here on the Indian subcontinent, awash in corruption, ethnic struggle, illiteracy, pollution, poverty, and the clash of civilizations, Bhutan’s pacifism, paternalism, and egalitarianism stand apart.” He goes on to acknowledge, “Police are empowered to detain any Bhutanese not wearing official national dress,” but then simply dismissed these government actions as nothing more than “strict but benign paternalism.” Such portrayals of Bhutan are all too common in the media, but the Norwegian Refugee Council dismisses the view that the Bhutanese government’s policies are merely “benign paternalism,” instead arguing, “There can be no Shangri-La without human rights.”

Bhutan’s policies towards ethnic Nepalis have violated one of the principal indicators of Gross National Happiness—the promotion of cultural vitality and diversity—and they clearly contradict the government’s definition of GNH, which “seeks to establish a happy society, where people are safe, where everyone is guaranteed a decent livelihood, and where people enjoy universal access to good education and health care. … where inequalities do not exist, and where cultural values get strengthened every day.”

The Bhutanese government justifies its actions in the name of defending the country’s ethnic and cultural purity from the “demographic threat” posed by the continued immigration of Nepalis. But world demographics have shifted throughout human history. Even in Sikkim, the Buddhist population that constituted the majority when Nepali immigrants began arriving in the 1800s were themselves migrants from Tibet who displaced the indigenous Lepcha people to become the dominant ethnic group. Is it realistic to believe that a society can preserve a particular ethnic and cultural demographic within a nation in perpetuity? Human history suggests that it is not.

Having said that, there is clearly a difference between demographic shifts that result from the historic movements of people attempting to improve their economic condition and those demographic changes forced upon populations by governments, such as Israel’s strategy to move Jewish settlers into the Occupied Territories in order to create a Jewish majority. In its zealousness to preserve its dominant culture and to achieve “national” happiness, the Bhutanese government’s policies have resulted in 60,000 ethnic Nepalis now struggling desperately to preserve their culture halfway around the world in the United States. Ultimately, the real challenge facing the world’s many unique cultures is not how to freeze a single moment in human history, but rather how to respond to constantly shifting demographics in a manner that respects the dignity of all ethnic groups.

Curiously, in 1999, the Bhutanese government permitted its citizens access to television and the Internet for the first time. So while the government has used ethnic cleansing to defend its concept of the national culture from the “internal threat” posed by a significant portion of the country’s population, it has opened the door to a much more powerful “external threat”: cultural imperialism in the form of television programs and web pages dominated by western consumer culture.

Meanwhile, in camps located across the Nepal border, tens of thousands of refugees continue to cling to the hope that one day they will be able to return home to enjoy the national happiness being cultivated in the world’s last Shangri-La. As one 50-year-old refugee woman explained, “I was tortured by Bhutanese police when I refused to go and work for them. I was classified F4 in the census so then they threw me out of the country. I still take medicine for the torture they inflicted on me. Despite everything I want to go home but only if we go in a group. At least let me die in my own house.”

Garry Leech is an inde­pend­ent journ­al­ist and author of numer­ous books includ­ing Cap­it­al­ism: A Struc­tural Gen­o­cide (Zed Books, 2012); Bey­ond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journ­al­ist in Colom­bia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Inter­ven­tions: The United States, Oil and the New World Dis­order (Zed Books, 2006). He is also a lec­turer in the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence at Cape Bre­ton University.


  1. Why do you talking only about Nepali . What about domestic violence in Bhutan ? Western people don’t know about flogging in Buddhist monastery . But i listen only about Nepali . It doesn’t fair .The same situation with Humans Right Whatch . Only about Nepali . Even google do the same . Do you know about 70 % Bhutanese women which agree to be flogged by their husband ? Please do report about any country more completly .

  2. About 92% of you story is nut and crazy. listen to people who are still in Bhutan, they will have different story to tell.
    I had a friend while i was in school from south of Bhutan, he used to tell when he come to school he feels like it is heaven. His own neighbors and uncles used to come in the cover of night to their house and rape his sister, mother in front of family member just for refusing to go with them.They used to point guns on forehead and loot everything from the house.
    The report should be based on facts of both the side, and not lopsided. The report must not be on the basis of emotion, it must be based on research of, what did actually happened .
    There are many people from other parts of the country who are and were in camps in Nepal but why no body is reporting on them. find out you opinionated reporter or what so ever may be.
    Do not for get report cannot be based on reporters opinion.

  3. This is largely unreported. Any information, however it is couched, is a start in allowing outsiders a greater understanding

  4. Furthermore, many of the ethnic Nepalis that remained in the country were still not considered citizens, therefore could not vote. As the Norwegian Refugee Council stated in reference to the forced expulsion of ethnic Nepalis and the marginalization of those that remained in Bhutan, “Exclusion of an ethnic group before an election cannot be considered real democratization.” —for you to state this in the face of all ethnic Nepalis who voted and proudly call ourselves Bhutanese to this day, is highly ignorant. My grandmother is ethic Nepali who resisted joining the protest’s against the monarch, she ran away not from the Bhutanese military but from her own ethnic Nepali peers and family members out to kill her for having refused to follow them out of the country. While she held her culture and traditions close to her heart, she also respected the fact that Bhutan has its own unique values and rules that she must adhere to, as a citizen. Therefore, those of us who stayed back enjoy the same rights and facilities to this day.

    Please engage in thorough socio-political and cross- diaspora research in the future before writing an ill-informed piece like this one.


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