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Bhutan

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Last updated on 18.03.2019 at 12:17

Bhutan-Overview

Despite significant improvements in respect of basic civic freedoms since the political transition to democratic rule began, Bhutan still has work to do before its people can fully enjoy a free and open society in which civic space, and particularly the right to free expression, are respected in practice. A number of laws are designed to provide for citizen participation in a democratic society, however in reality implementation remains limited.

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Lhotshampa minority remain displaced and their electoral rights restricted

Lhotshampa minority remain displaced and their electoral rights restricted

While the elections in 2018 and the formation of a third new government since the introduction of democracy in 2008 has been seen as positive for the country, the Lhotshampa minority group continued to be denied any engagement with the election process.

In October 2018, Bhutan held its parliamentary elections. The centre-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) won the elections, defeating the Druk Phunsum Tshogpa (DPT), which governed the country between 2008-2013. The ruling People’s Democratic Party was eliminated in the first of the two rounds of the election. The new Prime Minister Lotay Tshering is a medical doctor who gained national prominence for his mobile practice and came into power promising to promote social services in his manifesto. His party secured 30 seats in the parliament while the opposition DPT won 17 seats. Despite the elections being dominated by male candidates, five women were elected. Three were from the DNT party and two from DPT. Out of 10 ministers appointed to the new cabinet in November 2018 only one was a woman.

Association

Minority Lhotshampa people sidelined during elections

While the election and the formation of a third new government since the introduction of democracy in 2008 has been seen as a positive development for the country, the Lhotshampa minority group continues to face restrictions in engaging with the election process.

Many of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa people were stripped of citizenship rights and driven out of Bhutan in the 1990s after the king at the time introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy in 1985. Wearing their traditional dress, and speaking Nepali was banned. Those who resisted where labelled “anti-nationals”, arrested and subjected to brutal treatment according to Amnesty International.

Around 100,000 fled and ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. At least 7,000 still remain in the camps while the majority have been resettled by the UN. Some refused resettlement “because they say it absolves the Bhutanese authorities of what they did to the Lhotshampa”.

Political parties demanding rights for the Lhotshampa have been banned under the constitution, which states that “all parties have to promote national unity and are barred from using ethnicity or religion to attract voters”. Parties also have to field candidates in all 47 constituencies. This has meant that the Lhotshampa have had their electoral rights restricted. In the 2013 elections international monitors documented Nepali-speakers being turned away from polling centres.  It is unclear how many of the community are still in Bhutan.

UN urges government to support CSOs working on access to justice

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention conducted its official country visit to Bhutan from 14th to 24th January 2019. The working group said that the government has made progress in ensuring the right to liberty but must do more to improve due process for defendants.

The Working Group met civil society organisations (CSOs) and was “encouraged that CSOs are growing in strength and number” and were playing an important role to provide assistance to “to economically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups”. It urged the authorities to support CSOs, including those that work on civil and political rights and access to justice, so that they can “assist in addressing issues relating to arbitrary detention in Bhutan”. 

Association

Although people in Bhutan can form associations to advance their interests, the right to freedom of association enshrined in the constitution has so far not translated into a vibrant, pluralistic civil society and active civic engagement. Freedom of association is guaranteed, but only for groups which are “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.”

Although people in Bhutan can form associations to advance their interests, the right to freedom of association enshrined in the constitution has so far not translated into a vibrant, pluralistic civil society and active civic engagement. Freedom of association is guaranteed, but only for groups which are “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” Moreover, regulations preventing organisations from working on issues related to ethnic Nepalis and refugee rights have yet to be lifted. The 2007 Civil Society Organizations Act requires all civil society organisations to register with the state authority. The Act has been criticised for the lack of comprehensive regulations to foster the growth of civil society, and for the lack of independence of the body mandated to oversee the sector.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests are uncommon in Bhutan. While the freedom of peaceful assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the Bhutanese are not allowed to organise a protest without government approval, substantially restricting the scope of planned demonstrations and rendering spontaneous demonstrations illegal.

Protests are uncommon in Bhutan. While the freedom of peaceful assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the Bhutanese are not allowed to organise a protest without government approval, substantially restricting the scope of planned demonstrations and rendering spontaneous demonstrations illegal. The 1992 National Security Act provides a legal basis for the government to restrict freedom of assembly by demanding extra documents, prohibiting assembly in designated areas and by imposing curfews.

Expression

During Bhutan’s recent transition to democratic rule, in 2006 the government passed a media law aimed at liberalising the media landscape and allowing more pluralism in the sector. However, due to the country’s small private sector, most media outlets depend almost entirely on government advertising for survival; a situation which restricts their editorial independence, encourages self-censorship and impairs people’s ability to access a range of viewpoints through the media.

During Bhutan’s recent transition to democratic rule, in 2006 the government passed a media law aimed at liberalising the media landscape and allowing more pluralism in the sector. However, due to the country’s small private sector, most media outlets depend almost entirely on government advertising for survival; a situation which restricts their editorial independence, encourages self-censorship and impairs people’s ability to access a range of viewpoints through the media. In one instance, the government restricted advertising in the newspaper The Bhutanese, a move thought to have been in retaliation for the publication of articles exposing the possible abuse of power and corruption within government. A survey by the Journalists Association of Bhutan in 2015 found that 58% of working journalists and 62% of former journalists felt unsafe when covering stories critical of the authorities and at least 47% of journalists said they had been threatened for covering critical stories.