The law provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government limits this right in practice. The Drukpa discipline of the Kagyupa school, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is the state religion.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
Societal pressure for conformity with Drukpa Kagyupa norms is prevalent.
There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan; however, the U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government informally in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 18,146 square miles. Population figures vary greatly and estimates range from 600,000 to 2 million. Dissidents living outside of the country contend that the Government underreports the number of ethnic Nepalese in the country. Approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of the declared population practice either Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa Buddhism. The Drukpa discipline is practiced predominantly in the western and central parts of the country, although there are adherents in other parts of the country. The inhabitants of the western and central parts of the country mainly, but not exclusively, are ethnic Ngalops, the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who predominate in government and the civil service and whose cultural norms and dress have been declared by the monarchy to be the standard for all citizens.
The Ningmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism is practiced predominantly in the eastern part of the country, although there are adherents in other parts of the country, including the royal family. Most of those living in the east are ethnic Sharchops, the descendants of those thought to be the country's original inhabitants. Several Sharchops hold high positions in the Government, the National Assembly, and the court system.
There is a tradition of respect among many citizens for the teachings of an animist and shamanistic faith called Bon. The arrival of this faith to the country predates that of Buddhism. Bon priests still can be found in the country, but it is unclear how many citizens adhere to this faith. Bon rituals sometimes are included in the observance of Buddhist festivals.
Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are present in small numbers throughout the country. There is only one Christian church building in the country, in the south, where the only concentration of Christians sufficiently large to sustain a church building is located. Elsewhere families and individuals practice their religion at home.
Approximately one-fourth to one-third of the population, ethnic Nepalese who live mainly in the south, practice Hinduism. The Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Ghanapath, Paurinic, and Vedic schools are represented among Hindus.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The law provides for freedom of religion; however the Government limits this right in practice. Proselytization is illegal, and dissidents living outside the country claim that the Government prohibits conversions. Dissidents also contend that Buddhist texts are the only printed religious materials permitted to enter the country. The Government vehemently denies both dissident claims, and asserts that any citizen is free to practice openly any religion.
The Government subsidizes monasteries and shrines of the Drukpa discipline and provides aid to approximately one-third of the Kingdom's 12,000 monks. By statute 10 seats in the 150-seat National Assembly, and 2 seats on the 11-member Royal Advisory Council, are reserved for monks of the Drukpa discipline.
Religious communities must secure government licenses before constructing new places of worship, but there were no reports to suggest that this process was not impartial. The Government provides financial assistance for the construction of Drukpa Kagyupa and Ningmapa Buddhist temples and shrines. Monks and monasteries of the Ningmapa school also receive some state funding. The Government provides some funding for the construction of new Hindu temples and centers of Sanskrit and Hindu learning and for the renovation of existing temples and places of learning. The Government also provides some scholarships for Sanskrit studies in Hindu universities in India.
According to dissidents living outside of the country, Buddhist religious teaching, of both the Drukpa Kagyupa and the Ningmapa disciplines, is permitted in schools. However, the teaching of other religious traditions is not. The Government contends that Buddhist teaching only is permitted in monastic schools, and that religious teaching of any kind is not permitted in other schools.
The King has declared major Hindu festivals to be national holidays, and the royal family participates in them.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Dissidents claim that the Government prohibits religious conversions. However, international Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests are active in education and humanitarian activities.
Dissidents allege that the Government restricts the import of printed religious matter; only Buddhist religious texts are allowed to enter.
Certain civil servants, regardless of religion, are required to take an oath of allegiance to the King, the country, and the people. The oath does not have religious content, but a Buddhist lama administers it. Dissidents allege that applicants for Government services are asked their religion before services are rendered.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
There have been reports in the past that police have used unwarranted lethal force on peaceful demonstrations, resulting in the death of at least one monk. Monks also reportedly have been tortured while in prison.
Ethnic Nepalese in the country were subject to discrimination by the authorities in the late 1980's and early 1990's when many were driven from their homes and forcibly expelled from the country. The root causes of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political; however, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion was also a factor. The Government contends that many of those expelled in 1991 were illegal immigrants who had no right to citizenship or residency in the country. Some 98,000 ethnic Nepalese continue to live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal and are seeking to return to their homes in Bhutan. An estimated 15,000 more reside outside of the camps in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.
In March 2001, the long-negotiated Nepal-Bhutan joint verification team (JVT) began working on the first of the refugee camps to determine which refugees would be considered genuine Bhutanese citizens and eventually allowed to return home. The Government claims that the process has "verified" more than 12,000 persons as of December 2001; however, the JVT has announced no results and no timetable for doing so. No plans for repatriation of the verified Bhutanese citizens have been made public.
The Government also began a program of resettling Buddhist citizens from other parts of the country on land in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in Nepal. Human rights groups maintain that this action prejudices any eventual negotiated return of the refugees to the country. The Government maintains that this is not its first resettlement program and that citizens who are ethnic Nepalese from the south sometimes are resettled on land in other parts of the country. The motivation for this official discrimination appears to be economic and political; however, to the degree that the Hinduism of the ethnic Nepalese identifies them, religion is also a factor.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Governmental discrimination against ethnic Nepalese in the late 1980's and early 1990's arose in part from a desire to preserve the country's Buddhist culture from the growth of the ethnic Nepalese population, with its different cultural and religious traditions. That preoccupation on the part of the Government and many Buddhists still is present today. It is reflected in official and societal efforts to impose the dress and cultural norms of the Ngalop ethnic group on all citizens. While there are no known reports of the repetition of the excesses of the late 1980's and early 1990's, societal and governmental pressure for conformity with Drukpa Kagyupa norms is prevalent. The failure of the Government to permit the return of ethnic Nepalese refugees has tended to reinforce societal prejudices against this group, as has the Government's policy on forced retirement of refugee family members in government service and the resettlement of Buddhists on land vacated by expelled ethnic Nepalese in the south.
Some of the country's few Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese living in the south, state that they are subject to harassment and discrimination by the Government, local authorities, and non-Christian citizens.
There have been some efforts at promoting interfaith understanding. There are regular exchanges between monks of the two schools of Buddhism represented in the country. The King's example of making Hindu festivals official holidays and observing them also has had a positive impact on citizens' attitudes.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
There are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Bhutan. Informal contacts between the two governments ranging from the level of cabinet secretary to that of embassy officer occasionally take place. During these exchanges, governmental discrimination against the ethnic Nepalese minority has been discussed. The United States Ambassador to India discussed the refugee issue with the King and other senior members of the Government when he visited the country in April 2002.