Last Updated 10 March 2021

Bhutan is a landlocked country bordered by China and India, with a small population of around 770,000. The difficult topography of Bhutan has kept it isolated from global influence. Having never been colonized, Bhutan has been relatively free to forge its own identity and political system. In 2008, it transitioned from being ruled by absolute monarchy to become a democratic constitutional country, through the adoption of a new Constitution and by holding its first parliamentary elections. This top-down democratization was initiated by the country’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.1

Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism holds privileged status and is practised by 75% of the population. 22% of the population – mostly consisting of the ethnic Nepalese population living in southern Bhutan – practice Hinduism.2

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Constitution and government

The Constitution and other laws and policies guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Article 3 of the Constitution proclaims Buddhism as the “spiritual heritage” of Bhutan. The same Article states that religion and politics are to remain “separate”, as “religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.”3 In an attempt to maintain this division, Buddhists monks and nuns are not permitted to vote in elections or to run for office. Some Buddhist monks and nuns have protested their exclusion from the electoral process.4;

Article 7 of the Constitution stipulates, “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.” It also states, “No one shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics, or other status.”

Religious groups are required to register with the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). Unregistered religious groups may not organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.

Religious privilege

The government supports the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism. It subsidizes its monasteries and shrines and provides aid to its monks and nuns. The government does not provide aid to clerics of other religions.

Education and children’s rights

The government asserts there is no religious curriculum in educational institutions, but local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) report students must take part in a compulsory Buddhist prayer session each morning. Religious teaching is forbidden in all schools except monastic institutions.5

Family, community and society

Enforced social code (Driglam Namzha)

After years of isolation, Bhutan’s political leadership has a strong desire to preserve and protect the country’s cultural traditions and heritage from outside influence. Tourism is a restricted industry, with foreigners only being allowed to enter the country through a government-sanctioned tour company.

The royal decree of driglam namzha, which is described as Bhutan’s national code of etiquette, enforces a dress code on certain formal occasions, architectural design uniformity and public social codes of conduct. The unwritten code is seen as a means of maintaining order in society, and was introduced by the country’s founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. It has roots in Buddhist ethics and codes of discipline.6http:// Failure to comply with the code has been declared punishable with imprisonment or a fine.7

The policy of driglam namzha has been criticized for enforcing cultural assimilation on minority groups. In particular, it has been used to justify discrimination and exclusion of people of Nepali origin. Under the decree, the teaching of the Nepali language in schools was removed from the national curriculum.8 In addition, under the Marriage Bill 2017, a Bhutanese citizen who marries a non-Bhutanese national is deprived of certain rights and privileges, including the ability to receive a promotion if they work in government services.9

LGBTI+ rights

In December 2020, Bhutan’s parliament voted to repeal sections in the country’s criminal code that previously criminalized “sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature.”10

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The National Security Act (1992) criminalizes “treasonable acts” against the royal government and speech that creates or attempts to create “hatred and disaffection among the people” or “misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people.”11 Although the provisions regarding capital punishment were repealed in 2008, the broad language of the law makes it vulnerable to misuse.

NGO activity in Bhutan is regulated by the 2007 Civil Society Organization Act.12 All new NGOs are required to register with the government. The government has discretion to refuse registration to NGOs that it deems to be “harmful to the peace and unity of the country.”

Due to restrictive defamation and libel laws, Bhutan’s media environment remains subject to a high degree of censorship, including self-censorship.13 According to Reporters Without Borders, self-censorship continues to be very high as “many journalists avoid covering sensitive issues for fear of appearing to challenge the social order”.14 In 2018, Bhutanese journalist Nirmala Pokhrel was sentenced to three months in prison for libel under section 320 of the Penal Code for a Facebook post about a child abuse case. In 2016, journalist Namgay Zam was charged for the same offence after posting on Facebook about a property dispute between her family and a local businessman.15

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