About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos



The Monarchy

The hereditary monarchy of Bhutan was established in 1907 after 300 years of dual theocratic-civil government. The Druk Gyalpo--the king--is both head of state and head of government. In the process of coming to power, the first Druk Gyalpo, Ugyen Wangchuck, who reigned from 1907 to 1926, unified the nation, established friendly relations with Britain, and set his dynasty's political agenda. As of 1991, there had been three other hereditary monarchs: Jigme Wangchuck (1926-52), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-72), and Jigme Singye Wangchuck (since 1972). December 17, the anniversary of the day Ugyen Wangchuck became the first hereditary monarch in 1907, is Bhutan's National Day.

Established as an absolute monarchy in 1907, Bhutan first moved toward a constitutional monarchy in 1953 with the foundation of its National Assembly. In 1963 the monarch's title was changed from "His Highness" to "His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo" in a move to assert a distinct Bhutanese identity. The Druk Gyalpo retained veto power over actions of the National Assembly until 1969 when the National Assembly, following his 1968 decree, became the kingdom's sovereign institution. After 1969, the National Assembly could remove the Druk Gyalpo the through a no-confidence vote, and he no longer had veto power. To secure the Wangchuck Dynasty, however, should the Druk Gyalpo be dethroned through a no-confidence vote, the Wangchuck family member next in line of succession would automatically take the throne. Also beginning in 1969, at the insistence of the Druk Gyalpo a "democratic monarchy" was to be determined through triennial votes of confidence in the Druk Gyalpo's rule.

In 1972 Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who had involved the young prince in the work of government and had appointed him crown prince and ponlop of Tongsa only a few months before dying. After his accession to the throne in 1972, the new Druk Gyalpo was assisted by his uncle, Dasho (Prince) Namgyal Wangchuck, and his elder sisters, Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck and Ashi Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck, who served in the ministries of finance and development as the Druk Gyalpo's representatives. (Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck later became minister of finance.) Jigme Singye Wangchuck was formally enthroned in June 1974.

In 1979 Jigme Singye Wangchuck privately married four sisters who were descendants of two of the shabdrung, the rulers of the old dual system of government. In 1988, in order to legitimize the eventual succession to the throne for his oldest son, Dasho Jigme Gesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the Druk Gyalpo and his four sisterqueens were married again in a public ceremony in Punakha. At the time of the public wedding, it was reported that the Druk Gyalpo lived in a small, simply furnished house, across from the Tashichhodzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion), the year-round central government complex in Thimphu. His four queens each maintained separate residences. The Druk Gyalpo's mother, the Dowager Queen Pemadechen (Ashi Kesang Dorji), continued to reside in the royal palace at Dechenchholing, living as a Buddhist nun. The Tashichhodzong, a stone-and-timber structure, has thick whitewashed walls, seven towers covered with red roofs, and a series of interior courtyards. The entire structure is richly ornamented. The current Tashichhodzong complex, which has more than 100 rooms, was completed in 1969 after seven years of construction on the site of an older dzong of the same name. Originally built in the twelfth century, the Tashichhodzong had been rebuilt in the eighteenth century and required the 1962-69 reconstruction because of damage over the centuries from fires and earthquakes. It also was the residence of the spiritual leader of Bhutan, the Je Khenpo, during the summer.

After coming to the throne in 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck became increasingly interested in economic development and traveled extensively throughout the country. He also has traveled a great deal outside of Bhutan, attending international meetings and personally representing his country in New Delhi on frequent occasions. A young, vigorous head of state unafraid to break from the bureaucracy and constraints of his office--including his trips to the countryside where the Druk Gyalpo could be seen "serving the people"--Jigme Singye Wangchuck presented the monarchy as progressive and symbolic of national unity.

<>Structure of the Government
<>Political Developments
<>The Media
<>Foreign Relations
<>Participation in International Organizations

Bhutan - Structure of the Government

Legal Basis

Bhutan does not have a written constitution or organic laws. The 1907 document submitted by the monastic and government leaders was an agreement only to establish an absolute hereditary monarchy. Bhutan's only legal or constitutional basis is the 1953 royal decree for the Constitution of the National Assembly. The 1953 constitution set forth eighteen succinct "rules" for the procedures of the National Assembly and the conduct of its members. The May 1968 revision reiterated and elucidated some of the eighteen rules but revised others. Beginning in 1969, the powers of the speaker of the National Assembly were strengthened, and the Druk Gyalpo's veto power was eliminated.


The unicameral National Assembly--the Tshogdu--comprises the legislative branch of government. The National Assembly has the power to enact civil, criminal, and property laws; to appoint and remove ministers; to debate policy issues as a means of providing input to government decision making; and to control the auditor general, who has approval authority over government expenditures.

Since its establishment in 1953, the National Assembly has varied in size from 140 to 200 members. According to Rule 7 of the Constitution of the National Assembly, the legislature sets its size every five years. The National Assembly has three categories of members: representatives of the people elected by indirect vote every three years and comprising between half and two-thirds of the National Assembly membership; monastic representatives, also appointed for three-year terms and constituting about one-third of the membership; and government officials nominated by the Druk Gyalpo. The first woman member of the National Assembly was seated in 1979.

In 1989 there were 150 members in the National Assembly, 100 of whom were representatives of the general public. Under 1981 rules, qualified citizens over twenty-five years of age can be nominated at general public meetings by village heads and adult representatives of each household (gung) and "joint family." Once nominations are certified by village heads and local government officials, they are forwarded to the speaker of the National Assembly for "final declaration of the nominee as a member of the National Assembly." The other fifty members are made up of monastic representatives nominated by the Central Monastic Body in Thimphu (or Punakha in the winter) and eight district monastic bodies, members of the Council of Ministers (Lhengye Shungtsong), members of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoi Tsokde), secretaries of various government departments, district heads, others nominated by the government, and a representative nominated by the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The National Assembly meets at least once and sometimes twice a year--in May and June and again in October and November; each session lasts about four weeks. Emergency sessions can also be called by the Druk Gyalpo.

The National Assembly elects a speaker from among its members and is authorized to enact laws, advise the government on constitutional and political matters, and hold debates on important issues. Executive-branch organizations are responsible to the National Assembly. Powers of the National Assembly include directly questioning government officials and forcing ministers to resign if there is a two-thirds no-confidence vote.

National Assembly votes are secret in principle, but in practice decisions are almost always made by reaching a public consensus. The National Assembly, housed in the Tashichhodzong, provides a forum for presenting grievances and redressing administrative problems. The Druk Gyalpo cannot formally veto bills that the National Assembly passes, but he can refer them back for reconsideration. Although criticism of the Druk Gyalpo was not permitted in the public media, it was allowed and took place in National Assembly debates in the 1980s.


At the apex of the executive branch is the Druk Gyalpo, who is both head of state and head of the government. Responsible to him are two advisory and executive organizations: the Royal Advisory Council and the Council of Ministers. There also is the Royal Secretariat, which serves as an intermediary between the Druk Gyalpo and the Council of Ministers.

The Royal Advisory Council was mentioned in the 1953 constitution of the National Assembly (members of the council are concurrently members of the National Assembly), but it took on greater importance in 1965 when the Druk Gyalpo installed representatives elected by the monastic bodies and the National Assembly. In 1989 the council's membership included a representative of the government, two representatives of the monasteries, six regional representatives, and a chairperson, all for five-year terms. The chairperson and the government representative are appointed by the Druk Gyalpo; the two monks represent the central and district monastic bodies. Monk representatives, according to 1979 regulations for council membership, are required to be literate and "highly knowledgeable about the Drukpa Kargyupa religion." Monk nominees are subject to the approval of the speaker of the National Assembly. The regional representatives are elected by the National Assembly from a list endorsed by village assemblies. Representing the southeastern, southwestern, western, eastern, central, and the Thimphu-Paro-Ha regions, they are required to be literate, knowledgeable about Bhutanese traditional culture and customs with "some knowledge of modern customs and etiquette," "well-behaved and able to speak well," "able to shoulder responsibility, and far-sighted." As the principal consulting body to the Druk Gyalpo, the Royal Advisory Council is a key state organization and interacts most directly with the National Assembly.

Chaired by the Druk Gyalpo, the Council of Ministers was established in 1968 with the approval of the National Assembly. In 1991 it comprised seven ministers and the Druk Gyalpo's representative in each ministry (agriculture; communications; finance; foreign affairs; home affairs; social services; and trade, industry, and tourism). The largest ministry by far was the Ministry of Social Services, which ran the nation's education and health systems and included nearly 26 percent of all civil service employees. Two of the ministers in 1990--the minister of finance (Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck) and the minister of home affairs (Dasho Namgyal Wangchuck)--were members of the royal family.

Until the 1960s, the Royal Secretariat played a major role in government affairs. The key officials of the Royal Secretariat were the Druk Gyalpo's representative in the Royal Bhutan Army, the royal chief secretary, and the royal finance secretary. After the establishment of the Council of Ministers and subsequent shift of administrative and financial matters out of the palace, however, the Royal Secretariat's day-to-day role diminished in importance. Relations between the two bodies have been described as cordial, nevertheless, and ministers usually were selected from among Royal Secretariat personnel.


The highest-level court is the Supreme Court of Appeal--the Druk Gyalpo himself. The Supreme Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions emanating from the High Court (Thrimkhang Gongma). In 1989 the High Court, which was established in 1968 to review lowercourt appeals, had six justices (including a chief justice), two of whom were elected by the National Assembly and four of whom were appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, for five-year terms. Each district has a magistrate's court (Dzongkhag Thrimkhang), headed by a magistrate or thrimpon, from which appeals can be made to the High Court. Minor civil disputes are adjudicated by a village head. All citizens have been granted the right to make informal petitions to the Druk Gyalpo, some of which have been made reportedly by citizens who flagged down the Druk Gyalpo's automobile as he toured the nation.

Civil Service

Bhutan's government employees have been under the authority of the Royal Civil Service Commission since its establishment in 1982. Part of the commission's mandate was to reform government service. With assistance from the UNDP, the commission held a conference in 1986 and assessed the civil service. Plans were laid out for providing in-country and foreign training, improving training effectiveness, and organizing a system by which personnel and training management would be linked within departments. Civil service rules adopted in 1989 established procedures for government employment and prohibited civil servants from being assigned to their home districts. Starting in 1989, candidates for government service were given only one opportunity to pass the civil service selection examination. Once they were selected, promotions were available through seventeen grades, from the lowest clerk to just below the deputy minister level.

In an efficiency drive in the late 1980s, the civil service was reduced through reorganization (the government was scaled down from thirty-three entities at and above the department level in 1985 to nineteen in 1989), reassignment to local government, retirements, and "voluntary resignations." In 1987 there were 13,182 civil service workers, but by 1989 the number of regular civil service employees had dropped to 11,099. An additional 3,855 persons worked under government contract or as "wage" employees throughout all parts of the government. More than 1,650 of them, however, were employed by government-run industries, and another 848 worked for the Chhukha Hydel Project. The total number of persons working under the civil service in July 1989 was 15,802. Later in 1989, however, all public and joint sector corporation employees were removed from the civil service rolls. Because of the national shortage of skilled workers, 3,137 members of the civil service in 1989 were reportedly "nonnationals," mostly ethnic Nepalese.

Local Government

Local government in 1991 was organized into four zones, or dzongdey, and eighteen districts, or dzongkhag. Before the zonal administration system was established beginning in 1988 and 1989, the central government interacted directly with district governments. The new level of administration was established, according to official sources, to "bring administration closer to the people" and to "expedite projects without having to refer constantly to the ministry." In other words, the zonal setup was to provide a more efficient distribution of personnel and administrative and technical skills. The zonal boundaries were said to be dictated by geophysical and agroclimatic considerations. Zonal administrators responsible for coordinating central policies and plans acted as a liaisons between the central ministries and departments and district governments. Each zonal headquarters had nine divisions: administration, accounts, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, engineering, health, irrigation, and planning. The divisions were staffed with former civil service employees of the Ministry of Home Affairs and with technical personnel from the various sectors in the districts. Four zones were established in 1988 and 1989: Zone I, including four western districts, seated at Chhukha; Zone II, including four central districts, seated at Chirang; Zone III, including four central districts, seated at Geylegphug; and Zone IV, including five eastern districts, seated at Yonphula. Although Thimphu District and Thimphu Municipality were within the boundaries of Zone I, they remained outside the zonal system. By 1991, however, only Zone IV was fully functioning.

Eighteen districts comprised local government at the next echelon. Each district was headed by an appointed district officer, (dzongda, assisted by a deputy district officer, dzongda wongmo or dzongrab), who was responsible for development planning and civil administration. Formerly appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, district officers have been appointed by the Royal Civil Service Commission since 1982. Each district also had a district development committee comprising elected representatives and government officials.

Districts were further subdivided into subdistricts (dungkhag) and village blocks or groups (gewog). Ten of the eighteen districts had subdistricts, which were further subdivided into village groups. The subdistrict served as an intermediate level of administration between district government and some villages in larger districts. These same districts also had village groups that were immediately subordinate to the district government. In the remaining eight smaller districts, village groups were directly subordinate to the district government. In 1989 there were 191 village groups, 67 of which were organized into 18 subdistricts and 124 of which were immediately subordinate to the district government. Subdistrict officers (dungpa) led the subdistricts, and village heads (gup in the north, mandal in the south) were in charge of the village groups. Despite greater central government involvement with economic development programs since the 1960s, villages continued to have broad local autonomy. There were 4,500 villages and settlements in 1991.

Bhutan also has two municipal corporations--Thimphu and Phuntsholing--headed by mayors (thrompon). Thimphu's municipal corporation was set up in 1974 as an experiment in local self-government. Headed by a chairperson, the corporation concentrated on sanitation and beautification projects. A superintending engineer, an administrative officer, a plant protection officer, and a tax collector served under a chief executive officer. Ward councillors carried out local representation in the city's seven wards. In subsequent years, municipal boards were set up in the larger towns.

Bhutan - Political Developments

The political forces that shaped Bhutan after its seventeenth- century unification were primarily internal until the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century. Thereafter, British pressure and protection influenced Bhutan and continued to do so until Britain's withdrawal from the mainland of South Asia in 1947. The nationalist movements that had brought independence to India had significant effects on Sikkim and Nepal. Because of its relative isolation, however, they left Bhutan largely unaffected until the growing Nepalese minority became increasingly exposed to the radical politics of Nepalese migrants from India. These migrants brought political ideas inspired by Indian democratic principles and agitation to the minority community in southern Bhutan. By 1950 the presence of that community had resulted in government restrictions on the cultivation of forest lands and on further migration.

Expatriate Nepalese, who resettled in West Bengal and Assam after leaving Bhutan, formed the Bhutan State Congress in 1952 to represent the interests of other expatriates in India as well as the communities they had left behind. An effort to expand their operations into Bhutan with a satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) movement in 1954 failed in the face of the mobilization of Bhutan's militia and a lack of enthusiasm among those Nepalese in Bhutan who did not want to risk their already tenuous status. The government further diffused the Bhutan State Congress movement by granting concessions to the minority and allowing Nepalese representation in the National Assembly. The Bhutan State Congress continued to operate in exile until its decline and gradual disappearance in the early 1960s. The leaders in exile were pardoned in 1969 and permitted to return.

Despite the absence of political parties, political activities carried out by elite political factions have played a role since the 1960s. These factional politics have generally been devoid of ideology, focusing instead on specific issues or events. Only with the 1964 assassination of Lonchen Jigme Palden Dorji did factional politics cause a national crisis.

Government decrees promulgated in the 1980s sought to preserve Bhutan's cultural identity in a "one nation, one people" policy called driglam namzha (national customs and etiquette). The government hoped to achieve integration through requiring national dress--the kira for women and the gho for men--in public places (by a May 1989 decree that was quickly reversed) and insisting that individual conduct be based on Buddhist precepts. The government stressed standardization and popularization of Dzongkha, the primary national language, and even sponsored such programs as the preservation of folksongs used in new year and marriage celebrations, house blessings, and archery contests.

Other cultural preservation efforts, especially those aimed at traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts that had long been under royal family patronage, were embodied in the Sixth Development Plan. Bhutan participated in the Olympic Games and in other international games, and imported high-tech bows for use in national archery tournaments, although for a time only the simple traditional bow was permitted in contests within Bhutan. In 1989 Nepali ceased to be a language of instruction in schools, and Dzongkha was mandated to be taught in all schools. In 1989 the government also moved to implement the Citizenship Act of 1985, which provided that only those Nepalese immigrants who could show they had resided in Bhutan for fifteen or twenty years (depending on occupational status), and met other criteria, might be considered for grants of citizenship by nationalization. An earlier law, passed in 1958, had for the first time granted Bhutanese citizenship to Nepalese landed settlers who had been in Bhutan for at least ten years. To ameliorate some of the differences between the ethnic communities, interethnic marriages among citizens, once forbidden, were allowed as a means of integrating the Nepalese.

Bhutan's concern heightened in the late 1980s when Nepalese liberation movements emerged in India. In 1988 some ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan again began protesting the alleged discrimination against them. They demanded exemption from the government decrees aimed at enhancing Bhutanese national identity by strengthening aspects of traditional culture (under the rubric of driglam namzha). It was likely that they were inspired by prodemocracy activities in their homeland as well as by democratic, Marxist, and Indian social ideas picked up during their migration through or education in India.

The reaction to the royal decrees in Nepalese majority communities surfaced as ethnic strife directed against non- Nepalese-origin people. Reactions also took form as protest movements in Nepal and India among Nepalese who had fled Bhutan. The Druk Gyalpo was accused of "cultural suppression," and his government was charged by antigovernment leaders with human rights violations, including the torture of prisoners; arbitrary arrest and detention; denial of due process; and restrictions of freedoms of speech and press, peaceful organization and assembly, and workers' rights.

Antigovernment protest marches involved more than 20,000 participants, including some from a movement that had succeeded in coercing India into accepting local autonomy for ethnic Nepalese in West Bengal, who crossed the border from West Bengal and Assam into six Bhutan districts. In February 1990, antigovernment activists had detonated a remote-control bomb on a bridge hear Phuntsholing and set fire to a seven-vehicle convoy. In September 1990, clashes occurred with the Royal Bhutan Army, which was ordered not to fire on protesters. The men and women marchers were organized by S.K. Neupane and other members of the illegal Bhutan People's Party, which reportedly urged the marchers to demand democracy and human rights for all Bhutanese citizens. Some villagers willingly joined the protests; others did so under duress. The government branded the party, reportedly established by antimonarchists and backed by the Nepali Congress Party and the Marxist-Leninist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal, as a terrorist organization. The party allegedly led its members--said to be armed with rifles, muzzle- loading guns, knives, and homemade grenades--in raids on villages in southern Bhutan, disrobing people wearing traditional Bhutanese garb; extorting money; and robbing, kidnapping, and killing people. Reportedly, there were hundreds of casualties, although the government admitted to only two deaths among security forces. Other sources indicated that more than 300 persons were killed, 500 wounded, and 2,000 arrested in clashes with security forces. Along with the above-mentioned violence, vehicle hijackings, kidnappings, extortions, ambushes, and bombings took place, schools were closed (some were destroyed), and post offices, police, health, forest, customs, and agricultural posts were destroyed. For their part, security forces were charged by the Bhutan People's Party, in protests made to Amnesty International and the International Human Rights Commission, with murder and rape and carrying out a "reign of terror." In support of the expatriate Nepalese, the general secretary of the Nepali Congress Party, the ruling party in Nepal, called on the Druk Gyalpo to establish a multiparty democracy.

The Bhutanese government admitted only to the arrest of forty- two people involved in "anti-national" activities in late 1989, plus three additional individuals who had been extradited from Nepal. All but six were reportedly later released; those remaining in jail were charged with treason. By September 1990, more than 300 additional prisoners held in the south were released following the Druk Gyalpo's tour of southern districts.

In the face of government resistance to demands that would institutionalize separate identities within the nation, protesters in the south insisted that the Bhutan People's Party flag be flown in front of administrative headquarters and that party members be allowed to carry the kukri, a traditional Nepalese curved knife, at all times. They also called for the right not to wear the Bhutanese national dress and insisted that schools and government offices stay closed until their demands were met. The unmet demands were accompanied by additional violence and deaths in October 1990. At the same time, India pledged "all possible assistance that the royal government might seek in dealing with this problem" and assured that it would protect the frontier against groups seeking illegal entry to Bhutan.

By early 1991, the press in Nepal was referring to insurgents in southern Bhutan as "freedom fighters." The Bhutan People's Party claimed that more than 4,000 advocates of democracy had been arrested by the Royal Bhutan Army. Charges were made that some of those arrested had been murdered outside Bhutanese police stations and that some 4,200 persons had been deported.

Supporting the antigovernment activities were expatriate Nepalese political groups and supporters in Nepal and India. Between 2,000 and 12,000 Nepalese were reported to have fled Bhutan in the late 1980s, and according to a 1991 report, even high-level Bhutanese government officials of Nepalese origin had resigned their positions and moved to Nepal. Some 5 million Nepalese were living in settlements in India along the Bhutan border in 1990. Nepalese were not necessarily welcome in India, where ethnic strife conspired to push them back through the largely unguarded Bhutanese frontier. The Bhutan People's Party operated among the large Nepalese community in northern India. A second group, the Bhutan People's Forum for Human Rights (a counterpart of the Nepal People's Forum for Human Rights), was established in Nepal by a former member of Bhutan's National Assembly, Teknath Rizal. In November 1989, Rizal was allegedly abducted in eastern Nepal by Bhutanese police and returned to Thimphu, where he was imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and treason. The Bhutan Students Union and the Bhutan Aid Group-Nepal also were involved in political activism.

The government explained its cultural identity programs as a defense against the first political problems since the Wangchuck Dynasty was established in 1907 and the greatest threat to the nation's survival since the seventeenth century. Its major concern was to avoid a repeat of events that had occurred in 1975 when the monarchy in Sikkim was ousted by a Nepalese majority in a plebiscite and Sikkim was absorbed into India. In an effort to resolve the interethnic strife, the Druk Gyalpo made frequent visits to the troubled southern districts, and he ordered the release of hundreds of arrested "antinationals." He also expressed the fear that the large influx of Nepalese might lead to their demand for a separate state in the next ten to twenty years, in much the same way as happened in the once-independent monarchy of Sikkim in the 1970s. To deter and regulate Nepalese migration into Bhutan from India, the Druk Gyalpo ordered more regular censuses, improved border checks, and better government administration in the southern districts. The more immediate action of forming citizens' militias took place in October 1990 as a backlash to the demonstrations. Internal travel regulations were made more strict with the issue of new multipurpose identification cards by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 1990.

By the end of 1990, the government admitted the serious effects of the antigovernment violence. It was announced that foreign- exchange earnings had dropped and that the GDP had decreased significantly because of terrorist activities.

Ethnic problems were not Bhutan's only political concern in the early 1990s. Rumors persisted that the exiled family of Yangki, the late Druk Gyalpo's mistress, including an illegitimate pretender to the throne, were garnering support among conservative forces in Bhutan to return to a position of authority.

Bhutan - The Media

In 1986 a weekly government news bulletin, Kuensel, was reformatted under the same title and also published weekly as Bhutan's only newspaper. Published by the Ministry of Communications' Department of Information, Kuensel had a total circulation in 1988 of 12,500 and was published in Dzongkha, Nepali, and English. Indian and other foreign newspapers also were available. Bhutan's low literacy rate, however, means that the majority of the population is not affected by the print media. Oral tradition is very strong, however, and radio broadcasts are widely listened to.

Bhutan Broadcasting Service, established in 1973 and given its current name in 1986, operated under the auspices of the Department of Information; it offered thirty hours a week of shortwave radio programming in Dzongkha, Sharchopkha, Nepali, and English. There was daily FM programming in Thimphu and shortwave reception throughout the rest of the nation in the early 1990s. In 1991 there were thirty-nine public radio stations for internal communications. There were also two stations used exclusively for communications with Bhutan's embassies in New Delhi and Dhaka and thirteen stations used by hydrologists and meteorologists. There were no television stations in Bhutan in the early 1990s, and a 1989 royal decree ended the viewing of foreign television by mandating the dismantling of antennas. The government wanted to prevent Indian and Bangladeshi broadcasts from reaching Bhutan's citizens.

Bhutan - Foreign Relations

Historically, Bhutan's foreign policies were greatly influenced by Tibet. Bhutan acknowledged Tibet's influence over it until 1860 and continued to pay a nominal tribute to Tibet until the mid1940s , although not necessarily on a friendly basis. Despite religious and cultural affinities, most of Bhutan's elite were refugees who had fled Tibet for religious reasons over the centuries. From 1865 to 1947, Britain guided Bhutan's foreign affairs. Thereafter Bhutan's foreign relations until the early 1970s were under the guidance of India, with which Bhutan had had official diplomatic relations from 1949. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, Bhutan became a member of the UN and its affiliated agencies; established formal diplomatic relations with fifteen other nations, primarily in South Asia and Scandinavia; actively participated in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Non-Aligned Movement; spoke out against, among other subjects, nuclear proliferation and terrorism; and had a peripatetic head of state who traveled abroad widely. By the early 1990s, Bhutan's foreign policies were effectively autonomous.

A shortage of diplomatic officials limited Thimphu's missions in New York and Geneva (established in 1985) and meant that the nation could only staff embassies in New Delhi, Dhaka, and Kuwait. Bhutan had only one employee, a computer programmer, at the SAARC headquarters in Kathmandu in late 1990. Only India and Bangladesh had representatives in Thimphu in 1991; other nations generally gave dual accreditation to their ambassadors in New Delhi to enable them to represent their countries' interests in Thimphu. Similarly, because of the shortage of diplomatic personnel, the head of the Bhutanese UN mission in Geneva, for example, also served as ambassador to Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the European Economic Community (EEC), and several UN affiliates. The ambassador to Kuwait is accredited to Switzerland because of Swiss rules that disallow the UN representative in Geneva to also be accredited to Switzerland. Honorary consuls represented Bhutan in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Osaka, and Seoul, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) had an honorary counsel in Thimphu.

Bhutan had no formal diplomatic relations with the United States as of 1991. It was one of only seven sovereign nations in the world with which the United States did not maintain formal representation. Informal contact was maintained, however, between the embassies of Bhutan and the United States in New Delhi, and Bhutan's permanent mission at the United Nations in New York had consular jurisdiction in the United States. It has been speculated that Bhutan, in light of India's close relations with the Soviet Union, had elected to keep equidistant from both superpowers. Nevertheless, during a visit with a United States senator in 1985, the Druk Gyalpo personally expressed strong support for the United States as the principal bulwark against the Soviet Union in South Asia. The United States ambassador to New Delhi was among numerous emissaries of nations without diplomatic ties to pay courtesy calls in Thimphu in the 1980s. Contacts with the Soviet Union and other communist countries were nil.

Bhutan - India

Bhutan is bounded on three sides by India. From east to west, the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh (formerly the North-East Frontier Agency) border Bhutan. In view of the long-standing political disputes and border confrontations between India and China, Bhutan has long been part of India's strategic defense plan. In the view of some Indian strategists, Bhutan was a weak link in India's defense against China.

The key document guiding relations with India is the Treaty of Friendship Between the Government of India and the Government of Bhutan of 1949. The ten-article treaty, in force in perpetuity, calls for peace between the two countries and assures Indian noninterference in Bhutan's internal affairs in return for Bhutan's agreeing "to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations" (Article 2). The treaty provides for compensation by India at a higher rate than provided in the 1865 and 1910 British treaties, and it returned Bhutan's Dewangiri territory seized by Britain in the Duar War. It also guarantees free trade between the countries and duty-free transit across India of Bhutan's imports. Furthermore, the treaty assures the rights of citizens of each country and the extradition of criminals seeking refuge in either country.

Events in Tibet have had causal effects on Bhutan-Indian relations. When the Chinese communists took over Tibet in 1951, Bhutan braced itself against a renewed external threat with a modernization program and a new defense posture. In his first visit to Bhutan in 1958, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru reiterated India's wish that Bhutan remain an independent country, "taking the path of progress according to your will." Following precedent, Bhutan sided with India when the Chinese army occupied Tibet in 1959 and a border dispute emerged between China and India. Nehru declared in the Indian parliament in November 1959 that "any aggression against Bhutan . . . would be regarded as an aggression against India." A de facto alliance developed between Bhutan and India by 1960, and Indian aid increasingly bolstered Bhutan's strategic infrastructure development. In times of crisis between India and China or between Bhutan and China, India was quick to assure Bhutan of military assistance. Concerns were raised by Bhutan, however, during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War when there were doubts about India's ability to protect Bhutan against China (which sided with Pakistan) while fighting a two-front war.

In 1960 the Druk Gyalpo had said that Bhutan was not 100 percent independent because of the 1949 treaty, and until Bhutan emerged into the world of international diplomacy by joining the UN in 1971, Article 2 of the treaty seemed intact. Admission to the UN, however, changed Bhutan's perspective on the world beyond India and Thimphu's traditional dependence on New Delhi. Two years later, Bhutan and Bangladesh exchanged diplomatic recognition, hinting further at Thimphu's independent attitude. A new interpretation of the relationship emerged in 1974 when Bhutan's minister of foreign affairs said that whether or not Bhutan followed India's advice and guidance on foreign policy matters was optional. Bhutan had raised its representation in India to the ambassadorial level in 1971 and in 1978 changed the name of its diplomatic office in New Delhi from the Royal Bhutan Mission to the Royal Bhutan Embassy to further reflect its sovereign status. A new trade agreement between Bhutan and India in 1972 provided an exemption from export duties for goods from Bhutan to third countries.

The Druk Gyalpo's statement in 1979 that the 1949 treaty needed to be "updated" was still another move asserting independence. Members of the National Assembly speaking just before the Druk Gyalpo's "update" announcement made the interpretation that Article 2 only required Bhutan to seek India's advice and guidance on matters of external affairs. Bhutan exerted its independent stance at the Non-Aligned Movement summit conference in Havana, also in 1979, by voting with China and some Southeast Asian countries rather than with India on the issue of allowing Cambodia's Khmer Rouge to be seated at the conference. Bhutan's votes in the UN on such issues as the status of landlocked nations also did not follow India's leads.

Despite a history of good relations between Bhutan and India, bilateral border issues went long unresolved. Indo-Bhutanese borders had been delineated in the Treaty of Peace of 1865 between Bhutan and Britain, but it was not until the period between 1973 and 1984 that a detailed delineation and demarcation was made. Border demarcation talks with India generally resolved disagreements except for several small sectors, including the middle zone between Sarbhang and Geylegphug and the eastern frontier with Arunachal Pradesh.

Bhutan - China

The other nation that borders Bhutan is China, with which Bhutan had no diplomatic relations as of mid-1991. Bhutan and China have long had differences with respect to the delineation of their common border, which follows natural features--the watershed of the Chumbi Valley in the northwest and the crest of the Great Himalayan Range of mountains in the north. The part of China that borders Bhutan--Tibet, or the Xizang Autonomous Region--has important historical, cultural, and religious ties to Bhutan. China had been heavily involved in Tibetan affairs since the 1720s, and it was through this involvement that Bhutan and China had their first direct relations. Bhutanese delegations to the Dalai Lama came into contact with the Chinese representatives in Lhasa, but there never was a tributary relationship with Beijing. Relations with Tibet itself, never particularly good, were strained considerably when Bhutan sided with Britain in the early 1900s. Trying to secure its southwestern flank against increasing foreign aggression, China claimed a vague suzerainty over Bhutan in the period just before the Chinese Revolution of 1911. The new Republic of China let the claim lapse, however, and it never again was raised publicly.

Tension in Bhutan-China relations increased with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 and again rose with the anti-Chinese revolts in eastern and central Tibet between 1954 and 1958. The massive Tibetan uprisings in 1959 and the flight to India of the Dalai Lama, as well as the heightened presence of Chinese forces on the ill-defined frontier, alerted Bhutan to the potential threat it faced, and its representative in Tibet was withdrawn. Included in the territory occupied by the Chinese People's Liberation Army were the eight western Tibetan enclaves administered by Bhutan since the seventeenth century. New Delhi intervened with Beijing on behalf of Thimphu regarding the enclaves, but the Chinese refused to discuss what they considered a matter between China and Bhutan. Another problem with China emerged at this time as the result of the flight to Bhutan of some 6,000 Tibetan refugees. The specter of renewed Chinese claims to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal was raised after China published a map in 1961 that showed alterations of traditional Sino-Bhutanese and other Himalayan borders in Beijing's favor. Bhutan responded with an embargo on cross-border trade and closer links with India.

During this period, Thimphu continued to withstand Beijing's mixture of threats and offers of conciliation in the form of economic aid and assurance of independence. Tension was renewed during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war when the Chinese army outflanked Indian troops, who, with permission of Bhutanese authorities, retreated through southeastern Bhutan. More fearful of China than confident of India's ability to defend it, Bhutan formally maintained a policy of neutrality while quietly expanding its relations with India. Cross-border incursions by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herders occurred in 1966, but tensions generally lessened thereafter and during the 1970s. In 1979 a larger than usual annual intrusion by Tibetan herders into Bhutan brought protests to Beijing from both Thimphu and New Delhi. China, again seeking a direct approach with Bhutan, ignored the Indian protest but responded to the one from Bhutan. As part of its policy of asserting its independence from India, Bhutan was open to direct talks, whereas India continued to see the Sino-Bhutan boundary issue as intimately related to the Sino-Indian border dispute. A series of border talks has been held annually since 1984 between the ministers of foreign of affairs of Bhutan and China, leading to relations that have been characterized by the two sides as "very good."

Bhutan - Participation in International Organizations

Historically, Bhutan's foreign relations had been limited primarily to contacts with Tibet, India, and Britain. A major achievement was made in the 1960s as Bhutan began to join international organizations. It first became a member of the Colombo Plan in 1962, which put the kingdom into contact with member states throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia for purposes of fostering cooperative economic development. Bhutan joined the Universal Postal Union in 1969, putting it into contact with some 137 countries. UN membership was achieved in 1971, followed by the gaining of seats in the UN's specialized and related agencies, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A founding member of SAARC in 1983, Bhutan had also established relations with the Coordination Bureau of the Nonaligned Countries (the headquarters of the Nonaligned Movement), the Group of 77, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Community. By 1990, Bhutan belonged to 119 international, regional, and special interest organizations.

In 1975 Bhutan and four other landlocked Asian countries (Afghanistan, Laos, Mongolia, and Nepal) were granted a special status as "least developed landlocked countries" by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in coordination with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and UNDP. Despite these organizations' intentions to assist Bhutan and the other countries in dealing with international transit problems, Bhutan declined to participate in their work.

Perhaps the most significant international participation Bhutan embarked on in the 1980s was membership in SAARC. SAARC's agenda excluded bilateral issues and political programs from the organization's debates and confined committee and summit discussions to areas where member nations must find common ground for achieving mutual economic benefit. Bhutan became involved in useful working group discussions on agriculture and livestock, rural development, meteorology, telecommunications, science and technology, health and population, transportation, postal cooperation, and trade and industrial cooperation.

Heads-of-state meetings of SAARC have taken Jigme Singye Wangchuck abroad on several occasions. The integration of Bhutan into SAARC activities also involved the country with a variety of issues of concern to poor undeveloped nations as well as increasing its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement. In Bhutan's extensive multilateral diplomatic activities in the 1980s, officials saw their country emerging as an "Eastern Geneva" providing a "venue for peace-making efforts in South Asia."

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com