South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights


South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, has called on the Government of Bhutan to release the political prisoners it has detained for decades. SAHR made the call on the occasion of the 16th World Social Forum (WSF) held in Nepal, where a session was organised on ‘Bhutan’s Prisoners of Conscience’.

The session drew attention to the expulsion of Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin, also known as Lhotshampas, which started in the late 1980’s into the early 1990’s. While the situation of the Lhotshampa refugees was relatively well known, the reality of political prisoners, many of whom have spent more than 30 years in Chamjang Jail, has only recently been reported. Further, there are also significant numbers of disappeared citizens of Bhutan about whom not much is known.

While at present Bhutan puts up a front of a country high on the Gross National Happiness index, it hides the sufferings of the Lhotshampas who were strategically expelled, made stateless, and also detained as prisoners categorised as ‘non-nationals’ or ‘anti-nationals’. These Prisoners of Conscience are held in prison for their expressions of political beliefs or identity assertion, while others have been framed. Different international human rights organisations have recognised 50-100 people still held as political prisoners in Bhutan, without trials or cases being brought, with 37 kept in Chamgang Jail.

Bhutan as a country moved towards democracy from absolute monarchy in 2008 with the promulgation of the Constitution. However, in many respects the country has remained autocratic, and successive kings have held ultimate power even as the state security establishment cracked down on Lhotshampa activists who demanded democracy and an end to discriminatory policies, including that of Driglam Namza, which called for cultural purity tied to the ‘Drukpa’ community.

Some of the incarcerated Lhotshampa were arrested in the early 1990s and have been detained for nearly 43 years. Different human rights organisations at various times have made efforts for the release of the political prisoners, without success. The ultimate power for release of the political prisoners lies at present with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and SAHR believes that he should personally be held accountable for the continued incarcerations.

SAHR believes that Bhutan’s progression towards a democratic state, where the citizenry is truly ‘happy’ and content, requires the release of the prisoners of conscience. SAHR further calls on the international community, including Nepal as the host country of refugees and India as a country that has not done its bit on the refugee issue being the land neighbour of bhutan and with deep links to the bhutanese state, to work to persuade Bhutan to take back the refugees who have refused to take the option of third-country settlement. These Lhotshampa refugees languish in the camps of Southeast Nepal, maintaining a principled stand on their ‘right of return’.

SAHR is also concerned that the remaining several thousand refugees in southeast nepal are now without support of international organisations such as UNHCR and WFP. Similarly, the Government of Nepal has disbanded the refugee camps, and it has also become difficult for the refugees to move about and lead normal lives. SAHR demands that the Government of Nepal as well as international organisations re-engage with Bhutanese refugees and provide support and security to the refugees still in Nepal.

SAHR notes that the lives of the refugees have been made more complicated by the scam involving top-level Nepali politicians and officials involved in providing Nepali citizens with fake certificates as bhutanese refugees to make fraudulent income with the promise to get them settled in third countries. The exposure of this scam has, through no fault of their own, made the refugees in Nepal more vulnerable to neglect and delays on the hands of the host country’s officialdom.

Further, SAHR  demands the following of and on behalf of Bhutan’s prisoners of conscience as well as refugees:

  • While the majority of the Lhotshampa refugees have been provided a third country resettlement, this does not undermine their entitlement to right of return to Bhutan, which they consider as their homeland.
  • The Government of Nepal should provide for the needs of the refugees who are currently restricted to live in camps, including the issuance of travel documentation, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates and refugee ID card renewals which facilitate their rights and entitlements within Nepal.
  • The Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal have the right to decent living and quality of life, for which they should have the right to work.
  • The scam in Nepal regarding the creation of fake refugees of Nepali citizens should be impartially investigated and the perpetrators duly brought to justice, while the refugees themselves should not be made subject to further discrimination as a result of the racket.

On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights

Dr. Roshmi Goswami

Dr. P. Saravanamuttu
Bureau Member

To view the press release on our website, Please click here.
Please access the statement in Nepali here