There was a time, until the mid-1980s, when Bhutan was thought by many to be an exemplar of a multi-ethnic nation at peace with itself. The country´s three communities – the ruling Ngalong of the northwest, the large but ´backward´ Sarchop of the east, and the (lately named) Lhotshampa Nepali-speakers of the south – seemed to be making a go at an amicable existence under the benign rule of a Ngalong king.
That perceived idyll was shattered by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk´s precipitate action of depopulating the southern hills of a good portion of his Lhotshampa subjects at the turn of the decade. Shangri La was first sullied then, and now, the international watchdog agency Amnesty International has blown the cover over another developing dark secret, the Thimphu establishment´s treatment of Sarchop dissidents.
The acumen of a coterie of sophisticated English-speaking bureaucrats coupled with indulgence on the part of the Indian government and a select group of international donors has kept Bhutan from feeling the pressure of international censure.The fact remains, however, that on a worldwide scale Bhutan holds the dark record of being the country that has evicted the largest proportion of its citizens (about a seventh), throwing them into the limbo of statelessness over these past eight years.
And last October came news from the east of Bhutan of sit-ins, demonstrations and ´posterings´. Taking its time to confirm the reports, on 21 January, Amnesty released a report from London titled “Crack-down on ´anti-nationals´ in the east”. It confirmed that Thimphu had reacted to the protest in the east by arresting a large number of people, mostly Sarchops: “Bhutanese authorities have in recent months arbitrarily arrested, tortured and ill-treated scores of pro-democracy activists in the east of the country. Those arrested include dozens of Buddhist monks, religious teachers and young children.”
While the Lhotshampa issue has been taken primarily as a refugee matter, grave by itself, the action against the Sarchop has highlighted more directly the question of human rights.The activism in the east seems to have subsided with the state´s harsh reaction and the continued incarceration of about 150 persons. But this only means that the matter will fester. While earlier there was only Rongthong Kunley Dorje, the Sarchop leader who is at present in a Delhi prison fighting extradition to Bhutan, Kingjigme is now well on the way to spawning more leaders opposed to him. Many of the Sarchops presently in His Majesty´s jails are monks.
In conversation, members of Thimphu´s Ngalong elites tend to reject suggestions that there is any difference between their own community and the Sarchops. Rather, they prefer to draw a differentiation between the southern Nepali-speakers and the northerners, made up of Sarchops and Ngalongs, who are said to be “the same”. Beyond even the question of why there should be two names for the population groups if they are so similar, the fact is that there is a distinct cultural division between these two streams, one following the Kargyu path of Himalayan Buddhism in the west and the other the Nyingma path.
The challenge for King jigme and his circle of advisers now is not how to stay on top of things as self-assertion and modernisation begin to rock a thus-far tightly run feudal ship of state, but to seek a quick remedial action in the political arena keeping the future of Bhutan in mind rather than personal ego, position and holdings. The support of India and the adulation of western ViPs so assiduously cultivated are not sound foundations on which to build a Bhutanese future. This tiny country of the eastern Himalaya must hold its head high, self-confident and sovereign. This will never happen without the participation of the three communities.
It happens even in the most autocratic of societies; howsoever small Thimphu´s ruling establishment, there are doubtless scores of educated, thinking Bhutanese who fret for the future and feel that things should perhaps have been done differently and without the hubris that has overtaken the country´s rulers this past decade. And as with all autocratic societies, such people tend to keep their ideas to themselves, giving the rulers a surfacial sense of support.
More than anything else, the intelligentsia of Thimphu must keep in mind that Bhutan´s situation is quite different from, say, that of neighbouring Nepal, where the multiplicity of communities makes a battle royal among communities somewhat unlikely. Bhutan, on the other hand, has three sharply defined communities among whom there exists a widening rift. There is a clear and present danger of an unravelling.
A country with a tiny, self-centred elite is being asked to look into itself, make amends, and produce a formula for the evolution of the Bhutanese state from what it is to what it should be. Can the rulers of Bhutan, the king himself, the sister-queens and the royal in-laws, and the dasho nobility who have ordered and implemented anti-people actions over the last decades be expected to take the palliative all on their own?