Bhutan has undergone significant positive changes in recent years as it has transitioned from a royal monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. It has held successive democratic elections in 2008, 2013, and 2018. In the 2018 elections, the United Party of Bhutan emerged victorious after being the main opposition party, and Lotay Tshering was appointed prime minister by the king. Although they still have substantial power and influence, the royal family is now far less involved in governance than it previously was. (Freedom House, 2020)

While the last three elections have generally been considered free and fair, the participation of political parties has been limited and there have been allegations of Nepali speaking Lhotshampas being turned away from voting. (Freedom House, 2020) The Election Commission also reportedly utilized discriminatory rules during the 2013 elections that limited the voting rights and participation of Lhotshampa Hindus. (Mishra, 2013)

Moreover, despite a transition to democracy, many of the discriminatory policies favoring Buddhists and Drukpa culture remain in place. Similarly, there are still a number of human rights issues, including discriminatory citizenship laws, restrictions on civil liberties, political prisoners, social prejudice, and religious freedom and minority cultural/linguistic rights. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The longstanding refugee issue also remains unresolved as the government continues to refuse to repatriate any of the expelled Nepali, primarily Hindu, refugees. These ethnic Nepalis, or Lhotshampas, were exiled and ethnically cleansed from the country in large numbers three decades ago under discriminatory citizenship laws and the “One Nation, One People” policy aimed at forced ethnic, cultural, and religious cohesion.

After living in United Nations administered refugee camps in Nepal for 20 years, the vast majority of the refugees were resettled in third party countries, such as the U.S. Though the resettled Bhutanese refugees in the U.S. are making important strides, the community still faces many challenges, including a high incidence of mental illness and suicide, language barriers, difficulty obtaining employment, and difficulty retaining their cultural and religious traditions in the face of aggressive and predatory Christian missionaries.

History / Background

Bhutan is a multi-ethnic, multilingual country home to a number of ethnic and religious groups, including Drukpa Buddhists and Lhotshampas, the overwhelming majority of whom are Hindu, but also include Tamang and Gurung who are Buddhist, and Kirati who are animists. Although Drukpa Buddhists are politically and religiously dominant, Lhotshampas comprise a substantial minority.  The Lhotshampas are descendants of Nepalese who have lived in Bhutan for centuries, with increased immigration to the southern lowlands of Bhutan in the nineteenth century. (Leech, 2013) The first group of Lhotshampas settled in Bhutan in the sixteenth century after an agreement between Shabdrung Nawang Namgayal of Bhutan and King Ram Shah of Gorkha (in Nepal). (Dhakal, March 26, 2020)

During the 1980s, the Bhutanese authorities adopted a series of nationalist policies that sought to undermine the influence of the ethnic Nepalis, including citizenship laws that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis by declaring them “illegal immigrants.” (Leech, 2013)

In the name of national integration, the government implemented various ethnically, religiously, and linguistically discriminatory policies such as the “One Nation, One People” policy, aimed at forced homogenization of a multi-ethnic society.  This policy was designed to annihilate the culture, religion, and language of Lhotshampas and other minority ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.  Under its regulations, all non-Drukpa ethnic and minority groups were required to disregard their distinct social and cultural identities, and conform to the socio-religious framework created by the politically and economically dominant Drukpa Kargyudpa, to which the royal family belongs. (Leech, 2013) This resulted in the banning of the Nepali language (spoken by Lhotshampas) in schools, for instance.

In order to enforce these policies, the government pursued a violent pogrom of intimidation of the Lhotshampas in southern Bhutan. Their property was destroyed, and activists were arbitrarily detained and tortured. Individuals were forced to sign voluntary migration certificates before being expelled from the country. (Frelick, 2008; Human Rights Watch, 2003) In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotshampas, who could not prove that they were residents of the country before 1958, must leave the country. (Human Rights Watch, 2003) The lack of official identity documents for many Lhotshampas, despite having roots in the country for generations, made proving residency virtually impossible. This made tens of thousands of Lhotshampas stateless, forcing them to flee to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Bhutanese citizens, approximately one-sixth of the kingdom’s total population of 700,000, were forced to leave.  (Tumin, 2018)

Following the crackdown, the government severely curtailed the basic religious rights of the remaining Hindu community, including closing Hindu temples in Lamidara, Surey, Sharbang, and Dagapela, while turning the Sanskrit Pathshalas (schools) in Lamidara, Surey, and Dagapela into army barracks.  This state suppression of the Hindu community in Bhutan continued for more than two decades. (Dhakal, n.d.) Additionally, Bhutanese American community leaders assert that the government then began “resettling” Bhutanese from the Northern, Eastern, and Western parts of the country into the South and onto the lands of the exiled Lhotshampas, even changing the traditional Nepali names of villages and landmarks to Drukpa Buddhist names.

Approximately 18,000 to 20,000 refugees sought shelter in India, but were not granted formal refugee status and worked as manual laborers to survive while living on the margins of Indian society. (Mahalingam, 2012; Chandrasekharan, 2017) In Nepal, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) set up camps to accommodate the Bhutanese refugees.  Many of the refugees that did not live in the camps assimilated into Nepali society.

Bhutan’s refusal to repatriate any of the refugees led to the “resettlement movement” beginning in 2007, whereby the refugees were resettled from Nepal to third-party countries. (Chandrasekharan, 2017) To date, over 100,000 refugees have been resettled in third countries, including approximately 96,000 in the United States. There are now only around 6,500 registered refugees remaining in two camps in Nepal waiting to exercise their right to repatriation to Bhutan (CIA World Factbook, 2020; Dhakal, February 2020). Given Bhutan’s unwillingness to accept any refugees in the past, it is unlikely that they will repatriate any of the remaining refugees in Nepal. (Chandrasekharan, 2017) Moreover, there have not been any meaningful discussions between Bhutan and Nepal about repatriation since negotiations stalled in 2003. (Dhakal, 2020)

Refugee Resettlement

In 2007, the UNHCR in conjunction with third party countries began to resettle the Bhutanese refugees living in seven camps in Nepal. More than 110,000 have been resettled in the following countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., (Shrestha, 2015) which has resetted over 96,000 refugees. (Dhakal, 2020) In the U.S., the refugees have been resettled in all 50 states, with particularly high concentrations in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona.

The refugees that have been resettled to the U.S. and other countries, as well as those still remaining in the camps, have faced a number of challenges, particularly mental health issues and a high incidence of suicide. Bhutanese refugees had a high suicide rate while in the camps in Nepal (20.7 per 100,000 people) and similarly have had a high incidence of suicide here in the U.S. (24.4 per 100,000 people compared to a rate of 12.4 for the general population). (Brown et al., 2019)

At the same time, the rate of depression within the Bhutanese community is estimated at 21% or three times the general U.S. population of 6.7%. (Preiss, 2013,) Economic problems, social isolation, linguistic barriers, prior trauma, and the inability to maintain cultural and religious traditions, among others, were all cited as significant motivations for suicide, suicidal ideation, or mental health issues. (Brown et al., 2019)

Furthermore, pressure to convert to Christianity by Christian groups providing aid to the refugees has been a significant source of tension and mental stress within the community and has disrupted family and social ties. According to community sources, in Western Michigan, for instance, 25% of the estimated 3,000 strong Bhutanese population have now converted to Christianity. This pressure to convert might be one possible indicator as to why approximately 92% of the suicide victims were from Hindus families, while only one was a Christian, according to community sources.

While there are still significant challenges facing the Bhutanese refugee community, as noted above, many community members are also making great social, economic, and political strides in America. In Reynoldsville, Ohio, for example, Bhuwan Pyakural made history by becoming the first Bhutanese refugee elected to government office when he won a seat on the Reynoldsville city council in 2019. (NRB, 2019)

Status of Human Rights, 2019-2020

Religious Freedom

Contradictory provisions in the constitution have resulted in a mixed record on religious freedom and equality under the law.  For instance, although Article 7, section 4 guarantees Bhutanese citizens “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and assures that “no person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement,” (National Assembly of Bhutan, 2008) the Constitution simultaneously expresses official preference for Buddhism in multiple provisions.

Article 3 specifically provides that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan” and states that it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” (National Assembly of Bhutan, 2008) Moreover, the Constitution requires that the King must be a Buddhist and is the protector of all religions in Bhutan. (National Assembly of Bhutan, 2008) The Constitution further explains that preserving the state’s Buddhist heritage is important and that Bhutanese society is “rooted in Buddhism.” (National Assembly of Bhutan, 2008)

This official recognition of Buddhism in the Constitution relegates Hinduism and other religions to inferior status and has left them vulnerable to discrimination over the years. Accordingly there have been reports from NGOs and civil society groups indicating that non-Buddhists, including Hindus and Christians, do not enjoy full religious freedom and face harassment and pressure to participate publicly in Buddhist rituals and practices in schools, rural areas, and other sectors. (Freedom House, 2020)

At the same time, Hindu leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai in Bhutan note that the community receives support from the government, including the construction of temples and support for religious practices, ceremonies, and festivals. Moreover, these leaders assert that Hindus enjoy strong relations with Buddhists. (U.S. Department of State, June 10, 2020)

The Hindu Dharmic Samudai is the largest Hindu organization in the country and is on the board of the government Commission for Religious Organizations, along with eight other groups. (U.S. Department of State, June 10, 2020)

The Commission is tasked with “overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities.” (U.S. Department of State, June 10, 2020) It is also required by law to ‘“ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”’  (U.S. Department of State, June 10, 2020)

Although the government has helped build two temples and a Hindu cremation grounds in recent years, the government has continued to restrict the construction of new temples in rural areas, according to Bhutanese Hindu NGOs outside the country. Similarly, many of the temples previously closed by the government remain in disrepair and are not functioning. (Dhakal, n.d.)

There are two other Hindu temples in the country. One in Maogaun block of Sarbhang Dzongkhag which was constructed by the Hindu community in the 1970s. The other was built in Lamidara village in the 1930s. The government has subsidized a priest for worship at this temple, but there are hardly any devotees since large numbers of Hindus were evicted from Bhutan. (Dhakal, n.d.)

Institutional Discrimination

The protections in Article 15 of the constitution that “[n]o one shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics, or other status,” have proven ineffective in stopping pervasive institutional discrimination. The country’s official policies have led to inequality for ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. Though the strict Drupka dress code has been relaxed in recent years, Drukpa dress is still required in government offices, schools, monasteries and during official public functions.

Moreover, the government continues to restrict the cultural and linguistic rights of ethnic minorities in rural areas. The Nepali language, which was taught in schools until 1988, was dropped from the school curriculum and never reinstated. There is no provision for ethnic Nepalis to study the Nepali language. In the 1960s and 70s, the Nepali language was also used in government offices in south Bhutan, but was stopped in the early 1980s. The government continues to neglect the Nepali language today.  (Dhakal, February 2020) There have also been reports of Nepali speakers facing employment discrimination and societal prejudice. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The premier Sanskrit (the sacred language of Hinduism) pathshala (school) that had been in existence since the 1930s at Lamidara village has been completely destroyed and no trace of it remains. The name of the village was changed from its traditional Sanskrit name, Lamidara, to Mandeygang. Moreover, since the village served as a cradle of Nepali culture in Bhutan, most of the ethnic Nepali villagers were forced to leave the country. The other Sanskrit pathshala that was operating then in Dagapela Sub-division of Daga Dzongkhag was closed and has not been re-opened by the government. The only Sanskrit pathshala the government has opened is in the Suray block of Gylemphug subdivision, where the participation of students has been minimal, and no facilities have been provided for housing students.  (Dhakal, n.d.)

Basic civil liberties and fundamental freedoms are similarly repressed by the government, including political activity and the ability to form political parties and hold peaceful rallies or organize conferences and seminars.

The Lhotshampa population living in the country lacks any political parties to represent its interests, while NGOs working on ethnic Nepali issues have been designated as political organizations and banned from Bhutan. (Freedom House, 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2020) Moreover, there are reports of ethnic Nepalis being unable to obtain citizenship and accordingly being prevented from voting in prior elections. Citizenship rules have also impacted the ability of ethnic Nepalis to travel freely and some have even been arrested when trying to enter the country. (Freedom House, 2020)

The country’s discriminatory citizenship policies have further disenfranchised the ethnic Nepali population in South Bhutan, rendering thousands virtually stateless. Estimates range from 1,000 families to 10,000 people being stateless, with some groups putting the number as high as 30,000 stateless. Amongst these stateless persons include the family members of those Nepalis who were evicted from Bhutan. (Dhakal, February 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Moreover, Bhutan has still not rectified the flaws in the system of birth registration for children born after 1990, which requires that both parents must be of Bhutanese nationality. And nationality is difficult to prove for many ethnic Nepalis that do not have official documents. These laws have resulted in problems accessing education and health services for minority children.

As a result of these discriminatory policies, “some Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens could not obtain security clearances, which are required to obtain a passport, secure government jobs, enroll in higher education, and obtain licenses to run private businesses.” (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Furthermore, in the past, there were abuses by security forces and arbitrary arrests of Lhotshampas suspected of involvement with violent anti-government activities. (Adhikari & Thapa, 2009) Many of those who were arrested were involved in protests demanding human rights and democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s are still in prison. (Dhakal, February 2020) Although estimates vary, the government asserts that there are currently 57 political prisoners being held for violating the National Security Act or affiliated laws. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Human rights experts, such as Dr. DNS Dhakal of Duke University have alleged that these political prisoners have been held without a fair trial or access to legal counsel. (Dhakal, February 2020) Similarly, a report by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in July 2019 found a number of due process violations and indicated that many of the prisoners were convicted for offenses that were not violent in nature. (CIVICUS, 2020)

Conclusion and Recommendations

Bhutan continues to escape international censure for its human rights record and its historic role in the ethnic cleansing of over 100,000 members of the Lhotshampa minority. The ongoing preference for Mahayana Buddhism and the Drukpa cultural identity has continued to marginalize the Lhotshampa minority living within the country.  From the suppression of linguistic and political rights to a lack of economic and educational opportunities to inequitable treatment of non-Buddhist places of worship, the remaining Hindu Lhotshampas (ethnic Nepalis) have been relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Accordingly, HAF offers the following recommendations.

Recommendations to the Government of Bhutan

HAF calls on the Bhutanese government to remove or revise any preferential language for Buddhism in Bhutan’s constitution and legal framework and for the government to treat all religions equitably. Moreover, non-Buddhist communities should be accorded the right to build new places of worship, register religious organizations, and practice their traditions free of cumbersome and arbitrary restrictions.

In addition, continued attempts to forcibly homogenize the cultural identity of the country, including limiting minority linguistic rights and other restrictive policies targeting the Lhotshampa community must end. Moreover, exiled and banned political parties should be allowed to operate freely in Bhutan and participate in elections, while human rights organizations representing the interests of the refugees and the broader Lhotshampa community should similarly be free to operate in the country.

HAF further urges Bhutan to accept and repatriate all those refugees remaining in the camps or elsewhere who wish to return and are able to prove their nationality through reasonable means, while Nepal should make a similar offer to integrate some refugees.  If any refugees are in fact repatriated to Bhutan, they should be afforded full citizenship rights and basic human rights protections.  Finally, Bhutanese refugees should be allowed to visit Bhutan and accorded non-resident Bhutanese status.

Recommendations to the International Community

International donors, the United Nations, India, and the United States should work constructively with Bhutan to implement additional democratic reforms, put pressure on Bhutan to accept the return of exiled ethnic Nepali Hindus and any other exiled communities that wish to return, and ensure that all residents living in Bhutan enjoy equal protection under the law and religious freedom. Moreover, those Bhutanese Hindus living in India should be accorded official refugee status and provided with basic government assistance.

And the resettled population, particularly in the U.S., should be given greater support in acclimating to their new environment. While government resettlement agencies in the U.S. have provided considerable assistance to the Bhutanese refugees, greater attention needs to be focused on addressing their mental health needs, overcoming linguistic barriers, and job skills training. Finally, the government resettlement agencies should monitor any faith based partner organizations to ensure that they are not conditioning aid on converting to Christianity or violating laws that prohibit proselytizing by organizations that receive federal funds.


Adhikari, I.P., & Thapa, R. (2009, December). Human Rights & Justice in Bhutan. APFANews.

Brown, F. L., Mishra, T., Frounfelker, R. L., Bhargava, E., Gautam, B., Prasai, A., & Betancourt, T. S. (2019, January 15).‘Hiding their troubles’: a qualitative exploration of suicide in Bhutanese refugees in the USA. National Institute of Health: Global Mental Health.

Chandrasekharan, S. (2017, December 18). Bhutan: Refugee Issue- Finally coming to a close. South Asia Analysis Group.

CIA World Factbook. (2020, November 18). The World Factbook: Bhutan. Central Intelligence Agency.


Dhakal, D. (n.d.). Based on information received directly from Dr. DNS Dhakal, Senior Fellow at the Duke School of International Development and Chief Executive of the Bhutan National Democratic Party. Dhakal, D. (2020, February). Faltering – Annual Human Rights Report. Bhutan Watch.

Dhakal, D. (2020, March 26). Ethnic Identity of Resettled Bhutanese in America? NRB: The Voice of Non Resident Bhutanese.

Freedom House. (2020). Freedom in the World 2020: Bhutan. Freedom House.

Frelick, B. (2008, February 1). Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing. Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch. (2003, May 19). Briefing Paper for the Fourteenth Ministerial Joint Committee of Bhutan and Nepal. Human Rights Watch.

Leech, G. (2013, March 25). Happiness and Human Rights in Shangri La. Critical Legal Thinking.

Mahalingam, M. (2012, August 3). Imbroglio of Bhutanese Hindu Diaspora: An Indian Perspective. Bhutan News Service.

Mishra, T. (2013, July 12). Bhutan: An Exile’s View of the Parliamentary Elections. Global Post.

National Assembly of Bhutan. (2008). The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan. National Assembly of Bhutan.

NRB. (2019, November 7). Ohio Paves The Way. NRB: The Voice of Non Resident Bhutanese.

Preiss, D. (2013, April 13). Bhutanese Refugees are Killing Themselves at an Astonishing Rate. The Atlantic.

Shrestha, D. D. (2015, November 19). Resettlement of Bhutanese Refugees Surpasses 100,000 Mark. UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency.

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U.S. Department of State. (2020). 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Bhutan. U.S. Department of State, Bureau Of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor.

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Kingdom of Bhutan

38,394 square kilometers

782,318 (July 2020 est.)

Lamaistic Buddhist 75.3%;
Indian and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 22.1% (estimates on the number of Hindus vary according to Hindu groups);
Other 2.6% (2005 est.)

Ngalop (also known as Bhote) 50%;
Ethnic Nepalese 35% (includes Lhotshampas – one of several Nepalese ethnic groups); Indigenous or migrant tribes 15% (2005 est.)

Sharchhopka 28%;
Dzongkha (official) 24%;
Lhotshamkha 22%;
Other 26% (2005 est.)

Southern Asia, between China and India (CIA World Factbook, 2020)