Of gross national happiness
by SAURAV JUNG THAPA
Having engaged in a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against its Lhotsampa minority of Nepalese origin from the mid 1980's to the early 1990's, Bhutan's leadership prefers to use the amorphous and malleable measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to claim that their citizens – at least the ones that were not forcibly evicted from the country – are among the "happiest" in the world. Being a wholly subjective measure that utilizes no quantifiable data, GNH has been creatively utilized as a propaganda tool by the Drukpa leadership to project an image of Bhutan as a country of smiling Buddha's. Little do most outside observers know the dark underbelly of this seemingly innocuous portrayal. It willfully ignores the history of ethnic cleansing and institutionalized racial intolerance against Lhotsampas inside Bhutan that continue unabated to this day.
Between 1987 and 1992, the absolute monarchy and northern Drukpa elite carried out a systematic and sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing against its Lhotsampa minority who live mostly in the south. The Lhotsampas are mostly Hindus of ethnic Nepalese origin whose ancestors migrated to Bhutan two centuries ago during the British Raj. In fact, the Lhotsampas settled in Bhutan even before the current Wangchuk dynasty of Drukpas came to power in 1907. They gradually assimilated into the life of their new homeland and actively contributed to the economic wellbeing of Bhutan.
Lhotsampas who refused to abide by a draconian policy implemented in the late 1980's known as 'One Nation, One People' were deemed 'anti-national' and forced to leave their country. This blatantly racist policy required Lhotsampas to halt the public practice of their religion, Hinduism, removed instruction in their native Nepali language from the school curriculum, and forced them to wear the alien Tibetan-style garb of the northern Drukpas. Lhotsampas were also arbitrarily dismissed from government jobs, had their schools shut down, and their property confiscated.
Due to the rising intolerance, marginalization, and outright violence perpetrated by the Drukpa majority, over 100,000 Lhotsampas – a sixth of Bhutan's population and about half of the total Lhotsampa population – were forcibly evicted from their own country and exiled to Nepal. In this process, innocent civilians were tortured and murdered, and property, citizenship documents, and money were forcibly confiscated from fleeing Lhotsampas. As Professor Shukla so chillingly describes, "A monarchy, high in the Himalayas, strayed far from its avowed Buddhist principles as it engaged in the worst kinds of ethno-religious cleansing leaving countless raped and killed in its wake." The Drukpa rulers flagrantly disregarded the tenets of their religion and basic universal human rights norms in meting out brutal treatment to the Lhotsampa minority. The government of democratic India whose territory separates Bhutan and Nepal was little better than Bhutan's absolute monarchy. It collaborated with the latter by bussing the expelled Lhotsampas to Nepal's border and dumping them there.
To this day, government officials and diplomats of the Royal Government of Bhutan glibly maintain that the Lhotsampas left on their own accord. These blatant untruths fly in the face of established facts on the ground. The UNHCR (as of 2006) classified 108,000 Bhutanese as refugees in Nepal. Similarly, Terry Rusch, director of refugee admissions for the U.S. Department of State commenting on the Bhutanese refugee crisis in a speech at a conference in California in June 2010 said "they (Lhotsampas) were expelled in a little-noticed but very real ethnic cleansing exercise."
I had a chance to personally witness this slick Drukpa ploy to portray Bhutan as a fabled Shangri-La as a graduate student of international relations at Tufts University in Boston a few years ago. A fellow student who was a mid-level Bhutanese diplomat nonchalantly dismissed the fact that tens of thousands of refugees from his country were languishing in camps in Nepal. He deemed the refugee crisis a farce designed to sully the image of his homeland. With complete disregard to facts, my Bhutanese colleague went on to expound on the myth of Gross National Happiness by saying that no political opposition or ethnic tensions existed in his country because of the benevolent rule of the Buddhist/Drukpa Wangchuk dynasty. To top it all off, a senior Drukpa bureaucrat visiting the United States was invited to Tufts give a talk about the uniqueness of Gross National Happiness. With such a slick and well-orchestrated international campaign to hide the ugly truths about its ethnic cleansing and the prevailing racism in Bhutan, it is of little surprise that Nepal's ever-bickering politicians have been unable to advocate forcefully for the return of the Lhotsampa refugees to their homeland.
Given the protracted nature of the refugee crisis, Bhutan's refusal to take its citizens back, and the Nepali state's inept advocacy for their return, the United States and a consortium of western European countries stepped in with a generous humanitarian offer to resettle the refugees in their countries in 2006. By the end of 2010, some 40,000 refugees had been resettled all over the United States and a further 20,000 will be flown in over the next few years.
With its record of ethnic cleansing and intolerance, it is morbidly amusing to hear propaganda that Bhutan is some sort of mythic "last Shangri-La," a land of harmony and peace. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. The charade of ushering in a constitutional monarchy in the last few years and the ascension of the charismatic 31-year-old Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk has led to a fresh burst of official Bhutanese propaganda expounding the unique nature of their happy people and of Gross National Happiness in general.
The new king is portrayed as a democratic reformer and a visionary leader. But the monarchy's commitment to democracy is strictly limited to lip service. Following the farcical March 2008 elections in which the party closest to the palace won 45 out of 47 seats, a pliable government of devoted Drukpa loyalists was installed with much fanfare and talk of democracy. The two elected opposition party members resigned in disgust claiming fraud and state support for the winning party.
In the West, many well-meaning liberals of the free Tibet/Hollywood mold have swallowed the Bhutanese government propaganda of GNH hook, line, and sinker. However, they need to exercise caution and distinguish between the legitimate aspirations of the Tibetan people and the ludicrous claims of Bhutan's royal government that their population is one big, smiling, happy family. That is definitely not the case, as the tens of thousands of Lhotsampa refugees kicked out of their homeland and the thousands of Lhotsampas still living under a racist Drukpa regime in Bhutan can testify.
While the immediate refugee crisis is being solved due to the humanitarian actions of the United States and other Western countries that are resettling refugees, Bhutan's autocratic and racist regime must not be allowed to get away with the lies it has been spewing for over two decades. Bhutan to this day remains a closed society that is feudal in nature and is dominated by a xenophobic Drukpa leadership that is headed by a monarchy straight out of the Middle Ages in its values and worldview. In an age of increasing interconnectedness, the Drukpa leadership insists on shutting off its people from the outside world, going so far as to restrict access to satellite television and severely limiting the access of foreigners to the country. Bhutan is not far off from North Korea in that sense. The international community, and especially India which controls the tiny country's foreign policy, has a responsibility to monitor the ongoing human rights abuses inside Bhutan, to seek justice for the Lhotsampa refugees who were made stateless, and to commit to bringing about a secular and tolerant democracy inside Bhutan.
About Bhutanese refugees in Nepal: http://www.bhutaneserefugees.com/
Amnesty International on Bhutanese refugees: http://www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/bhutan/page.do?id=1011119
UNHCR country operations profile for Nepal (2011): http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e487856.html
About Bhutanese refugees being resettled in the United States: http://www.state.gov/g/prm/protracted/situations/157400.htm
Prof. Aseem Shukla's July 2010 piece in The Washington Post: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/aseem_shukla/2010/07/nightmare_in_shangri-la_bhutanese_refugees_american_dream.html
(Saurav Jung Thapa is an employee of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C., U.S.A. He received his Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy with concentrations in international conflict resolution and international security policy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University in 2010.)