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Book Review: The Other Gross Side of Bhutan

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Deepak Adhikari reviews Torture Killing Me Softly, a new book by Bhutanese human rights activist Tek Nath Rizal.

Tek Nath Rizal. Torture Killing Me Softly. Kathmandu: Human Rights Without Frontiers Nepal & Group for International Solidarity. September 2009. 197 pages, Price: 450 NRs or 30 US$ . The book can be purchased online here

Repressive regimes everywhere employ torture on political prisoners to both extract information and to weaken the dissent. From the notorious Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantanamo in Cuba, the contemporary politics is replete with torture chambers of many kinds. It’s ironic that a country, which conjures up an image of the Himalayan paradise in the Western psyche, can indulge in such bizarre yet brutal practices of punishment.

Yes, we are talking about Bhutan, and the person upon whom the horrendous torture was inflicted is none other than Bhutanese human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal. Rizal, a refugee leader in exile for more than a decade, has chronicled a harrowing tale of his prison life in Bhutan in his new book Torture Killing Me Softly. In nearly two hundred pages, he narrates his predicament while he was stuck in Bhutanese jails for a decade. The most startling aspect of the book—apart from the routine torture the state metes out to its opponents—is the use of sophisticated mind control devices by the ruling elite of Bhutan. One finds hard to reconcile the image of a pastoral country with its employing cutting-edge torture tools bestowed by modern science.

Rizal claims in the book that his Bhutanese torturers applied light sensitivity, very high sound decibels, and microwaves on him in order to destabilize his mind, induce anomalous behavioral changes and create disassociation. Dr. Indrajit Rai, a security expert and member of Nepal's Constituent Assembly, in the foreword to the book, notes that mind control devices are used on prisoners-of-war. He writes, “Bhutanese government practiced mind-control techniques on Rizal as a means to inflict physical and mental pain in order to destroy his life. With a view to deviating him from his goal of fighting for democracy, the Bhutanese government used these devices on him and pumped out all his thoughts and feelings.”

The book begins with the description of Bhutan’s scenic beauty. But soon, a picture of exploitation emerges beneath the beauty: People who are forced to work en masse on a road construction are stamped on their faces as a proof of attendance. “Such dehumanizing practice reminded me of numbering animals in the heard by tattooing onto their body,” Rizal writes. Then, he goes on to explain the composition of Bhutanese population—Ngalongs (the ruling group mainly living in north), Sharchhokpas (Buddhist inhabitants of eastern and central region) and Lhotshampas (ethnic Nepalese living in southern Bhutan). He notes then existing communal harmony, as he comments, “For centuries, people belonging to these groups have lived in perfect communal, religious and ethnic harmony.”

But the harmony, in the hindsight, began to fall apart in the late 1970s when the newly enthroned king Jigme Singye Wangchuk enacted several laws aiming at the disenfranchisement of Lhotshampas who then represented one-third of the country’s population. The so-called “One Nation, One People” policy, an anachronistic campaign in a country marked by a mosaic of cultures, religion and ethnicity, stripped many ethnic Nepalese of Bhutanese citizenship and curtailed their basic rights. This spawned a series of protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s in southern Bhutan, eventually resulting in the mass exodus of the Lhotshampas. First, they arrived in West Bengal and Assam, in India, and stayed there for a couple of years. But the local governments in those Indian states, in an unabashed show of complicity with Bhutanese rulers, loaded the refugees in trucks and sent them to Kakkarbhitta, an entry point in Indo-Nepal border. As the flocks of refugees started to spill over in Jhapa, some of them taking temporary refuge on the banks of Mai River, the Nepal government invited UNHCR to intervene. Since 1991, around one hundred thousand refugees, the victims of what British scholar Michael Hutt calls “one of the world’s least known ethnic conflicts”, now languish in seven refugee camps in southeast Nepal (Many have opted for third country resettlement initiated by the US in 2008).

During this tumultuous period, Rizal was entrusted with several high-profile designations by the king: he was member of Royal Civil Service Commission, Royal Advisory Councilor, Member of the Cabinet and Coordinator of Nationwide Investigation Bureau. Under the last designation, he was tasked with investigating the corruption that was rampant in Bhutan during that time. But this job cost him very dear after he submitted his report in which he disclosed the involvement of royal members and influential officials in corruption. After a weeklong detention, he fled Bhutan in early 1989. But on November 16, 1989, he was arrested from his apartment in Birtamode, Jhapa, where he was spending his life in exile. He was arrested along with two Bhutanese youth leaders Jogen Gazmere and Sushil Pokharel and handed over to Bhutanese authorities. That happened under the auspices of Nepal’s autocratic Panchayat regime, which was about to collapse.

Torture takes us inside the poorly managed and decrepit Bhutanese prisons where Rizal undergoes inhuman persecution. “As I lay on the floor with my face covered with the blanket, it was as if I was in a comatose condition. I was not able to keep track of time, nor was I able to make any movement,” he recalls. The author quotes Jawaharlal Nehru, first Indian Prime Minister, who described the solitary confinement in Allahabad, India: “It is the killing of the spirit by the digress, the slow vivisection of the soul.” The book’s title seems to be derived from these lines.

At times, the book reads like a novel. The descriptions are vivid which made me wonder how the writer, without any note taking, was able to remember all the details. He even claims that 40 ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan were arrested after his interrogators were able to extract information from him using the mind control device. The well constructed narrative focuses on how the prisoners are treated in the kingdom’s jail. In Rabuna jail in Wangdi district, he writes, he had to struggle his hands through a small hole in the room to get hold of the food-platter on the otherside. And this he had to do, with his hands and legs cuffed in chains. He had to rely on other body organs: “Whenever I felt thirsty, I turned the water tap on and off with my teeth, the position of the tap next to the toilet made this an unenviable practice.”

The food was not only detrimental to health but was also adulterated with nails, pieces of glass, fish bones and dead insects. Here too, according to him, the mind control device that was applied on him in capital Thimpu, aggravated the harm. To further exacerbate the matter, he was positioned with the barrel of a gun pointed at him all the time. Once, he narrates, the prison authority allowed him to eat his food only after smoking 40 cigarettes. “This was the worst kind of torture I endured during my incarceration in Rabuna,” he writes.

Then, he was shifted to Dradulmakhang where on Bhutan’s National Day (December 17, 1997), he started his hunger strike. Following pressure from international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, he was released on December 17 1999.

But his ordeal did not cease. He claims that the effects of those torture techniques and devices persist in his life and continue to manifest in his health as he lives in Kathmandu or travels abroad.

There is no way to verify Rizal’s claims as the Bhutanese government that considers the refugees ‘illegal immigrants’ will surely brand it as another attempt to tarnish the kingdom. But we also can not call it entirely untrue when the account comes from a leader of Rizal’s stature. It’s evident from the annex under the heading of “suggested reading” that the author has researched a great deal about the use of electronic devices to control one’s mind. The epilogue reads: “The global agencies must verify the tall claims of the government of Bhutan independently whether it is ‘Gross National Happiness’ or the ‘Gross National Sufferings.'” Indeed, the cases of gross human rights violations as documented by Rizal in Torture cast a shadow over the so-called Shangri-La.

Also by the author in Nepal Monitor:
>> Book Review: And, Of The Word, August 14, 2009
>> Going Narayanhiti: An Ordinary Palace, July 05, 2009
>> (Some) Thoughts from Nepal on Blogging, Jan 19, 2007

Deepak Adhikari is a senior reporter with Kantipur Daily. He blogs at



Sonam Ongmo writes:

A few years ago when the Fourth King of Bhutan voluntarily stepped down to make way for democracy, there was a spate of articles in the media about Bhutan. Almost all these articles – with a few exceptions – could be grouped into two camps: one glorified Bhutan as the last Shangri-la, the others claimed that it practiced ethnic cleansing.

The National Geographic aired a documentary which named Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom as the world's last Shangri-La. It celebrated its mountains, glacial walls, alpine highlands and misty forests and mentioned “Bhutan is a Living Eden where respect for life, in all its many incarnations, endures like the land itself”.
Landscape of Bhutan. Image by Flickr user Jmhullot, used under a creative commons license

Landscape of Bhutan. Image by Flickr user Jmhullot, used under a creative commons license

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar at Real clear World said:

Bhutan has done many things to deserve its Shangri-La reputation. Its forest cover is a very high 72%, and it has pledged to keep this above 60 % for eternity.

Meanwhile, Nanda Gautam at Ex Ponto countered:

A new trend in the sphere of human rights violations is flourishing! In contrast to Bhutan’s development philosophy called ‘Gross National Happiness,’ which many delegations visiting Bhutan are proclaiming a ‘good lesson’, Bhutan also offers a bad lesson: strategic violence in the form of ethnic cleansing, a lesson the world powers will find difficult to deal with. The ordeal of Tel Nath Rizal reflects how the state’s violation of one person’s rights spilled over to affect an entire minority. The minority population has already been reduced dramatically.

Most of these writers, if not all, were not Bhutanese. So how is it that they came to view this small country – the size of Switzerland and a population of 600,000 – in such extremes?

The first group, the admirers, usually came from the west where capitalism has led to a way of life that may have equipped them with material contents, but left many with a gaping spiritual void. They are people seeking for things they do not find in their own cultures; yet find it elsewhere. Often in places like Bhutan – largely mysterious, exotic and peaceful. So when they find it, they tend to see only the things they want to see and find only the things they want to find.

But this also applies to the second camp, the ones who hate Bhutan. They have little or no understanding of the country’s geo-political situation. They don’t understand the history or the complex nature of the refugee problem; and they are either sympathizing with the cause, or they just need a cause.

For the first camp, the search for Shangri-la didn’t just happen; it has been ongoing since 1933 when James Hilton depicted a Shangri-la in his novel, Lost Horizon based on an article by Joseph Rock about his travels to the Tibetan borderlands. But more often than not, it is Hilton’s version that they are after thus refusing to see Bhutan as a country like any other – inhabited by human beings, with its share of problems.

Bhutan is far from being the Utopia despite its largely tranquil history. As a poor country Bhutan has its share of social problems and challenges and the biggest blight to its good reputation so far has been the issue of the refugees.

A nation-wide census in the 80’s found thousands of illegal settlers along the country’s southern borders. Most of these people were Nepalese people from Nepal and India who came to Bhutan seeking economic opportunities and utilize the large tracts of free agricultural land along porous borders. Free health and educational facilities were also an added attraction. At around this time, some Lhotsampas (Ethnic Nepali-speaking Bhutanese) who were educated by the Bhutanese government in overseas universities like Harvard and Cambridge returned to Bhutan nursing their own political ambitions.
Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Image by Sudeshna Sarkar, ISN Security Watch

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Image by Sudeshna Sarkar, ISN Security Watch

The problem came to a head when the Bhutanese government demanded all illegal settlers, leave the country. This decision was opposed by the ambitious Lhotsampa leaders who sympathized with the settlers and so mobilized protests against the Bhutanese government demanding democracy and overthrow of the monarch. The environment to nurse their political ambitions was extremely favorable. They galvanized the southern people’s discontent with violent protests in which they decapitated heads of two Bhutanese and planted them at a government office. The Bhutanese government who had never experienced anything like this cracked down and arrested many of the leaders while some escaped to Nepal.

What resulted was a situation where both sides accused the other of what unfolded. Lhotsampas claim that anybody who was Nepali-speaking was forced out of the country. As the Bhutanese Community of South Australia blog mentions:

From 1988, the human rights situation aggravated, when Royal Government enacted discriminatory policies to depopulate the Lhotshampas - Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, predominantly Hindus.

The Royal government treats Lhotsampas as second class citizens. They are persecuted, discriminated and denied the most basics like access to education and health facilities. They are deprived of their cultural rights and are forced to adopt the cultural tradition, costume and language of the ruling elite. In the late eighties, the Royal Government adopted retroactive citizenship legislation and started to disenfranchise and depopulate the Lhotshampas. Tens and thousands of them were forcibly evicted, who ended up in the United Nations established refugees camps in Nepal. [..]

Having failed to see the possibility of repatriation, a vast number of Bhutanese refugees have accepted the offer given by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway and United States for third country resettlement.

The Bhutanese government claimed that while some were asked to leave, many citizens left voluntarily under threats from their own leaders. Bhutan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley wrote at Bhutannica:

The situation in the south is not a simple problem. Its causes are complex and perplexing as the resultant human drama that is unfolding before us. Just who is the victim or villain is a valid question. The answer must be sought with a deeper understanding of the problem. [..]

Among the villagers in' the south, every day is a nightmare. But their voice is not heard by the media, and their human rights appear not to be of any importance. Explanations by the Government are dismissed as propaganda and plain untruths. Even concrete evidence is seen as fabrications.

The Bhutanese feel that they have been betrayed by a people they had welcomed, in whom they had placed their trust and with whom they were willing to share a common destiny. But the general attitude of the Bhutanese toward their southern compatriots do not indicate any rancour.

The adoption of human rights is a convenient banner that the dissidents and the Nepalese supporters have raised before the international community. But their greater aim is to generate international sympathy for the dissident cause, which is to grab political power.

The story got complicated as the refugees arrived in Nepal. UNHCR set up camps for the Bhutanse refugees in which free food and stipend was given and in a few years the numbers rose from 5000 (1991) to 100,000. The handouts attracted many people other than Bhutanese to those camps as more than half of Nepal's population live on less than a dollar a day.

Ethnic cleansing is a very serious charge. People who make that accusation about Bhutan should visit the country and see that thousands of Nepali-speaking people still live and work there; that even before the crisis the Fourth King encouraged integration of the ethnic groups through inter marriage with special cash incentives. Many even hold very senior positions in the government.

So what is Bhutan? A ‘Shangri-La' or ‘ethnic cleanser'? Neither, is the answer. And it would be nice if people really stopped imposing their dreams of an Eden, or their disillusionment of failed political causes and ambitions, on this little Country.

mind control device..hahaha.. bhutan does not even have breadth analysers..

It's really hard to believe the story of mind control device. Is Bhutan so sophisticate to use that kind of torture? Even in America the cruelty and interrogation method are not so ... advanced! I can believe that he was physically tortured, but I think there is a lot of imagination in this book. Lastly, I have a doubt in mind: what is the role of China behind this kind of literature?

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