Subj: Bhutan: Present trial bridges past to future.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.
BHUTAN: PRESENT TRIAL BRIDGES PAST TO FUTURE
In Bhutan, two imprisoned Christians, Benjamin Dhunigana and John
Dai, will soon face court on charges of proselytising. They have
been in prison ever since their arrest on 8 January 2006. They had
responded to an invitation to show the Jesus video in a
non-believer’s home. A boy attending the meeting informed the
police, and Benjamin and John, who are both married with children,
were arrested the next day. Benjamin was recently sentenced to
three-and-a-half years in prison and John to three years. They were
granted ten days to appeal to the court for bail and then they will
appeal the charges against them. (For more details, see Link 1)
This trial will take place at a critical juncture as Bhutan
transitions from a closed and repressive past to an open and free
future. The country’s leadership is delicately but boldly preparing
Bhutan to embrace modernisation and liberty. The difficulty is that
Bhutan’s two million population is largely illiterate and very
nervous about change. There are only around 3000 Christians in
predominantly Buddhist Bhutan and the Church has struggled with
severe restrictions and systematic persecution. Now however, there
is great hope.
The debate around the proselytism case could define the future of
religious liberty in Bhutan. As such, it is a highly significant
trial, deserving our fervent prayers and positive support.
If Bhutan can make this transition from religious kingdom to
constitutional, parliamentary democracy with full religious freedom,
and be blessed by it, it will impact not only Bhutan but the world –
because in this globalised age, the world is watching. The same can
be said of the changes taking place in Nepal.
It will be in the political and religious interests of religious
nationalists, both local and foreign, that these nations fail and
even collapse into chaos so they can be rescued or redeemed by
political-religious forces. The people of God must pray: for the
“Cyruses” of this world (Isaiah 45: men or women God uses to effect
his sovereign will and blessing); for God to “frustrate the ways of
the wicked” (Psalm 146:9); and for God to bless his Church with his
gracious favour (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Bhutan is undergoing a difficult but marvelous transition: from
Buddhist Kingdom to constitutional, parliamentary democracy. His
Royal Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has been devolving his
monarchical role from that of supreme ruler to “Head of State” in a
parliamentary democracy. He plans to abdicate the throne in 2008 and
hand his role to His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar
The second draft Constitution (published on 18 August 2005) was the
result of years of work that involved the detailed study of
constitutions from all around the world. The result is an
extraordinary document that enshrines equality, religious liberty, a
high standard of human rights, and personal responsibility.
The draft Constitution can be found at:
While Article 3 of the draft Constitution recognises Bhutan’s
“spiritual heritage” as Buddhist, the king (the Druk Gyalpo) will be
the “protector of all religions”. Also, Article 3.3 states: “It
shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and
personalities [i.e. not the State] to promote the spiritual heritage
of the country while also ensuring that religion stays separate from
Concerning culture, Article 4.1 states: “The State shall endeavour
to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the
country. . .” And in Article 4.2: “The State shall recognize culture
as an evolving dynamic force. . .” This clause resists the
temptation to lock the people into a static cultural stereotype, and
gives the nation and the people freedom to evolve, in the words of
His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, “with the changing times”. (Link 3)
Article 7 deals with “Fundamental Rights”.
Here are some highlights:
Article 7.1 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to life,
liberty and security of person and shall not be deprived of such
rights except in accordance with the due process of law.
Article 7.2 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of
speech, opinion and expression.
Article 7.3 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of
thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to
belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.
Article 7.4 There shall be freedom of the press, radio and
television and other forms of dissemination of information,
Article 7.5 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information.
Article 7.7 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of
movement and residence within Bhutan.
Article 7.12 A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of
peaceful assembly and freedom of association, other than membership
of associations that are harmful to the peace and unity of the
country, and shall have the right not to be compelled to belong to
Article 7.15 All persons are equal before the law and are entitled
to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be
discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language,
religion, politics or other status.
Article 8 defines the “Fundamental Duties” of Bhutanis. Article 8.3
states: “A Bhutanese citizen shall foster tolerance, mutual respect
and spirit of brotherhood amongst all the people of Bhutan
transcending religious, linguistic, regional or sectional diversities.”
But not everything is to be tolerated! Article 8.5 states: “A person
shall not tolerate or participate in acts of injury, torture or
killing of another person, terrorism, abuse of women, children or
any other person and shall take necessary steps to prevent such acts.”
After the second draft Constitution was published it was distributed
nationwide with the instruction that people read it and openly
discuss its contents. Then, His Royal Majesty the King and His Royal
Highness the Crown Prince traversed the country holding public
consultations in every dzongkhag (district). Throughout the
consultations they assured the people that Bhutan was not following
a trend but consolidating the rapid and profound achievements of the
past. They answered questions and discussed issues with gatherings
of hundreds and even thousands. The first public consultation took
place in the capital, Thimphu, on 26 October 2005, and the final
closing public consultation took place in Trongsa on 27 May 2006.
The questions asked and the anxieties expressed by the people in
these public consultations were consistent across the nation. There
was a general feeling of sadness, loss and trepidation that their
beloved king was devolving his powers to a parliament. Religious
freedom was a key issue for many at the consultations, with concerns
being raised that religious freedom would lead to the s
other religions and this would ultimately undermine and threaten
Buddhism and Bhutan’s cultural heritage. To these concerns, the
Chief Justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, His Royal Majesty and His Royal
Highness the Crown Prince intelligently, persistently, firmly and
graciously endorsed equality of all Bhutanis, religious liberty as a
fundamental human right, and the responsibility of all Bhutanis to
fulfill their duty to the nation by practising peace and tolerance.
Here are some excerpts from http://www.kuenselonline.com from
reports covering the public consultations.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT
From the consultation in the Punakha valley (late November 2005):
“One student said that the ‘freedom of religion’ might encourage the
spread of other religions and dilute the Buddhist tradition which
was Bhutan’s spiritual heritage.
“The Chief Justice explained that the Druk Gyalpo [king] was the
protector of all religions and that, in a democracy there should be
no discrimination against any religion. Freedom of religion was a
fundamental right of the people.” (Link 2)
THE TRUE CAUSE OF PROBLEMS IS ABSENCE OF TOLERANCE, NOT PRESENCE OF
At the public consultations in Dagana (5 February 2006): “The draft
was read out to the people in Lhotsham-kha [local language] and
discussed article by article as His Royal Highness clarified the
queries and doubts raised by about 3,000 public representatives.”
“On Article 7, Fundamental Rights, the people voiced their
apprehension that, with freedom of religion, Buddhism may be
undermined. The Chief Justice said that, although Bhutan was a
developing country, the fundamental rights enshrined in the
Constitution were among the most comprehensive in the world.
“He said that, while Bhutan was a Buddhist nation, it was also one
with respect for people of all faiths. He added that it would be the
absence of such respect and tolerance that would create problems, as
it had in some countries around the world, rather than the freedom
that Bhutan’s Constitution provides.
“His Royal Highness said that the Constitution was a Constitution
for all the people of Bhutan and that it would not discriminate on
the basis of religion, gender, or caste. He said that the best way
to safeguard the fundamental rights of the people was to ensure the
success of this democratic transition. In other words, to fulfill
one’s fundamental duties.” (Link 3)
A gathering of some 10,000 attended the public consultation in
Samtse (around 1 April 2006). “On politics, the people felt that
religion and politics should not intersect but with the coming of
modernisation the interests of the religious community may be
neglected. His Royal Highness said that this separation of roles was
very important but that as a spiritual nation and people, the
religious community’s interests would always be safeguarded,” thus
reinforcing the notion that the religious state of a nation is the
responsibility of the people, not the State.
A gathering of some 5,000 community representatives attended the
consultation in the eastern economic hub of Samdrup Jongkhar
dzongkhag (22 April 2006). Once again anxieties were raised
concerning “. . .the need to safeguard Bhutan’s spiritual heritage
against a possible influx of other religions”. The community
representatives raised examples of failed democracies, where
corruption was rampant. His Royal Highness responded with examples
of successful democracies, noting that success is dependant upon
three main things: good leadership, an enabling environment, and a
population that shoulders its responsibilities. He assured the
people that Bhutan had the first two ingredients, and all that was
needed now was for people to put aside their petty differences and
concerns and keep the greater good of the people foremost in their
minds. (Link 4)
At the consultation in remote Zhemgang dzongkhag in early May, His
Royal Highness the Crown Prince responded again to suggestions that
Bhutan’s Buddhist spiritual heritage be explicitly safeguarded in
the Constitution. His Royal Highness emphasised that what was
considered important in culture and traditions and spiritual
heritage would evolve with time according to the changing time, and
that different generations of Bhutanese must decide for themselves
what aspects of culture and traditions should be given importance.
In the dzongkhag of Bumthang, which Kuenselonline describes as “the
spiritual heartland of Bhutan”, people expressed their concern that,
“if the traditional Bhutanese schools of Buddhism that represented
the country’s spiritual heritage were not specifically protected,
they might be overwhelmed by other religions in future.
“Lam Jamtsho of Ura warned that an influx of new religions would sow
the seed of discord in a peaceful country where Buddhism was the
essence of life. ‘We have seen that one of the main causes of
political conflicts is the clash of religious interests,’ he said.
“His Royal Highness reminded the people that, in the eyes of His
Majesty the King and in the provisions of the Constitution, all
Bhutanese were equal.” He assured the people that because Buddhism
is based on “equality, peaceful co-existence and tolerance” then
peace and prosperity should prevail. He then re-affirmed his belief
that under a parliamentary democracy, it was important to separate
religion from politics.
“When the Chumey representative said there was an apparent
contradiction in Buddhism being the spiritual heritage of Bhutan
under Article 1 and freedom of religion in Bhutan under Article 7
the Chief Justice explained that one was related to the culture and
historical traditions of the nation and the other to personal choice
and practice. ‘While the Constitution guarantees freedom of
religion, no person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by
means of coercion or inducement,’ he said. ‘That will ensure
religious harmony’.” (Link 6)
THE NEED TO DEFINE TERMS
Articles 7.3, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another
faith by means of coercion or inducement”, and 7.12 “A Bhutanese
citizen . . . shall have the right not to be compelled to belong to
any association”, both use words – compelled, coercion, inducement –
that require definition. This is why the approaching trial of
Benjamin Dhunigana and John Dai is so significant. While the trial
will doubtless be conducted according to presently enacted laws that
ban proselytism (the new Constitution has not as yet been enacted),
this trial could see the terms of the draft Constitution defined.
The trial may be used to establish a precedent as Bhutan makes this
historic transition into its future.
1) Two Christians in Bhutan Sentenced to Prison Without a Trial
VOM, 12 June 2006, http://www.persecution.net/pnp.htm#3
2) The unfolding of a new era. 30 November 2005
3) Crown Prince conducts public consultations on the Constitution in
Dagana. 8 February 2006
4) Looking forward to a new era. 26 April 2006
5) Zhemgang’s youth are both excited and concerned. 3 May 2006
6) Bumthaps clarify their doubts on the Constitution. 24 May 2006
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