Skip to content
by I P Adhikari
(in: Himal South Asian, January 2011)
A creeping clampdown on Christianity in Bhutan poses the serious question of whether the kingdom has really set itself on the path to secular democracy.
Centuries of theological guidance by a strong clergy has had a tremendous influence in shaping Bhutanese society. Propelled by the principles of Buddhism as generally understood, one would think that this would have led to abiding religious tolerance, allowing for the co-existence of multiple faiths. Yet in recent years, a series of incidents have indicated a continued resolve – indeed, some would say an official hardening of position – by the Thimphu establishment not only to continue to support the state-backed version of Buddhism above all others, but to actively work to stamp out ‘competing’ or emerging religious schools. Some of the starkest examples can be seen in the clear anti-Christian bent on the part of the government.
In principle, the Constitution of 2008 guarantees religious freedoms. To a certain extent this, coupled with the evolution of two-party politics, has given significant leverage to religious minorities in Bhutan, including Hindus in their significant numbers, in seeking international attention for their rights. The Constitution states that a Bhutanese citizen is guaranteed ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and that no one can be compelled to belong to another faith. Further, the National Security Act (NSA) prohibits any word ‘spoken or written’ that promotes ‘hatred’ between different groups, including on the basis of religion. Violating the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
Declaring Buddhism as the state religion is not necessarily a problem, but a demonisation of other religions and sects is a worrying sign in the context of Bhutan as an emerging democracy. Indeed, for many people other faiths are looked upon as posing an active threat to the state’s version of Buddhism. The state seems to find it difficult to accept religious heterogeneity in the country, regarding the largest minority of Hindus as well as the other sects of Buddhism. However, it is in the treatment of the small community of Christians that this intolerance is breaking to the surface and provides an indication of the state’s proclivities.
Religious intolerance in the kingdom was vividly highlighted some years ago when a burial site was denied for Father William Joseph Mackey when he died in 1995. The missionary is recognised as having helped to establish the modern education system in the country, starting with its first high school. As a Jesuit priest, Fr Mackey moved to Bhutan from Darjeeling in 1963. He proceeded to dedicate the following three decades to building up and strengthening the national education system. In recognition, he was granted Bhutanese citizenship in 1985, and even the title Son of Bhutan. Yet he could not be buried in Druk Yul for being Christian. He was finally interred in Darjeeling.
Historically, the Bhutanese state has used all means available to eliminate religious minorities, though the ruling elite themselves are mostly descended from those who fled religious oppression in Tibet at different times. The oppressed minorities in Bhutan include other Buddhist schools, with everyone forced to follow the Drukpa Kagyu form of Mahayana Buddhism that has strengthened through powerful political pressure over the past couple of centuries. Over time, those of other sects – including the Barawa, Kadampa, Chazampa and Bon – were attacked or forced to convert to Kagyu. Places of worship were either demolished or brought under Kagyu ‘mentoring’. For the most part, these religious communities, present when Bhutan was evolving as a nation state, no longer exist today. There are no official figures available on how many people belong to the various Buddhist faiths in Bhutan, but Kagyu followers far outnumber the others.
The followers of Buddhism in Bhutan, including the dominant Kagyu, follow the larger Mahayana line, as opposed to Theravada, as found in Sri Lanka and Thailand. The increasing penetration of Theravada, the oldest surviving school of Buddhism, in India and Nepal in recent years is certain to influence the Kagyu community of Bhutan. As such, the Kagyu clergy is making increasingly concerted efforts to ensure that Theravada does not deplete the strength of their school.
Government support, financial or legal, has never been allowed to go to any other religious institution due to anxieties over ‘national harmony’. During the last two decades, Bhutan has banned or demolished many Hindu places of worship in order to minimise the perceived threat that Nepali speakers, most of whom profess Hinduism, would become increasingly dominant – ‘as in Sikkim’, goes the common refrain. Sanskrit pathshalas have also been closed. Since the mid-1980s, a group of Buddhist lamas has been ordered to oversee religious functions in the south, where the Nepali-speaking Lothshampa are concentrated. There, Nepali-speakers have been compelled and, in certain situations, ordered to hire lamas to perform rituals during deaths, births or marriages. After decades of such attempts to weaken Hinduism, however, by the late 1990s the government largely scaled back this effort.
At the same time, Thimphu seems to have decided to turn its attention on the country’s tiny Christian population. One estimate puts Christians in Bhutan at about 12,000, of whom about half are from the south. Overall, the number of non-Buddhist, non-Hindu population is thought to be upwards of 65,000. The dominant Buddhist community, meanwhile, makes up close to three-fourths of the population and the Nepali-speaking Hindus are thought to make up less than 20 percent (though no official figures are available). There has, however, never been a census to determine the numbers with any accuracy, while the state’s attitude towards religious minorities would cast suspicion on official figures anyway. During the mid-1990s census, Bhutanese were asked to indicate their religion, but the census forms offered only two choices – Buddhist or Hindu. At the time, it was reported that those who wanted to put down an alternative were kept from being registered in the Home Ministry’s official records. By and large, government papers still do not allow Christians to note their religious affiliation.
Thimpu’s anxieties over Christianity’s inroad are visible in many contexts. In recent years, isolated cases of family disputes and suicides have even been officially explained as the results of Christian ‘infiltration’ into Bhutanese society. A man who committed suicide in 2009 in Samchi due to a family dispute was projected by government officials as resulting somehow from Christianity coming to Bhutan – the man was not even Christian, though the rest of his family members were. In 2006, two Bhutanese men were tried on charges of proselytising after villagers of Nagu, in Paro, reported the two for preaching and screening movies on Christianity. They were later released under pressure from Christian institutions in the West. In October 2010, a court in Gelegphug, in the south, sentenced a Christian man for three years on charges of creating ‘civil unrest’ by screening movies on Jesus Christ; other similar incidents could have gone unreported. Two Christians are currently being sought by the police, also accused of proselytising.
Such moves have caught international attention. In 2007, Open Doors, a British charity on behalf of ‘persecuted Christians’, listed Bhutan as the fifth most-notorious country in terms of anti-Christian discrimination. (By 2010, that ranking had dropped to 12th, while the fifth spot is now taken by the Maldives.) In early 2008, even as the process of promulgating the Constitution was going forward, two Christian preachers were forced to leave the country, while their followers were warned to stop following the religion. According to Open Doors, in July 2010 a church was attacked by a gang of youths, who stoned the building and threatened to burn it down if religious services were not discontinued.
Inducement and coercion
While Christianity is not a new faith in Bhutan, there has been a sharp rise in the number of faithful in recent years. Partly, this seems to be due to the perception that the rights of Christians are better looked after at the international level. This has recently been corroborated by interviews conducted by this reporter with some Christians in southern Bhutan. These individuals said that they felt it was better to convert to Christianity because organisations in Western countries were able to quickly attempt to defend persecuted Christians.
There seems to be an attempt by some persecuted Lothshampa, Hindu castes or semi-Hindu ethnicities to seek protection by taking refuge in Christianty. The past two decades have seen a sharp rise in the number of Christians in southern Bhutan, the vast majority of whom follow their faith in private. Today, Samtse district, in the southwest, is thought to have the largest number of Christians in the country, while other places – Mongar, for instance, in the centre – have few or none. According to personal communications with local journalists in Thimphu, urban areas such as Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Trongsa have all registered fresh converts in recent years.
Overall, the challenge to the Christians of Bhutan mainly comes from within the clan, the community and the state-backed Buddhist clergy, which has a strong influence over society. Both Hindus and Buddhists in Bhutan are strong believers in their respective faiths, and conversion is seen by many as a significant betrayal. In large families, members who choose to become Christian typically face harassment and pressure from relatives to reverse the decision. Kagyu monks, who are to a great extent part of the state machinery, encourage community members to restrict religions other than Buddhism.
According to Dorji Tshering, member-secretary of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the government agency in charge of monitoring religious institutions, the state considers any preaching of Christianity to be proselytising. In turn, this sets up an official assumption that all converts have been coerced, induced or attracted by some incentive. Interestingly, according to the Bhutanese definition, the conversion of Buddhists to any other faith constitutes proselytising, but not if others become Buddhist. Although under the new Constitution this too would now be officially considered proselytising, in reality such incidents are never reported or acted upon.
There have also been interesting intra-Buddhist conversion issues at play in modern Bhutan. In the east of the country, the Sarchop community have been compelled to surrender their Nyingma Buddhism in favour of Drukpa Kagyu, which resulted in confrontation during the mid-1990s. There are broader political repercussions here as well. Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake but for that of all sentient beings. It is this aspiration that has given rise to the Bhutan government’s well-known national philosophy, Gross National Happiness. Contradictorily, though, a state which seeks to privilege if not foist its brand of religion would be one that works towards lowering the happiness quotient of the non-Kagyu faithful within the population.
Given this situation, what is the way forward? First off, Bhutan’s religious minorities have not been given adequate platform on which to table their issues. Of the 16 religious organisations registered with Chhoedey Lhentshog, only one is Hindu. This is clearly unfair in a democracy, and needs to change, particularly given the governments constitutional pretensions to religious pluralism. However, the October incident involving the sentencing of a man to three years in prison for screening Christian films has drawn global attention, and the Chhoedey Lhentshog is set to sit in the near future to see how it can adjust to the higher profile of Christians in the country. There are possibilities that a Christian organisation will be given the chance to register officially.
One way or another, ‘Buddhist’ Bhutan looks set to change the course that has carried it for centuries. In the near future, hopefully, Bhutanese citizens will be able to choose their faith based on informed choice, not on state prescription.
I P Adhikari is president of the Bhutanese Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) and chief editor of Bhutan News Service (BNS). He is currently based in Adelaide.