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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The Plight of Minority Groups


Identity-based politics cause minority groups in Sri Lankan and Bhutan to instigate violence as form of resistance against the suppression of their rights. Identity-based politics favor the majority group and take away the culture of minority groups. Tamils are stigmatized due to their association with Tamil and Hinduism while the Lhotshampas in Bhutan are forced to adhere to a strict Bhutanese social code. In response to the lack of political power, minority groups resort to violence. Sri Lanka’s government encourages assimilation and violently retaliates back,but Bhutan’s government simply expels the non-Bhutanese from the country. After the period of violence, Sri Lanka attempts to make reconciliatory efforts while Bhutan does not try to resolve its refugee crisis. Thus, I am interested in the question: How do identity-based politics affect minority groups? Minority groups in Sri Lanka and Bhutan both face the loss of culture, violence, and unsatisfactory redress. However, I argue that identity-based politics takes away the culture of minority groups to a greater extent in Bhutan, prompts violence to a greater extent in Sri Lanka, and does not address appropriate remedies to a greater extent in Bhutan.

In Sri Lanka and Bhutan, the majority ethnic group withpolitical power implements policies that are in favor themselves, preventing the minority group from preserving their cultural heritage. Sri Lanka’s population consists of two main groups: Sinhalese Buddhists who make up around 70% of the population and Tamil Hindus who make up around 16% (Lect, April 4). After Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, in order to build up its legitimacy, politicians resorted to creating a uniform identity- a Sinhalese identity. Bandaranaike of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) came up with the Sinahalese Only Policy in 1956 (Lect, April 11). This new policy established Sinhalese asthe official language of Sri Lanka while excluding the Tamil language. Tamils, previously situated in state positions, lost access to their jobs, and Sinhala-educated citizens began to take those jobs (Abeysekera, 1985). By making Sinhalese a requirement, by the 1970s, Tamils became highly underrepresented in state services (Ibid). In addition to enforcing the Sinhalese language requirement, the Sinhalese Only Policy further promoted Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness. Sri Lanka made a great effort to preserve its unique Sri Lankan Buddhist principles. This led to the immediate denial of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious quality of Sri Lanka (Jayawardhana, 1987). Tamils were seen as invaders and Hinduism was seen as destroying Buddhism. Thus, with the new emphasis on a single national identity, Tamils lost important aspects of their culture- the ability to freely speak the language of their choice and the collective right to practice their religion.

Similarly, the minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, the Lhotshampas, lost the ability to practice their culture to a greater extent than the Tamils in Sri Lanka because Lhotshampas were forced to adopt a Bhutanese social code. Different ethnic groups populate Bhutan, including the Ngalongs, Sharchops, and Lhotshampas (Lect, April 18). The Ngalongs and Sharchopsshare Tibetan-derived Buddhism, speak Bhutanese, and make up the majority ethnic group while Lhotshampas practice Hinduism, speak Nepalese, and make up the minority group (Turner, 2011). JigmeSingyeWangchuk, the third king, felt the need to establish a Bhutanese identity based on the Ngalong culture called the Driglamnamzha in 1989 (Lect, April 18). The DriglamNamzha created a code of conduct that defined what it meant to be Bhutanese, which consisted of several components. The Bhutanese language, Dzongkha, became standardized and Nepali ceased to exist (Lect, April 18). Clothing became standardized, which meant that men wore the “gho” and women the “kira.” These clothing requirements applied to school and work settings and needed to be wornto vote. National etiquette and dzong construction also became standardized (Ibid). Thus, the Lhotshampas lost the freedom of language, dress, and cultural mannerisms.

The minority groups in Sri Lanka and Bhutan were incapable of protecting their cultural heritage due to a lack of political power; thus, minority groups resorted to violence to express their discontent. The extent of violence in Sri Lanka was greater than that of Bhutan. After the implementation of the Sinhalese Only Policy in Sri Lanka, Tamils staged several riots in 1956, which caused the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Bandaranaike to come up with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakm pact. This allowed Tamil to be used in Tamil-majority areas (Lect, April 11). However, dissatisfied with the softening of Sinhalese nationalism, a Buddhist monk assassinated Bandaranaike to show that Sri Lanka would not take a step back. Violence continued with the formation of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that emerged in the 1970s and used terrorism tactics, to address the grievances and human rights abuses against the Tamils (Sri Lanka, 2012). LTTE assassinated Rajiv Ghandi and planted a bomb to protest the installation of a Buddha statue in a public space (Ramanathapillai). LTTE proposed Tamil Eelam- the creation of an independent state for Tamils in the northeast, but the Sinhalese government did not accept this. The Tamils used violence to express their discontent against the loss of their rights, but instead of recognizing their plight, the Sinhalese government retaliated.

In response to Tamil resistance, the Sinhalese attacked Tamil civilians who did not assimilate, which further exacerbated the civil war. Sinhalese soldiers in the 1983 riots in Colombo raped 9 Tamil girls (Lect., April 11). The government army also burned down the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, which eliminated records of Tamil’s history (Ibid). In order to survive, Tamils had to assimilate. Tamils who had knowledge of Sinhala were saved, but those without the proper accents were attacked (Satkunaratnam, 2013). Thus, Tamils had the chance to integrate into the Sri Lankan society by abandoning their native culture. When the civil war finally came to an end in 2009 with the killing of Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, the minority groups did not succeed in retaining their native culture (Lect., April 11). Identity-based politicscaused Tamils to use violence as a form of resistance againstthe suppression of their rights, but instead of having the government recognize their plight, Tamil opposition was violently put down and Tamils were expected to assimilate to be accepted.

Unlike the Sinhalese policy in Sri Lanka that allowed Tamils to become part of the majority, violence erupted in Bhutan when the government placed a limitation on citizenship, which resulted in Lhotshampas’ expulsion. With the 1985 Citizenship Act, everyone living in Bhutanese needed to prove that both parents were Bhutanese or that one parent lived in Bhutan from 1958 and onwards (Lect., April 18). The restriction became stricter with the 1980 Marriage Act, which made it hard for children to become Bhutanese citizens if a Bhutanese woman married a non-Bhutanese man (Ibid). These acts ensured that Bhutanese Nepalis, or Lhotshampas, previously portrayed as people simply takingresources, could no longer do so. As a result of the citizenship restrictions, Lhotshampas lacked an identity card, lost the ability to start a business, and did not have a right to be educated or vote in elections (Douglas, 2008). The campaign of harassment escalated in the 1990s when Bhutanese forces made Lhotshampas renounce claims to their homes (Frelick, 2008). For instance, a Nepali father in Bhutan was forced to sign a voluntary migration form after being pressed down with heavy logs and being served urine instead of water (Dutt, 2013). The loss of citizenship and forced expulsion provoked Lhotshampas to stage anti-government protests, which resulted in violent ethnic unrest.

Disaffected Lhotshampas, armed Nepalese dissidents, and the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP) turned to violence to express discontent about the citizenship restriction. Bombs exploded in Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan (Douglas, 2008). Ngolops, armed Nepalese dissidents launched attacks on security forces (Bhutan’s, 2001). BPP began campaigns of violence to promote rights for Nepalis and a better democracy. BPP demanded amendments to the Citizenship Actas well as the right to preserve Nepali dress and language (Ibid). By making Bhutanese Nepalis non-citizens, the government effectively eliminated political opposition by simply removing the Nepalis from the country (Turner, 2011). Many moved to Nepal and India (Muni, 2014). As the non-Bhutanese were denied rights due to identity-based politics, they had no better option than to leave the country. In the case of Bhutan, the government did not retaliate back with violence; instead, it made sure to expel the opposition by making them non-citizens.

After the episodes of violence, Sri Lanka and Bhutan differed in the ways they addressed the conflicts that arose from identity-based politics. Sri Lanka attempted to carry out reconciliation by investigating human rights violations that occurred during the civil war. Bhutan, on the other hand, prevented the re-entrance of Bhutanese Nepali refugees who fled to Nepal, India, and the U.S.  In order to stabilize the country and address grievances after the end of the civil war, the Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa formed the Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 to investigate human rights violations (Thiranagama, 2013). During the last days of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the government gathered over 400,000 Tamil civilians and then subjected them to sustained shellings (Macrea, 2013). Victorious government troops executed blindfolded prisoners and sexually assaulted women Tamil Tiger fighters (Ibid). In the end, more than 70,000 civilians died. The goal of the LLRC was to address these issues of violence to reconciliate the divided community.

Despite its formation, the LLRC was seen as a farce for several reasons. First, LLRC’s mandate was not to evaluate state accountability but to assess the state’s failure to protect citizens from LTTE terrorism (Thiranagama, 2013). Second, LLRC only allocated one to two days per month to listen to testimonies of those affected by the war. Third, there was only one Tamil on the LLRC despite the fact that those giving testimonies spoke in Tamil (Ibid). Although LLRC’s final report recognized that Tamils had genuine grievances such as missing kin, resettlement issues, and intimidation by security forces, the LLRC claimed that state violence was justified because it was in the defense of the larger principles of the nation-state (Ibid). While the Sri Lankan military did not deliberately target civilians, the LTTE repeatedly violated humanitarian law. Thus, grievances were recognized, but the violence committed by Sri Lankan forces was not criticized, which was an insufficient ruling to the Tamils that suffered the loss of their rights and violence.

Unlike Sri Lanka that made efforts at reconciliation, Bhutan did not balance its civil society with the expansion of democratic rights to accommodate those who fled the country. During the ethnic conflict, many Lhotshampas fled to Nepali and India, hoping to escape from the stifling environment of Bhutan (Turner, 2011). Nepal, as an impoverished nation, did not welcome the Lhotshampas. Nepalese refugee camps housed almost 108,000 stateless Bhutanese even though the refugee camps were never built to be a permanent solution (Morch, 2016). Due to the large refugee population, theylacked food and shelter and died from malnutrition and disease (Ibid). They were not legally permitted to work, own land, or leave the camps. Thus, the refugees had no rights in Bhutan or Nepal and depended on international aid.

Although the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) attempts to convince Bhutan to let the refugees return, the Bhutanese authorities do not cooperate. It still refuses to grant full civil rights such as citizenship to Lhotshampas still within its borders and does not allow the expelled minority group to return (Mishra, 2013). The Nepal government also has no interest in granting citizenship to the Bhutanese refugees. Thus, these refugees are stateless. However, with the assistance of the UNHCR, many have resettled in the United States (Schultz, 2016). Although Bhutan is known to be a democracy, it does not live up to its promises of a democracy or its reputation as a provider of happiness because of its continued discrimination towards Lhotshampas and the lack of political recourse.

In conclusion, minority groups in Sri Lanka and Bhutan suffer greatly from majority-dominated identity politics that take away the distinctiveness of minority groups. Tamils in Sri Lanka lose their language and religion and are expected to assimilate to Sinhalese culture to fit in. In Bhutan, the Lhotshampas are subject to a Bhutanese social code, are later categorized as non-citizens, and are forced out of the country. Ethnic minority groups struggle to create fairer conditions for themselves because they lack of political power. Thus, despite resorting to violence to win back rights, the minority groups fail to do so. Sri Lankan government retaliates back while Bhutan creates a refugee crisis by forcing the Lhotshampas out of the country. Sri Lanka tries to rectify the immoral actions committed during the civil war, butfails to reconcile the two communities successfully. Bhutan’s government turns a blind to the Lhotshampas refugees. Thus, in both cases, the government does not make appropriate amends.

Sooyoung Hu is currently a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies. Her focus is on international relations and therefore, is interested in learning about the politics and cultures of different countries and making comparisons. In the future, she aspires to go to law school.     Works Cited

Abeysekera, C. (1985). “Ethnic Representation in Higher State Services.” Ethnicity and Social Change.

“Bhutan’s Backgrounder.” (2001). South Asia Terrorism Portal. Retrieved from http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bhutan/backgrounders/index.html

Douglas, E. (2008) “Refugees warn of Bhutan’s new tide of ethnic explusions.” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/20/2

Dutt, A. (2013). “The ethnic cleansing hidden behind Bhutan’s happy face.” First Post. Retrieved from http://www.firstpost.com/world/the-ethnic-cleansing-hidden-behind-bhutans-happy-face-918473.html

Frelick, B (2008). “Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing.” Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Jayawardhana, L. (1987). “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Regional Security.” Retrevied from http://www.infolanka.com/org/srilanka/issues/kumari.html

Morch, M. (2016). “Bhutan’s Dark Secret: The LhotshampaExplusion.” The Diplomat. Retreived from http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/bhutans-dark-secret-the-lhotshampa-expulsion/

Muni, S.D. “Bhutan’s Deferential Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 25/1 (2014: 158-163

Satkunaratnam, A. “Staging War: Performing BharataNatyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” Dance Research Journal 45/1 (2013): 80-108

Schultz, E. (2016). “Bhutanese refugee crisis: a brief history.” The Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/bhutanese-refugee-crisis-a-brief-history/

“Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem.” (2012). The Inside story on emergencies. IRIN. Retrieved from http://www.irinnews.org/report/97013/briefing-sri-lankas-ethnic-problem

Thiranagama, S. “Claiming the State: Postwar Reconciliation in Sri Lanka,” Humanity 4/1 (2013): 93-116

Turner, M., Chuki, S., Thsering, J. “Democratization by decree: the case of Bhutan,” Democratization 18/1 (2011), pp.184-210


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