For any reader interested in the background of this project; this started with an initial investigation of mass movements from the Wellcome Collection. The outcome is a short animation documentary. Behind the film are a few people, primarily me (Avishkar Chhetri) and a few refugees from Bhutan. Although I consider myself a Nepali, I grew up in London and studied in the UK ever since it is probably most appropriate to state my identity lays between the two nations of Nepal and the United Kingdom.


When I started researching mass movements of refugees in the Wellcome Collection, I uncovered the 1991 displacement of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan. I was initially interested in researching the Lhotshampa refugees as there are linked to my ethnicity. At the start of the research, I was curious about the lack of awareness of the Bhutanese refugees, what had happened to cause this displacement? I would hear stories from my mother of Bhotes (Bhutanese - Tibetan) men killing Nepalis by throwing them off cliffs trapped in sacks. So, it is fair to say that I went into this project with the idea that the displacement was clear and obvious or perhaps mirroring major displacements such as the Syrian refugees, albeit not as extreme. But this displacement is very complex and with myriad elements, especially when searching for the truth. There are opinions, voices, accounts, papers, photographs, and surprisingly no film (or perhaps not surprising as Bhutan removed television and most western influences in the country during the late 20th century). Although this project has been somewhat fruitless and frustrating, the underreporting of these injustices have pushed me further into finding out what happened. It is important to understand the documentary animation is not a guide or a direct film about the truth. It is a perspective I have accumulated over the course of months of interviews and research. Places like National Archives of Bhutan, Wellcome Collection, British Library, SOAS libraries, etc. Most information in regards to the displacement are accounts from the refugees after the displacement, as well as background information in regards to the Lhotshampa are summarised to single paragraphs.


The format I decided on was an open letter. During my investigation of the 1990s displacement of the Lhotshampa, I discovered a few open letters to officials of Bhutan such as the King (both the previous and the current). Many of which have been emotive and personally written by refugees and individuals connected to the displaced group. I strongly believe that the Internet has provided a platform for the refugees to voice their struggles and injustice unlike before. The open letter format provided me with the opportunity of having a tangible goal to achieve; to ask the King to take caution and consideration of minorities in Bhutan, and in lieu of spectators of this letter; awareness of the displacement.


I believe there is an issue, although it is not the issue most would word - there is little evidence of the displacement being an ethnic cleansing, as the Lhotshampas are heterogeneously mixed with overlapping ethnicities similar to the Ngalops, perhaps linguistic cleansing or cultural cleansing more appropriate as a term. Furthermore, it is important to note that there is an abundance of evidence of Bhutan's desperate attempts to create a homogeneous identity under the Drukpa heritage and lingua de Franca - Dzongkha. Thus the Nepalese (Lhotshampas) is problematic to this envisioned Bhutan, with it's corrupted combination of democracy, foreignness, fluidity, vagueness of cultural origins and communism-entryism.

The Lhotshampas in summary had two options during the expulsion, either subjugate their identity to the Drukpa standard Bhutanese as well as relinquish their Nepali/foreign affiliations or leave the country. Consequently, some stayed and many others fled. You might find that statement to be very simple, but there is a lot of brevity to it, looking at both the opinions of the Lhotshampas and the official claims from the government, it is quite vivid. 

Of the main purposes of this open letter is to address a proposed "culture act" in the 2020 commission plan thus address the elements of which divided the Bhutanese people. Ultimately and realistically this letter will bring awareness to the Bhutanese displacement of the early 90's to both the animation communities and documentary filmmakers. For example something important to bring awareness is that the patriotic social etiquette "Driglam Namzha" was not just a social code of conduct but the premise of the social divide between Bhutan and its minorities, even though it's origins are benign. Today, Bhutan still does not recognise the factual multicultural elements in Bhutan rather than just the Bhutanese Drukpa identity in the constitution, albeit the King has written support for multiculturalism and religious freedom. 

When discussing Driglam Namzha to individuals I have encountered, there is only a literal understanding, i.e. a dress code rather than what it's underlining message entailed. It is also important that the narrative of the displacement does not become exaggerated into something completely untrue, which is a possibility. Thus being truthful and authentic is a key principal for this project. I further have to state that this letter and website's goal is not to invalidate the Bhutanese cultural identity, blame the Bhutanese people as maleficent in nature or promote entryist notions of Nepali/Hindu culture in Bhutan thus removing Bhutan's Mahayana Buddhist traditions.

Furthermore, what I do find concerning is the consistent accounts of arbitrary arrests of individuals, torture details, rapes, burning of homes and threats against families I have encountered via refugee accounts. Something that is hard to varify without personal accounts.

Another issue that requires dispelling is the figure of 100,000 refugees. The number of which has been difficult to correctly assess. The fluctuation of the Nepalese government and the lack of address from the Bhutanese government means the number of refugees can be much less considering the opportunities of food, shelter and resettlement to first world nations. Initially the number 100,000 refugees harboured a lot of angst for me, knowing that one sixth of the then population was removed. But over time, it became clear that this number is fluctuated between several accounts from 80,000 to 120,000 and appears to be gradual. 80,000 became the figure around 1998, several years after the initial displacement.  But nonetheless the number of refugees and displaced does not really remove the issue of the oppression in Bhutan against minorities' identities.

What I would like to come from this project and the letter to the King of Bhutan is a clear discussion between the Lhotshampa refugees and the government of Bhutan to find out what happened, why it happened and how to stop it from happening again. If this can be achieved then the recognition of the crimes against the minorities can be.

Dear His Majesty,


I am writing in regards to the displacement of the Lhotshampa people in the 1990s. As His Majesty is the head of state and the “People’s King”, the addressee of this letter is primarily to His Majesty.


Although I am not a refugee nor a citizen of Bhutan, I have been investigating the displacement in the year of 2016-17. In conclusion, I found that there are numerous elements of why the initial conflict and displacement took place, from the annexation of Sikkim, the rising Gorkhali movement in West Bengal, Maoism and to the occupation of Tibet. Ultimately in agreement with other investigators, the Lhotshampa people have evidentially little to no recognition for the injustice caused to them both in Bhutan and as displaced refugees.


Furthermore, what I find concerning is His Majesty’s proposed “Cultural Act”  in “Bhutan 2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity and Happiness”, following the possibility of the same discrimination as the social code of conduct, Driglam Namzha. Although Driglam Namzha’s origination was a social formalisation in official buildings and formal celebrations in Bhutan, some officials have used this as a platform to redefine and standardise what it means to be Bhutanese. This artificial authentication had alienated the Lhotshampas from the rest of Bhutan, and consequently, lead to the questioning of the loyalty of their subjecthood to the then King of Bhutan. The reinforcement of such vague clauses like, “specific fines and punishment for crimes committed in relations to culture and heritage” potentially mirrors the 1985 Citizenship Act clauses citizenship by naturalisation (4b) that requires “proficient” comprehension of Dzongkha. Fundamentally the government's census and general knowledge of peripheral Bhutanese people would have known their minimal knowledge of Dzongkha both spoken and written.  These elements played a major role in causing the following revolts and protests in the late 80s to early 90s against the government’s homogenising “one nation; one people” policy through such terms like TSA-WA-SUM.


In summary, with our generation and His Majesty’s coronation, there is truly a new hope for dialogue between the refugees and the government of Bhutan. Although almost every individual I have interviewed is in agreement that repatriation is improbable, recognition of the injustice of the displacement is a still viable rapprochement. I further ask any reader that comes across this letter to His Majesty to take in consideration of Bhutan’s history and investigate the displacement further. My short-lived investigation is nothing new, there are others that have preceded me and others that will follow.


Yours sincerely,

Avishkar Chhetri

By Christopher J. Fynn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Bhutan is now officially a constitutional monarchy as of 2007 by the edict of the current fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Druk Gyalpo), which means Bhutan has a parliamentary government. Democracy has been a gradual process for the Bhutanese people, unlike Nepal. Bhutan's efforts of modernisation and democracy was peaceful without civil unrest something that continues to be part of Bhutan's image of civility.


As for Nepal's monarchs, they were murdered by anti-monarchists appealing for a democratic government, this occurred after years of Maoism in Nepal. Whereas Bhutan's monarchs solely (emphatically)  moved Bhutan closer to democracy, something the people actually did not desire, this is perhaps due to their western influence on their Kings and the Kings' education in the West, viewing modernity a natural progression for prosperity and although in the past Bhutan has reinserted a self-isolation, as a means of cultural preservation, in the 21st century Bhutan has opened its doors to the international communities of tourism and cultural exchange with caution of being overwhelmed by globalisation and multiculturalism. More information in regards to Bhutan's governance and schemes can be found in the official dot-gov websites.

Another topic to discuss in regards to 21st century Bhutan is the initiation of the Gross National Happiness; a product initiated actually in the 70s by the fourth king. GNH has continued to be a strong international attachment to Bhutan and enhancing the paradise-aroma of Bhutan. Described as a "kaleidoscopic" holistic view (by K. Puntsho) which considers other facts of nationhood rather than just economic growth; GNH is developmental guidance of Bhutanese domestic affairs.


In accordance with GNH, happiness is measured through a hedonistic view via a Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and cultural preservation.  The focus on "happiness" even is criticised by the current Prime Minister as being a distraction to the real issues of unemployment, corruption and other issues. It seems that most Bhutanese residing in Bhutan see their nation as a demystified modern country with real issues with poverty. Unlike the Western glaze romanticising Bhutan as the Last Shangri-La. This is what the Gross National Happiness is based on.


Rainer Hofmann wrote in Minority Rights in South Asia that the constitution of Bhutan's government lacks reflection of the minority groups such as Lhotshampas and Hindus since its creation by 2008. "Bhutan 2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity & Happiness" from the Gross National Happiness centre alludes the possibility of a Culture Act to be legislated. The document emphatically expresses the need for cultural preservation and promotion, quoting back to efforts of homogenising Bhutan similar to the "one nation, one people" rhetoric.


I believe it is important for the current King to take caution not to repeat or recreate similar conditions for marginalisation of "otherness" polarised by what it means to be Bhutanese - such acts from previous governments saw the banning of the BBC, Nepali Radios, Hindu associated clothing etiquettes, and removing the teaching of Lhotshamkha (Nepali Language) in the classrooms. Although one should note that Bhutan is not exclusively Drukpa or solely seen as Ngalop-land, any Bhutanese would remind any individuals that Bhutan is a Buddhist nation and a Kingdom at its core - thus any corruptibility to this principle is seen as anti-Bhutanese. What is definitely an elation to read is the fifth King's document shows consideration of minorities and "otherness" within Bhutan, the quote follows, "All Bhutanese, irrespective of their ethnic
background and religion, will be proud to call themselves
Bhutanese"[9]. Bhutanese according to the fifth king here means that Bhutanese is more than just a single Mahayana Buddhist Drukpa identity - which shows a lot of progress from the 1980s citizenship act.


The actual Culture and Heritage Act details 5 points of areas to be addressed vaguely, although this has not been processed, it is in consideration.


Accessed: 15th May 2017 - GNHC government website

There is a clear need for elaboration of fines and punishment for crimes committed in relation to culture and heritage. Similarly, there were fines and punishments for individuals who went against the TSA-WA-SUM, in simpler terms, anyone who protested against the King would be punished.  To what degree would be relative to individual cases.


Under the Bhutanese constitution, freedom of speech and religious practice are legal, however, there are issues of self-censorship such as the socially tabooed concept of protest, perhaps associated with the Ngolop (anti-national) protests that took place in the 1980s. Criticism of the monarchy and the nature of Bhutan's government is interchangeable to criticising the cultural and social values of Bhutan.


The King of Bhutan


King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (edit)

By Royal Family of Bhutan [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

(the original author does not endorse any opinions held in this website)


The history of the King of Bhutan starts with the beginning of the Wangchuck House's hereditary monarchy in 1907 when the first King Ugyen Wangchuck, a noble-born, progressive statesman who established a healthy relationship with the British Raj and with a unanimous agreement of his sovereignty, established the Druk Gyalpo. To avoid repeating information, this extract will be about the fourth (Jigme Singye Wangchuck) and fifth (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) kings. The fourth king is known for further democratising of Bhutan for what his predecessor is known as the King who started the modernisation of Bhutan, this evidently was something the subjects of Bhutan did not in fact desire, possibly due to the association of communism, Maoism in Nepal and China thus the fall of Tibet. In his ascension to the throne of 16, cultural shifts and the political awareness of the southerners started to form.


The fourth king was the reigning king during the tensions between the Lhotshampa and the government and thus partially responsible for the displacement. During the 1970s, the fourth king mentions that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.


The fifth king of Bhutan came into power in 2006 by the abdication of the fourth king. During this period of Bhutan, the king gained the popularised term, "People's King", from his philanthropy for the people of Bhutan such as visiting remote villages in the kingdom and constantly interacting with the common people. By extension of His Majesty's predecessors' philosophy for democracy, the fifth created a constitutional monarchy.

B&F Shaw Collection (1985)

Bhutan's origins are long and debatable, many historians and scholars vary on the nature of Bhutan's origin. Perhaps due to the inaccessibility of Bhutan's historic materials found only on-site in national libraries and monasteries. For the interest of time, this discussion starts with the unifier, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century, who created both the name, Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) from the Drukpa sect, and the independent nation-state from Tibet in the 17th century keeping in mind of the past established schools, dzongs, and territories in Bhutan and Tibet. The region now known as Bhutan was previously referred to as either Mon, Lhomon, Lhokhazhi, and/or simply, Lho (the south - Tibetan by the Tibetans[13]. Another term used, Lho Mön Kha Shi or Southern Mön Country of Four Approaches was used and considered to be inhabited by animalistic people called, the Mönpa people [14] which were not exclusively of Tibetan stock. Ultimately it was the unifier Zhabdrung, Ngawang Namgyal and his effort to create a nation-state based on his identity as a Drukpa in which the current dynasty of Bhutan resides in.

Druk in Tibetan means Dragon, in reference to the sound of thunder. The Drukpa lineage is from Tibet, a school of Mahayana Tibetan Buddhism coming from a mythological origin by the founder Tsangpa Gyare's witness of nine dragons in the sky. Gyare became the First Gyalwang Drukpa and Zhabdrung Nhawang Namgyal is one of the four incarnations of Tsangpa Gyare. Today, Drukpa is used in reference to the traditions of Ngalops, and consequently the Bhutanese identity.

One of the biggest issues with Bhutan's expulsion is the division between the Drukpa Ngalops, Sharchops and the Lhotshampas, sometimes toponymic for West, East (together as North) and South. The geographical landscape clearly has a factor in how these heterogeneous groups interacted. The terrain pertains a large amount of effort, natural geographic difficulties for vehicles due to the lack of roads, leaving horseback as required to carry heavy essential equipment, and if not by people themselves, [15] one individual stated, it would take a whole day to travel one end of the country to the other, even though the territorial scale of the nation is compatible small in a westerner's mind. The difficulty in navigating and travelling through the landscape causes natural tribal groups to have minimal interactions. This perhaps lack of interaction caused a distinct cultural and genetic difference between regions. Fundamentally the hegemonic power of Bhutan derived from a northern origin of Sino-Tibetans, and throughout Bhutan's history, efforts of mutual equality was never sorted out nor addressed as an important part of self-criticism of Bhutan's lack of cultural awareness of the southern traditions. In Unbecoming Citizens, Michael Hutt discusses the history of Bhutan as being polarised, as history from above (umbho) opposed to below (undho), a devalued mentality of southern activities as being non-historical in Bhutan or meaningless.


Since the 1950s, the Lhotshampa's population and political awareness became large enough for the Drukpa hegemony to consider legislative actions in the form of documents to stop "illegal" immigration from the south of Bhutan. Such acts made the definition of a Bhutanese citizen harder to achieve even with jus-soli naturalisation.


It has been quoted in a few papers that every Bhutanese is, in fact, an immigrant; as there are no native Bhutanese inhabitants, especially considering the recent Wangchuck Dynasty, the most recent national ethnic identity of Bhutan is hypernationalism to a marginal group that might not represent a larger portion of Bhutanese people, once undisputed as being Bhutanese. The inhabitant ethnic groups overlap culture and even languages, some groups within Bhutan speak minority languages such as Gurung or Ladakhi (both spoken in Nepal and India). It is indisputable, that there is a gradient of identity in Bhutan and recent times have been artificially ignored or exchanged for a monocultural standard of what it means to be Bhutanese.


In 1907, Bhutan entered the Wangchuck dynasty from Ugyen Wangchuck's establishment of a Buddhist Monarchy, unanimously agreed by other governors in the regions. As of 2017, the fifth King is in reign under the Wangchuck House.


The cultural insights of Bhutan from outsiders and compilations clearly shows the lack of details in regards to the South. Most of Bhutan's focus comes from the North and the Drukpa traditions but does not look at the activities and socio-cultural practices in the South. The Most details summarise Lhotshampas as Hindus from the south to help cultivate the vast jungle area for the nation within the last 200 years. A detail perhaps lost due to the filter for most Westerners of Bhutan as the last "Shangri-La", further romanticisation comes from the nation's efforts of attracting tourism from other nations with it's enhanced Buddhistic appearance.


The presence of the Lhotshampa/Bhutanese Refugees abroad in resettled 3rd nations creates a tangible possibility of pressure to be made for the recognition of these crimes, but most likely the government of Bhutan will not openly be addressed to the Refugees to avoid any future conflicts in a sweep-under-the-bed fashion.


There are numerous issues with the displacement of any group of people, Bhutan is no exception. An asymptomatic constituent of the 1991 displacement is based on Bhutan's avoidance for reconciliation with the displaced group, let alone repatriating the group in totality. Evidently, during National Assembly 80th session government officials agreed that 2,000 or so families displaced were within the definition of being bonafide Bhutanese thus they repatriated them several years after the initial eviction. However, the National Assembly of Bhutan blamed the Nepalese government for not letting them vent the camps completely, ultimately many families resettled in third nations without being recognised as bonafide Bhutanese.


In several occasions of verifying the citizenships of the displaced refugees, the Bhutanese government held strict requirements of allowing residency and holding a passport as stated in the National Citizenship Act of 1985. Dzongkha although a rarely conversational language in rural Bhutan was a from suspicious individuals believed to be illegal immigrants or Ngolops.


Furthermore, there is a hypocrisy in regards to refugees - Bhutan accepts refuge only for Tibetans via Green Cards and/or refugee status for residence as described within their constitutional acts. Clearly, as the Tibetans are the initiators of Bhutan's Drukpa culture; Bhutan would be happy to accept refuge given that they will not fluctuate the cultural control of Bhutan.

 B&F Shaw Collection (1990)

Initially, a code of etiquette was established by the unifier of Bhutan (Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal) for monastic and governmental officials. However, over the centuries, it spread as a system for all subjects. Driglam Namzha ('The Way') is the national code of etiquette of Bhutan, specifying on the temporal physical aspects of the individual to create a nationalised standard such as architectural style, dress, and even manners. Evidently, this distinguishes the Bhutanese-ness of life compared to the surrounding regions, differing to the original Drukpa Tibetan codes as Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal designed purposefully as a cultural distinction. It might be shocking for Westerners to grasp the Bhutanese dress code as being restrictive and somewhat oppressive, however, as stated by the author of fictional novel, Married to Bhutan (2011) Linda Leaming, the Bhutanese are as perplexed to the American sense of individual "entitlement", such as class-action lawsuits against airliners seating unable to accommodate overweight customers' girth. It does not even occur for Bhutanese to see this as the airline responsibility [15]. It's clear there is an image of Bhutan as a cultural group of collectivism and civil obedience, which is only reinforced by Driglam Namzha. Nonetheless, this near utopian-oriental image is unearthed with complaints of the restrictive standards of Driglam Namzha such as from an individual's account stating, "people became unhappy about having to wear [the national dress] even when walking in the fields or going to the bazaar. If Driglam Namzha had been as it was written there wouldn't have been any need for us to protest" [14]. Due to its restricting garment, there is little ability to run or even jump without worrying about breaking an ankle [15], furthermore, considering the terrain of the south, it's clear that the mandatory measures by the government did not take into account the labourers and fieldworkers safety. But nonetheless, the mandatory measures were towards government buildings and religious sites which were grouped in peripheral people like the southerners. The lack of consideration is not the only consideration but the oppressive reports from online websites that individuals would intimidate families and blackmail them if they were publicly seen without the Gho or Kira (both the male and female equivalent dresses).

The explosion of tensions happened in 1989 when the king passed a decree to make the national dress mandatory. As stated, national dress consists of a male and female equivalent Gho and Kira (Bakhu in Nepali/Lhotshamkha).

“At a time when the Royal Government has recognized the importance of promoting Driglam Namzha and Lamdro Lugsoel (traditional etiquette) for maintaining and strengthening our unique national identity, in order to ensure and safeguard the continued well-being and sovereignty of the Bhutanese nation and its people, it is important that all Bhutanese citizens observe the practice of wearing “Gho” and “Kira” (national dress) while visiting the Dzongs, monasteries, government offices and institutions in the country.”

The 4th King's decree (kasho) on enhancing Bhutaneseness during the 68th National Assembly of Bhutan (1989):

“At a time when the Royal Government has recognized the importance of promoting Driglam Namzha and Lamdro Lugsoel (traditional etiquette) for maintaining and strengthening our unique national identity, in order to ensure and safeguard the continued well-being and sovereignty of the Bhutanese nation and its people, it is important that all Bhutanese citizens observe the practice of wearing “Gho” and “Kira” (national dress) while visiting the Dzongs, monasteries, government offices and institutions in the country.”

The 68th National Assembly's report (1989) (below)

"His Majesty the King was pleased to observe that even though our people faced great inconvenience in learning Dzongkha and Driglam Namzha their response, level of understanding and support for fulfilling this important national objective was most touching and encouraging."

"His Majesty further explained that there is a tendency among our people to identify themselves more closely with nationalities of other countries than with our own Bhutanese people. Such a tendency will obviously have long term adverse effects on the unity and security of the country. His Majesty pointed out that if such problems did not exist there would be no need to promote a national dress and language or Driglam Namzha."




TSA-WA-SUM is another socio-political concept used as three primary elements of Bhutan. The King, The People and the Country, sometimes used as King, Kingdom and Government and misdefined by many Bhutanese and rendered meaningless as self-defining, "TSA-WA-SUM means TSA-WA-SUM". Papers differ on the matter.

In regards to the anti-national entity, "the Deputy Home Minister reported to the National Assembly that several anti-national and seditious letters and booklets had been distributed lately to our Government officers and the public". The Ministry of Home Affairs, having read the contents of these publications, found that these allegations were baseless, malicious and anti-national, and against the fundamental principles of TSA-WA-SUM.

There are several notable acts in Bhutan's constitution in regards to the specifications of being bonafide Bhutanese. Each Citizenship Act elaborates on the last, making it harder to qualify for being a Bhutanese national for Lhotshampas and recent naturalised migrants.



One of the criteria for a bonafide Bhutanese national is to speak Dzongkha with proficiency. According to languagesgulper, in a 2005 census, there were 210,000 Dzongkha speakers in a population of 750,000 Bhutanese [10]. Just about 30 per cent of the population. Another source (raonline) states that "about 65 per cent of the population speaks Dzongkha"[11]. Most Lhotshampas would speak Nepali natively and rare fluency of Dzongkha, according to an individual I had spoken to, only government officials and people that worked in high-level jobs would speak the language, hard labourers (raiyat) like most Lhotshampas would not be able to.


Dzongkha derives from kha (language) and Dzong (fortress) [12]. The imagery alone sparks directly to the ethos of Bhutan. Dzongkha undoubtedly is Bhutanese, a Drukpa heritage from the Chöke Classic Tibetan, but is one of the nineteen languages found in the country [12]. The Dzong fortresses hold military, political powers as well as schools typically found in Bhutan and Tibet.


The Bhutan Citizen Act, 1985 -

The Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1977 -

The Nationality Law Act, 1958 -

Census Handbook, 1993 -



1988a_b2 from on Vimeo


Lhotshampas households hold some level of land ownership in Bhutan before identity cards introduction in the 1980s, this was the bonafide documentary for citizens of Bhutan, those who did not have a household were referred as sukumbasi (landless person) akin to nomad. Registered householders held a document called thram patta; a land deed [14], vital evidence for the citizen status of the refugees.


Taxation for the Lhotshampas was according to one account extortionate. The Lhotshampas paid in cash whereas loans and other forms of payments were available to other Bhutanese groups [14]. Stated in a Bhutanese refugee website, 'all households are required to possess (Sathram) landholding number, the house number issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs' [16]. The land record number was immediately recited by refugees in the camps when stating their names. Perhaps as Hutt states, 'A registered claim to the fruits of the soil, had become (or perhaps it had always been) an important part of individuals' identities' [14].


Land tax Receipt dated 1938 (accessed:

 B&F Shaw Collection (1986)

The Lhotshampa are Southern Bhutanese; a literal translation and synonymous with Nepalese. Lhotshampa speak "Lhotshampikha" the Bhutanese term for the Nepali language. Although Lhotshampas are associated with the Indosphere, they are a heterogeneous group ethnolinguistically attached to Nepal. For example, ethnic groups namely; Gurungs, Tamangs, Rais, Limbus are not ethnically dissimilar to Bhutanese Sharchops or Ngalops as indigenous Himalayan people, their difference lays in their adoption of Chhetris, Bahuns, Brahmins' and Kshatriyas' socio-cultural traditions of Nepal such as Hinduism.

The official history of the Lhotshampa from the government of Bhutan's perspective and respected academics is a recent migration within the last 200 years to populate the southern part of the kingdom and provide resources from the tropical region (which is unknown to the Drukpa Northerners - Ngalops). Whereas many Lhotshampa members state their long ancestral lineage in the region that spans centuries, providing decrees and paperwork from past-down-generations.


The label of Lhotshampa is not a derogatory term, but a term not used within the exiled southern communities as self-identifying. Many attaching themselves as Nepalis or plainly Bhutanese. Although the Lhotshampa within Bhutan generally accepts the term.

Some individuals I have interviewed have stated that the terminology of Lhotshampa is purely geographical which is problematic with attaching ethnicity. Any and all Southern Bhutanese can be referred to as Lhotshampa and thus a Nepali-speaking Bhutanese are considered Lhotshampa. Consequently, individuals are referred to as Lhotshampa regardless of the place of birth, residence or personal identification only their cultural attachments and heritage.

Apologists for the displacement have stated that the self-acclaimed term, 'Gorkha' or 'Gorkhali' synonymous with Nepali (used in the Assam, Sikkim and West Bengali regions of India) brings issues evident by observing the Gorkha National Liberation Front's (GNLF) attachment to Anti-Nationalism and Terrorism in Bhutan during the 1980s. The Drukpa officials apparently cannot accept the self-acclaimed term Gorkhali only Lhotshampa as a term to describe the regional group.

B&F Shaw Collection (1987)

One of the primary subsistence wages available to the Lhotshampa and any Bhutanese in poverty is working in the construction of the infrastructure of Bhutan. Road construction is crucial for the region due to the fragmentation and limitations of travel in the mountains. It could take a whole day to travel from one end of the small kingdom to the other. The road workers provide an unexpendable asset as peripatetic workers for Bhutan, even though reports suggest deprived temporary homes that "do not even fulfil the basic requirements of keeping out rain, wind, sun or animals" [2] living in semi-permanent dwellings near schools if possible. Most road workers are members of the National Work Force (NWF) employed by government agencies, many of which are migrants outside of Bhutan due to the government avoiding disruption from the local agriculture and movement of local workers if the work was not apparently menial [3]. According to a book titled "Infrastructure Development in Bhutan 2015 A journey through time", "expatriate workers had to be brought in due to lack of national workers. There was an acute shortage of engineers, which compelled the government to outsource the work. Thus, the mechanised road construction was introduced on a small scale for the first time in order to overcome labour shortage" [8].

In "A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan" A K Hellum details the Lhothshampa roadworkers as shy people avoiding Hellum's presence in the roads. In the abstract, Hellum writes, "Road workers often visited me in my concentration. Their poverty always touched me. These workers were aliens, speaking only Nepali and Hindi, and I spoke neither language." Nepali and Hindi are languages associated with the Lhotshamkha language (Nepali) and thus the Lhotshampa. Hellum further describes the process and structure for the workers' lives, their small campfires, shielding them by the umbrellas from the cold and the sun (from looking at the B&F Shaw collection). The roads are handmade by crushing gravel by the women and the men cutting wood and otherwise, roads seemly are unstable if not made by hand in the mountainous terrain.


It's important to note that during the construction of the roads, there have been reported deaths such that a stupa was erected to honour the roadworkers lives in Deothang.

B&F Shaw Collection (1985)

In "Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building", Richard W. Whitecross wrote that the anti-national entity was ever-present in Bhutan in 1998 (post displacement), Bhutanese would refer back to thadamtshi (the respect to elders and other members of the community literally in Dzongkha - the ultimate vow) this continues after the displacement when the remaining Lhotshampa residents were held "with the spectral shadow of the anti-nationals" (pp.69). Referring to the political term Tsa Wa Sum (Three Roots - literally King, People and Country).


As written in the beginning, the division of Bhutan's Lhotshampas and Drukpa Ngalops comes from the topographical and most certainly geographical limitations. The landscape limited exposure of either culture to each other to some extent. The spectral shadow of anti-nationalists' association with the southerners is something correlative to other peripheral people minorities around the world.

With any minority group, individuals are held to represent the group both in triumph and malevolence - the Lhotshampa's dzongkhags (Districts Administrative representatives) to many refugees opinions failed to represent the Lhotshampa with peaceful means. The government states that the Lhotshampa had not voiced their protest against the Driglam Namzha mandatory measures of taking Lhotshamkha language out from the national curriculum in schools and forcing the national dress code on the Southerners. Reports by underground websites of refugees and exiled Lhotshampas provide insight of arrests and indiscriminate shootings from Bhutanese police against the Lhotshampa protesters. Other reports state that the Lhotshampas were burning the Bakhu (Gho and Kira) dresses in public - one has to remember that protesting was at the time something completely new to Bhutan only civil unrest by the Bhutanese Drukpa against the British Raj in the 18th century.


There are no photographs available (currently known) of the civil unrest protests. Most likely due to the measures of removing Western influences in Bhutan and careful guidance of tourists, the protests are virtually undocumented expect for eyewitnesses.


The relationship between India and Sikkim was in the mid-20th century as turbulent as it ever been. In order to keep this consense, the discussion will be in regards to Bhutan's perceived possible fears of secularist/anti-monarchist ideology infiltrating the Bhutanese government.

Firstly, the then-Kingdom of Sikkim, like Bhutan, derives its hegemony from the North of the Himalayas rather than from the South.

Koning en koningin van Sikkim (1966)
By Ron Kroon / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1975, the Kingdom of Sikkim held a referendum to abolish the monarchy with a landslide public vote and consequentially became a state of India. The monarchs of Sikkim historically have been related to the Wangchunks of Bhutan, their cultural origins laying to the north as well.  One could speculate the occupation of Tibet from the Chinese Communist government during the Cultural Revolution of the 20th Century that targeted ethnic minority cultures like Tibetan Buddhism whilst the annexation of Sikkim caused the 4th King of Bhutan to become increasingly paranoid and sceptical of multiculturalism, globalism and modernism. As for Sikkim, during the 1970s the Kingdom of Sikkim held a majority of Nepali native speakers rather than the Lepcha original languages of Sikkim.

There is a lot of conspiratory speculation of the reason for the annexation., as the independence of India occurred in 1947, the first Prime Minister of independent India was Jawaharlal Nehru, who (with his, then future Prime Minster daughter) supported a sovereignty-sceptic discourse across the peripheries of the nation of India.

Hope Cooke on Sikkim, Yale Himalaya Initiative (2013)




[3] Bhutan: Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors by Asian Development Bank

[4] A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan by A K Hellum

[5] Bhutaneserefugees Vimeo -


[7] Bhutan is No Shangri-La -

[8] Infrastructure Development in Bhutan 2015 A journey through time -





[13] The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho (2013)

[14] Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan by Michael Hutt (2003)

[15] Married To Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said "I Do", and Found Bliss by Linda Leaming (2011), p55, p86


Additional Information

The Brian and Fiona Shaw Collection - B&F Shaw Collection is an open archival photo library for the free use of the world to compare Bhutan from the past to the present. They do not endorse any opinions held in this website, the contents in the open letter nor the animation film - Dear His Majesty.