Bhutan’s Stateless Population Waiting for the King

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, where the king still decides who becomes a citizen, recently held its second round of general elections. Is the government in Thimphu serious about extending full citizenship to the Lhotshampas who remain in the country?

Posted on 11/3/13
By Aletta André | Via Himal Southasian
(Photo by Carsten ten Brink, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Carsten ten Brink, Creative Commons License)

There had been a minor celebration that afternoon at Raj’s house in central Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. A few relatives had gathered to eat cake together – the remains on small plates were still visible in the kitchen when I joined them for dinner in the evening. The reason for their shared joy was a small, off-white card, resembling that issued by any bank. Only this one had the name and picture of Raj’s uncle Vivek on it, and the essential letters CID: Citizenship Identity Card.

Vivek had been stateless for more than 20 years. As many other ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, he says he lost his Bhutanese citizenship during the uprisings of the early 1990s. Two of his brothers and his parents were amongst the estimated 80,000 people who left the country at that time. They are in the US now, after having spent two decades in a camp in Nepal. For Vivek, missing his close relatives was just the beginning of his troubles. Soon after they fled he was registered by census officials as ‘F5’ (a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman), and until now all attempts to revive his citizenship had been in vain.
As a result, Vivek had no access to any government job, his children had no access to higher education, the whole family needed a special road permit to travel through the country, he was denied a loan and he lost the right to his family’s land and property in south Bhutan. Time lost cannot be regained, so the kitchen celebration was a bitter-sweet one – even more so because some of those present were still waiting for their luck to turn around. Like five-year old Anuj – Raj points him out: “He is my nephew, born stateless. Both his parents have a CID now, but he does not. We don’t know why.” Such cases highlight how arbitrary the nature of the granting of citizenship in Bhutan can be, with the power to do so still vested solely with the King.
Electoral promises
Change, or at least the promise of it, seemed to be in the air for Bhutan’s stateless ‘Lhotshampas’ – southerners, as the ethnic Nepalis are often called, after the region where most are settled. Vivek’s was not the only CID issued to them in the recent years in which Bhutan has developed as a democracy.
Fresh hope arose during the 2013 parliamentary elections – the second since the country made the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 2008 – that were held in two rounds in May and July. Candidates of the country’s former opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) promised to resolve the ‘census issue’, as it is known in Bhutan, during their campaign in the southern districts, and these promises were widely covered in the national media. It was even said that some formerly stateless people received CIDs during the campaign, proving for some that the King had been involved behind the scenes in the run-up to the election. Others refuse to believe that the stories of newly acquired CIDs are true, and think they must have been made up by the party in order to win votes.
Indeed, whether the stories were true or not, the PDP pledged in its 2013 manifesto that ‘solving the census issue will be prioritized’ during the first 100 days in office. After more than 50 days in office, however, recently appointed Home Minister Damcho Dorji gave a rather conservative interpretation of how the issue should be solved. When asked how many people are deprived of citizenship cards in an interview with the national newspaper Kuensel on the 9th of September, Dorji sidestepped the question, replying “citizenship issues can be resolved only if we find a lasting solution to the problem of continuing illegal immigration into our country.” Dorji was not pressed to elaborate on the subject of stateless people already living in Bhutan, or if and how the census issue would indeed be prioritized by the government in Thimphu.
The issue was prominent enough to have featured in the election campaign of one party though (although no mention was found in the manifesto of the incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa). While most Bhutanese claim that Lhotshampas with citizenship cards are not discriminated against and participate in all aspects of society, including politics, hardly anybody denies anymore that there is indeed a ‘census issue’. The former Prime Minister has even mentioned it as one of the main issues facing the country. During a press conference in March this year, he said that granting citizenship to people who have the right to it was one of the two top priorities of the King, along with giving land to landless people. “One of the saddest situations to be is stateless. Where there are people whose status is yet to be determined is a sad thing,” he was quoted in Kuensel.
The promises made during the campaign may well have influenced the election result in the southern constituencies, where the PDP won every seat. Ritu Raj Chhetri, who contested the elections on a PDP ticket and is now MP for the Sipsu constituency in southwest Bhutan, says that the inclusion of the issue in his campaign “definitely” contributed to his victory. Chhetri, who won with more than 70 percent of the vote, also emphasizes that only the King can grant citizenship, but says that it is possible for politicians to appeal to His Majesty on behalf of others. Though Chhetri says this was not done as part of the campaign, he promises to do so as an MP.
“People are looking to resolve this issue now, with an open mind,” says Chhetri. He estimates that there are about 3000 to 4000 residents without citizenship in Sipsu, an area with 12,000 voters and about 23,000 inhabitants. In the whole of Bhutan, he thinks there might be 30,000 stateless people, but when asked about the figure of 80,000 quoted by the international organization Human Rights Watch, he says this might also be correct. “I think that 30,000 is a conservative estimation.”
There is no public government record of how many stateless people there are in Bhutan, let alone how many of them are Lhotshampas or how many would qualify for registration in the F1 or ‘genuine citizenship’ category. According to the CIA World Factbook, 35 percent, or just over 250,000 out of about 725,000 residents of Bhutan are ethnic Nepalis. Based on the last census in 2005, international organizations such as Human Rights Watch say there are about 80,000 stateless people amongst them.
At the time of the last census, which was conducted in 2005, there were 672,425 people counted, out of which 37,443 were considered ‘floating population’, consisting mainly of migrant workers. Of the 634,982 residents of Bhutan, 552,996 were citizens, according to information given during the 85th session of the National Assembly held in 2006 (a translation of which is available on the National Assembly’s website). That means that almost 82,000 residents of Bhutan were non-nationals in 2005, and according to Human Rights Watch most of them are likely to have been people of Nepali ethnicity. There is no updated estimation, however, and the Bhutanese government has never commented on this number.
Chhetri calls it ‘amazing’ that the issue has not been solved after all these years, especially after a growth in inter-marriage between Lhotshampas and other ethnic groups due to a policy of resettlement which has brought people from all over Bhutan to the south of the country. “The issue has been cancerous,” he says. “Initially it just affected the south, but now it is becoming a national issue.”
The year 2013 has seen a big change, says journalist Rabi Dahal. Because politicians such as Chhetri discussed the census issue so clearly during their campaign, the media was able to write about it. That was not the case during Bhutan’s first elections in 2008, says Dahal, who is himself from the Lhotshampa community.
“Everybody knows at least somebody without citizenship in Bhutan, but earlier we felt, me and other Nepali journalists, that it was still better not to write about it,” Dahal explains, sitting in his office at the Bhutan Observer newspaper. “It was more of a taboo. But people are now aware of their democratic rights, that people who can vote can raise issues.”
“It is with this in mind that people in the south casted their vote,” says Pankaj, a Lhotshampa who voted in the central-southern district of Sarpang. He wants to meet only at a private place in the outskirts of Thimphu. And like Raj and Vivek, he is not willing to be quoted with his real name.
The 34-year-old has had citizenship and the right to vote for several years now, but he knows what it’s like to be stateless in Bhutan, and what it’s like to suffer for being related to people who left during the 90s. He was still at school when six of his seven siblings left the country. Together with one of his elder brothers, who already had a government job at the time, he stayed because they were based in north Bhutan and therefore did not experience the unrest in the south that led to the mass emigration. But along with his relatives, Pankaj’s documents also disappeared. In the following years he studied in India; ironically higher education in Bhutan is largely closed for those without a CID, while travel as far as India is still permitted.
After his return in 1999 Pankaj faced many problems – not only because his relatives were labeled anti-national for having allegedly taken part in demonstrations and having joined a refugee camp in Nepal, but more so because one of his brothers across the border chose not to remain silent about the events that led him there. Even after resettling in a third country he continues to write articles in local newspapers and letters to politicians, arguing that he was forced to leave Bhutan and wants the right to return. “I was registered as F1 [Bhutanese citizen], but still I was not issued a CID-card”, Pankaj remembers about his return to Bhutan. “The reason was my brother. The officials at the census office told me so themselves.” For the same reason, Pankaj was not able to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) either, which in Bhutan is necessary for higher studies or government employment.
He found a job in the private sector and in 2005 finally received his CID and NOC. When we meet he is wearing a gho, the traditional northern Bhutanese knee-length robe. The Royal Edict that made this the national dress and compulsory wear in and around government buildings and public gatherings in 1989 contributed to the escalation of the unrest in the early 90s when Lhotshampas were reportedly arrested for not wearing it, even in areas away from government buildings. Pankaj claims the gho is no longer a symbol of discrimination or a reminder of the conflict that caused his family to leave. “This is an opportunity to us. If I wear a gho I can show others that I am Bhutanese.”
The past does still haunt him though. “Things have become more relaxed, and most people are not punished anymore for the fact that their family members left the country,” Pankaj believes. But he is still worried, and refuses to specify the country where his brother lives, out of fear of being recognized. He understands what his brother is doing, but explains it would be better for everyone, including his parents who still live in the south of Bhutan, if his brother would keep a low profile. “It is hard, because he would love to come back. But I always request him to remain quiet, to just live his life and quit his attempts to bring his cause on the political agenda there, because we have to live here. In the eyes of others, he is involved in activities against the government here. They might come to me for inquiries, it might affect my status.”
Waiting in the camps
‘The people in the camps’, as those who are internationally recognized as refugees are known in Bhutan, remain a subject of controversy. Many Bhutanese believe what the government has repeatedly told international government representatives: that they left Bhutan voluntarily and that no unnecessary violence was used by the Bhutanese government. Accounts from refugees dispute this fiercely however, and numerous international human rights organizations have documented claims that Lhotshampas were tortured, harassed and forcibly driven from their homes and land.
For some northern Bhutanese, especially young people, these stories provide uncomfortable glimpses of the darker side to the ‘one nation one people’ government policy. “The situation was not handled well by the Bhutanese government,” says one friend over a beer in one of Thimphu’s crowded bars. His whispering tone shows that the topic has not completely left the taboo sphere yet. “I think nobody here is proud of what happened at that time,” he says.
Despite their refugee status, the Thimphu government has also repeatedly stated that most of the people who ended up in the camps in Nepal during the unrest of the 1990s were actually poor Indians and Nepalis looking to benefit from the facilities of the UNHCR-managed refugee camps, such as education, health care, housing and food. Many non-Lhotshampas believe the same, some including offers of resettlement in third countries to the perceived benefits that could have attracted non-genuine refugees to the camps. Those offers have, however, been almost twenty years coming, and there are still many who have rejected resettlement and continue to wait in Nepal for the chance to return home.
The government had initially promised to repatriate those refugees deemed to be ‘bonafide Bhutanese’ who were evicted forcefully from Bhutan, and to consider the citizenship applications of those who were found to be Bhutanese but voluntarily emigrated. A Joint Verification Team of Bhutanese and Nepalese ministers conducted a survey between 2001 and 2003, which placed almost 70 percent of the people in the camps in the second category, but it can be disputed how ‘voluntarily’ they left. As many refugees have reported, they were forced to sign migration papers, thereby losing their citizenship as per Bhutanese law. In any case, they now wanted to go back.
During the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, however, the Bhutan government played up reports of Maoist influence in the camps (how widespread support for the Maoists was among refugees is unknown) to stall the verification and repatriation process. The work in progress within Bhutan to develop democracy was mentioned as well in talks with third party countries. At the end of 2007, the King of Bhutan Jigme Wangchuck told an American diplomat that “it is prudent to wait for democratic elections to take place in both Bhutan and Nepal before taking on the repatriation issue.” By then, the United States had already agreed to resettle 60,000 refugees.
As reported by UNHCR in April 2013, almost 80,000 people from the camps in Nepal have now been resettled – the vast majority in the US, several thousand in Canada and Australia and some hundreds in New Zealand and a few European countries – while around 25,000 still remain in Nepalese camps (the total number of people had naturally grown to over 100,000 in the course of almost two decades before resettlement started). A month previously Kuensel quoted from the prime minister’s State of the Nation report that “those who have been resettled in the eight countries send heart-warming reports of having found a new and dignified life of hope and confidence in the future.”
“They are happy,” says Siddharth, a government employee, about his parents and brothers in the US. I came to meet the tall, lean 50-something man in his office for an interview about a completely different topic, but once we sit down for tea afterwards he starts telling me about his family. He does so without caution and in the presence of his northern Bhutanese colleagues, who seem familiar with such stories. “We are friends,” Siddharth explains, “we can discuss everything informally – just not formally”, making clear he too prefers anonymity.
For his 80-year-old parents who hardly speak English, resettlement in the US is far from easy, but they are cared for by their other son and above all just happy to have left the camp in Nepal, says Siddharth, who regularly speaks to them via Skype. However, they have given up on ever returning to the country of their birth, and in Bhutan, Siddharth has become reconciled to the fact he will probably never see his parents again. Being registered as F5, a non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman, he has a green colored card with the letters SRP (‘Special Residential Permit’), which allows him to continue his work, but not to travel any further than India. Even if he had a passport, the journey would be a financial challenge.
The same is true for his two brothers in the USA and their sister, who resettled in Denmark with her husband. Siddharth doubts whether they would want to live in Bhutan again, as they have just started new lives, where they may still be stateless but have jobs, a house of their own and the prospects of future citizenship. “We are all happy,” he insists, smiling. “The only difficulty is to be separated as a family like this. My children have never met their uncles and grandparents. We can never visit each other, and talk only over the phone.”
Like Pankaj, Siddharth lived in the north of Bhutan at the time his family left, as he was based there for his government job. Siddharth has been lucky to have kept his job (many without a CID card have been fired from government posts since the 1990s), although he has yet to receive any of the usually standard career promotions. Having given up on obtaining a CID, Siddharth has focused on getting it for his two sons, who inherited his status. That meant that when they both passed out of high school with top marks and qualifications to study medicine or engineering on government grants, they had to watch others take their spots, which were reserved for ‘genuine citizens’ only.
This year in April, the two boys, now 21 and 24, appealed to the King and got their citizenship granted. They will graduate from Bhutanese engineering colleges. Once citizenship is granted, Siddharth says Lhotshampas get equal opportunities. Like Pankaj, he wears his gho when required, has friends from other ethnic groups and does not see much discrimination. “I only feel a bit sad that my sons never learned proper Nepali,” he says.
Nepali was taken out from school curricula in south Bhutan in 1989 to promote the national language Dzongkha, but it is still widely spoken by Lhotshampas and other Bhutanese alike all over the country. It is the only language Siddharth’s illiterate wife Meena understands, even though she was born in Bhutan and registered as a citizen. So their sons grew up speaking Nepali at home, but never learnt how to write it. While agreeing the country needs one national language, Siddharth believes Lhotshampas deserve to study their mother tongue and hopes the new political climate will eventually provide for that. “These days people are able to ask for citizenship. Maybe next elections they will be able to raise the language issue.”
Whether the People’s Democratic Party will live up to its electoral promises of addressing the plight of those who remain ‘stateless’ in Bhutan, remains to be seen.
Back at Raj’s house, his brother-in-law Anand exhibits cautious optimism. It is one day before the last election round in July when we meet. Just a week before, Anand, who has a green SRP card like Siddharth and works for a private tour company, received a letter saying that he qualified for a CID and could expect more information within days. “I hope it’s real, and not just for elections,” he says. “I have tried for 20 years and never succeeded. Every time I have to go to my native village to pick up documents from the local administration and pay for a translator to write the application in Dzongkha – but I never hear back, so I keep retrying.” Anand says this is his last attempt. “If I don’t get my census registered this time, I will leave the country. Why would I stay?”
For many of those still languishing in the camps of eastern Nepal, resettlement is becoming a more and more attractive option. High level talks between Kathmandu and Thimphu failed to restart after their breakdown in 2003 and any hope of redress or repatriation for the Lhotshampas in the camps does not look forthcoming anytime soon.
The first session of the second Parliament of Bhutan concluded recently in Thimphu, with parliamentarians in the National Council and National Assembly debating the introduction of a Right to Information Bill, the preservation and restoration of religious artifacts and a taxation agreement between Bhutan and India. The ‘census issue’ remained absent from the official agenda.
With fresh hopes of citizenship and matching rights however, the impatience of many of the Lhotshampas is growing – and the question is now what a growing habituation to the promises of democracy and free media will do to their tolerance of any more disappointments in becoming fully-fledged citizens of Bhutan.
Anand has not lost hope yet. “I am still waiting eagerly to get the CID,” he writes to me two months after we met, and two months after he received the letter saying that he qualified for citizenship. “Why would I stay?” he had wondered at that time, believing he would not get his citizenship despite the promises of the letter. But when he had not heard anything two months later and was confronted with the next question, “Where would I go?” the only answer that came to mind was: “home”. His words reflect the sad patience of a man who has been waiting for 20 years and who, in the end, sees no other option than to just continue waiting.
~ Aletta André is a freelance print and radio journalist from the Netherlands. She has been living in and traveling around South Asia since 2008 and can be followed on Twitter @alettaandre or on
~ This report was supported in part by the Postcode Loterij Fonds for journalists by Free Press Unlimited.

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