Friday, June 16, 2006

Bhutan: Present trial bridges past to future.

Date: Friday 16 June 2006
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.


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 Namgyel Wangchuck.

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.

Draft Constitution:

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 politics."

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, including electronic.

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 any association.

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 spread of 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 from reports covering the public consultations.


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)


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. (Link 5)

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)


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.

Elizabeth Kendal


1) Two Christians in Bhutan Sentenced to Prison Without a Trial
VOM, 12 June 2006,

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