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A tale of sorrow in the country of ‘Gross National Happiness’

Read the stories of Bhutanese political prisoners who have been detained, tortured and denied human rights by the regime which claims that Bhutan is the country with gross national happiness.

Bhutan expelled tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking population through an ethnic cleansing act after they participated in peaceful demonstrations all around southern Bhutan to raise their voice for human rights and justice during September and October of 1990. Those who were unlucky could not escape the cruel Royal Bhutan Army and were arrested, tortured and thrown into prisons, whereas many died of torture, and some were shot and killed.

The exiled Bhutanese made several peaceful but failed attempts to return to Bhutan and such attempts continued till 2008. However, instead of listening to their grievances and finding an amicable solution,  Bhutan continued arresting and torturing its citizens. The report of Human Rights Watch published in March 2023 has verified the presence of 37 political prisoners in the various prisons in Bhutan. 

After Madhukar Mongar’s release on May 9, 2023 and Dechen Wangmo’s release on October 1, 2023, after completing their prison sentences of 30 years and 15 years respectively, the number of verified Bhutanese political prisoners serving sentences in the various prisons in Bhutan has decreased from 37 to 35. However, the actual number of serving political prisoners in Bhutan is expected to be more than 100 as Bhutan has several secretive prisons all over the country and getting information on who is in those prisons is almost impossible.

The whereabouts of several known exile-based Bhutanese human rights activists such as Loknath Acharya, Bom Bahadur Tiwari, and Kul Bahadur Basnet  arrested by Bhutanese security forces have yet to be ascertained. Several pro-democracy activists from inside Bhutan are believed to be still missing. Their families inside Bhutan are afraid to enquire about their whereabouts with the government authorities or with the exile-based Bhutanese human rights activists due to the fear of government reprisal.  

The whereabouts of several known exile-based Bhutanese human rights activists have yet to be ascertained. Several pro-democracy activists from inside Bhutan are believed to be still missing. 

As per the information shared by the Madhukar Monger after arriving in the Bhutanese refugee camp in Beldangi, Jhapa Nepal, after serving almost 30 years of prison sentence at Chemgang Central Prison in Thimphu Bhutan, the situation of the existing 25 political prisoners there is dire. He said that all of them are deprived of basic needs, such as food, medicines, clothing, sanitation, and enough space to live.

The already insufficient food materials they received need to be saved to sell to the prison officials to buy doctor-prescribed medicines and other basic needs. Among 25 of them in Chemgang Central Prison 6, Sunman Gurung who was arrested in 2008, Damber Singh Pulami who was arrested in 2001, Govinda Nirola who was arrested in 2008, Nandalal Basnet who was arrested in 2008, Omnath Adhikari  who was arrested in 2008 and Gangaram Dhakal who was arrested in 1992 are chronically ill since several years due to undue physical tortures and other reasons. Damber Singh Pulami was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital in Thimphu on May 17, 2022, but later, after he recovered a little,  he was taken back to his prison cell and has been still struggling to fully recuperate.

Human Rights Watch report on political prisoners in Bhutan. Photo Credit: Ram Karki

Despite appeals from Pulami’s families and the Global Campaign for the Release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan (GCRPPB) to release Mr Pulami and hand him to his wife Savitra, who is resettled in the US, the Bhutan government ignored such appeals and took him back to his prison cell. As per Mr Mongar, unless the inmates are not critically sick, the authorities do not take them to the medical centers.

The GCRPPB has been repeatedly advocating for the release of all those 35 political prisoners soon after its formation in 2019 but till now only few political prisoners have been released. They include Tshewang Rinzin, who was the Dungpa (sub-divisional officer) in eastern Bhutan and was arrested on 31 July 1998, Bala Ram Chamling, Nayendra Prasad Kharel, Ghana Shyam Gurung and Ram Bahadur Khulal. Chamling was arrested on February 10, 2008, Kharel on February 4, 2008, Gurung on February 2, 2008 and Khulala on February 9, 2008.  Madhukar Mongar and Dechen Wangmo were released after the completion of their prison terms. Only Tshewang Rinzin was released after granting amnesty by the King of Bhutan.  

Other 10 Bhutanese political prisoners were still languishing since their arrest in the early 1990s in a very notorious and secretive royal prison of Bhutan named as Rabuna Army Prison in Wangdi district in central Bhutan. Family members of those prisoners who are living in exile have been informing me that they have been hearing very pathetic news of their situation.

Madhulal Budhathoki, aged 61 now, was arrested from a border Indian town of Dalsingpara in November 1990 for his participation in the peaceful demonstration for human rights and justice in September 1990. His wife, Maina Maya Budhathoki, breathed her last on August 7, 2023 at her village in Bhutan after failing to secure her husband’s freedom despite her continuous struggle for it since 1990. Her latest appeal to the Bhutan King to grant her husband Madhulal amnesty was rejected when she received a phone call from the King’s secretariat in late 2021, after which she never recovered from the shock.

Likewise, as per the information received from an exile-based family member, the wife of another Rabuna-based political prisoner, Lok Bahadur Ghalley, imprisoned during the early 1990s for participating in the peaceful demonstration, is still hoping that her husband will be granted amnesty soon and return home so he can build a good house to live in for them. She lives in a thatched hut with her relatives in the remote village of Gelephu, Bhutan.

As per the information received from their exile based relative she and several poor villagers in the district have been expressing their fear and anxiety that they will be displaced by the proposed megacity that the King announced during his December 10, 2023 speech in Thimphu. It is tough to get more information about the situation of those political prisoners in Rabuna because, as of now, no one has been freed, and family members do not dare to come forward with the information, fearing consequences. 

The Global Campaign for The Release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan (GCRPPB)’s effort to release all the Bhutanese political prisoners through international pressure and appeals to the King of Bhutan for their amnesty have not become entirely fruitful but this advocacy has been successful in raising awareness both among the community as well as the international communities about the existence of the Bhutanese political prisoners in the various prisons in Bhutan. 

Former Bhutanese political prisoners Madhukar Mongar, Dil Kumar Rai, Santiram Acharya and others now freely live in the Bhutanese refugee camps in eastern Nepal. When they reached the camp, they were shocked to see that all their family members had opted for resettlement, leaving them alone. Though the Nepal Government completely stopped issuing refugee identity cards and travel documents to the Bhutanese refugees to be able to go for their family reunion, despite being sick with chronic torture, they remain optimistic about getting their final wishes of getting the ultimate family reunion. 

 Ram Karki is a Bhutanese Human Rights Activist and the Coordinator of The Global Campaign for The Release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan (GCRPPB) based in The Hague.