December 13, 2010
Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas in South Asia, will soon have a law providing for imprisonment of three years for “proselytization.” Last week, the parliament of Bhutan approved inclusion of a new provision in the Penal Code to ban religious conversions by force or allurement – emulation of the “anti-conversion” laws in force in some Indian states. While some provisions in the amendment bill are yet to be discussed in a joint-session of Bhutan’s bicameral parliament – the National Council and the National Assembly – the “proselytization” clause has been endorsed by both houses, local newspapers say.
Another significant development is expected in Bhutan, which was one of the world’s most isolated nations until recent years. The government may soon give legal status to Christianity, which has existed as an underground movement, especially among the Lhotshampas (as the ethnic Nepalese from south Bhutan are called), for the last few decades. It is estimated that 6,000 of the 700,000 people in Bhutan are Christian. The government has indicated that the country’s religious organizations’ regulatory authority is contemplating registration of a Christian federation. While the move may be aimed at bringing Christians under the government regulation, it will have some benefits, too. Christians will have to be allowed to build churches, start printing of the Bible and other Christian literature, open Christian book stores, and so on.
The subtext of these two simultaneous developments reflects the predicament of Bhutan, which had its first democratic elections and became a constitutional monarchy two years ago. Bhutan’s king and political leaders seemingly want to give rights to its people, but fear that doing so may sacrifice their country’s two key interests, i.e. preservation of its distinct culture and maintenance of law and order. In relation to religious freedom, Christianity can be allowed to co-exist with Buddhism only if its adherents remain culturally compliant and maintain public order.
The Constitution of Bhutan, an absolute monarchy for around 100 years until 2008, provides for religious freedom, but it also mandates the government and its institutions to protect Buddhism, the country’s “spiritual heritage” and author of its unique culture. While in most democracies religious freedom is subject to public order and morality, in Bhutan it is subordinate also to protection and preservation of culture.
The stress on preservation of religion and culture in Bhutan is for both religious and political reasons.
In Bhutan, Vajrayana Buddhism is practised. It is part of the Mahayana denomination, one of the two broad classifications of the religion, apart from Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism. Globally, the Theravada sect is in majority. And Vajrayana Buddhism is seen as an “endangered” sect by its adherents. So the political and religious leaders of Bhutan are expected to protect and preserve their religious heritage.
Additionally – and more importantly – Bhutan needs to protect Buddhism for geopolitical reasons.
It is a “tiny nation between two giants, India and China,” as Bhutan’s political leaders often describe their fear. They also take pride in the fact that their ancestors did not allow the nation to be colonized by outsiders, and they believe that Bhutan’s religion and culture protected its sovereignty.
Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, famously explained the reason behind the stress on preservation of religion and culture in Bhutan. “Being a small country, we do not have economic power. We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role, because of our small size and population and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor we can fall back on ... which can strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty and our different identity is the unique culture we have.” In other words, Bhutan needs to be visibly different in culture from its neighbours, India and China, to assert its sovereignty.
This is why until today Bhutan has preserved its distinct, uniform culture. All the buildings in the country conform to the signature Bhutanese architecture and the Bhutanese citizens are required to wear the national dress – knee-length robes, known as the gho, for men, and the ankle-length kira for women – at work and at public functions.
The use of distinct culture as the guardian of the nation’s sovereignty is also reflected in the clubbing of home and culture as one ministry. Bhutan’s minister in-charge of national security is also responsible for the preservation of culture.
Given that Bhutan perceives a constant threat to its sovereignty, its leaders fear that even a minor law and order problem or any people’s movement can be exploited by a foreign force. This is why authorities in Bhutan have not allowed labor unions or pressure groups or political activism.
The “invasion” of two neighboring Buddhist nations, Sikkim and Tibet, by outside forces cemented Bhutan’s suspicion. While China gained control over Tibet in 1950, India incorporated Sikkim, a Buddhist kingdom, in 1975. Bhutan alone remained untouched. But the nation’s leaders did not take it for granted. They intensified cultural unification through the “One Nation, One People” programme in the late 1970s.
The unification exercise involved the use of one language, Dzongkha, in education, apart from other measures. But Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalese population, mostly Hindu, rebelled against the kingdom, which over-reacted and used brutal force to quell their protests compelling around 100,000 ethnic Nepalese to seek refuge in Nepal. Many of them are still in refugee camps in Jhapa in Nepal – a monument to Bhutan’s violation of human rights.
The government of Bhutan needs to be apprised that a nation that is driven by gross national happiness must not practise repression.
Studies have shown that the enactment of anti-conversion laws in India has resulted in communal violence rather than preventing it. The possibility of the misuse of the anti-conversion provision in Bhutan is also high because the Hindu rightwing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (based in India) is planning to open a chapter – though under a different name – in Bhutan. Given that a majority of Christians in Bhutan are ethnic Nepalese, the VHP will create frictions between Nepalese Hindus and Nepalese Christians. Therefore, the government of Bhutan will need to ensure that any such attempt is nipped in the bud.
Also, incidents like the recent sentencing of a Christian man, Prem Singh Gurung, from Bhutan’s Sarpang District to three-year imprisonment for showing a Jesus film will harm Bhutan’s otherwise good international reputation. (Since Gurung’s conviction for “attempting to promote civil unrest” was seemingly frivolous, an appeal in a higher court could have reversed the order – but it had to be done within 10 days after the judgment was passed, as per the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code of Bhutan.)
Being a landlocked, mountainous nation, Bhutan (India’s former protectorate) depends on aid from New Delhi, which competes with China for influence in South Asia. Bhutan’s leaders privately admit that they are weary of their dependence on India. And, quietly, they are striving for economic independence and to establish ties with Western nations.
Gradually, Bhutan is gaining self-confidence. For example, in April 2010, it hosted a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit. Besides, Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigme Thinley is often on official visits abroad or hosting foreign delegates in Thimphu.
Bhutan’s king and political leaders are generally known for being simple and sincere – which sets them apart from their counterparts in other South Asian nations. So true to their reputation, they should be asked to provide religious and other freedoms to all the people of their country and explained why there is little reason to continue to feel anxious about their sovereignty.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogaraja. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.