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 Kakarbhitta, 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 Birtamod, 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.
This originally appeared in Nepal Monitor.