History of Bhutan

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Bhutan Map Economy History

THE HIMALAYAN KINGDOMS of Nepal and Bhutan share a history of influence by Tibet, China, and India, and an interlude of British colonial guidance. Although the kingdoms are not contiguous, each country is bordered by China to the north and India on its other peripheries. Both kingdoms are ruled by hereditary monarchs and are traditional societies with predominantly agricultural economies; their cultures, however, differ. Nepal's Hinduism, a legacy of India's influence, defines its culture and caste-structured society. Bhutan's Buddhist practices and culture reflect India's influence by way of Tibet. The two countries' legal systems also reflect their heritage. Nepal's judicial system blends Hindu legal and English common law traditions. Bhutan's legal system is based on Buddhist law and English common law.

Bhutan has its own distinct history, although it shares Nepal's Himalayan geography and neighbors. Only one-third the size of Nepal, Bhutan also has a much smaller population: estimated at about 600,000 persons in 1990 as compared to a population of over 19 million in Nepal.

The precursor of Bhutan, the state of Lhomon or Monyul, was said to have existed between 500 B.C. and 600 A.D. At the end of that period, Buddhism was introduced into the country; a branch of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan. Bhutan was subject to both Indian and Tibetan influences, and small independent monarchies began to develop in the country by the early ninth century. Religious rivalry among various Buddhist subsects also influenced political development; the rivalry began in the tenth century and continued through the seventeenth century, when a theocratic government independent of Tibetan political influence united the country. From that time until 1907, the Kingdom of Bhutan, or Drukyul (literally land of the Thunder Dragon), had a dual system of shared civil and spiritual (Buddhist) rule. In 1907 the absolute monarchy was established, and the hereditary position of Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, was awarded to the powerful Wangchuck family. Since 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck has held the position of Druk Gyalpo.

The Druk Gyalpo controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. The monarchy is absolute, but the king is admired and respected and is referred to by the people as "our King." The Council of Ministers and Royal Advisory Council are part of the executive branch of government. The legislative branch is made up of the unicameral National Assembly, or Tshogdu, whose members are either indirectly elected or appointed by the Druk Gyalpo. Bhutan has neither a written constitution nor organic laws. The 1953 royal decree on the Constitution of the National Assembly is the primary legal, or constitutional, basis for that body and sets forth its rules and procedures. The Supreme Court of Appeal, in effect the Druk Gyalpo, is the highest level court; judges are appointed by the Druk Gyalpo. There are no lawyers. The civil code and criminal code are based on seventeenth-century concepts.

Under Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan's centrally controlled government system has been instrumental in initiating greater political participation. In the early 1990s, however, there were still no legal political parties--although there were elite political factions--and no national elections. There was no overt communist presence. Each family was allowed one vote in village- level elections. Local government was divided into zones, districts, subdistricts, and village groups, and meetings were regularly held at the village and block (gewog) levels, where issues were decided by public debate. The complex administrative network of consultation and decisionmaking by consensus obscured the need for national elections. At the 1992 session of the National Assembly, support for the hereditary monarchy was unanimously reaffirmed.

Bhutan has a diverse population. It is home to four ethnic groups: Ngalop--of Tibetan origin; Sharchop--of Indo- Mongoloid origin; aboriginal, or indigenous, tribal peoples; and Nepalese. In the early 1990s, the first three groups made up about 72 percent of the population. According to this estimate, the Nepalese comprised approximately 28 percent of the population; other estimates suggested that 30 to 40 percent might be Nepalese. The Nepalese constituted a majority in southern Bhutan, where, in an effort to maintain traditional culture and control, the government has tried to confine their immigration and restrict their residence and employment. In the early 1990s, only approximately 15 percent of the Nepalese in Bhutan were considered legal permanent residents; only those immigrants who had resided in Bhutan for fifteen or twenty years--the number of years depended on their occupational status and other criteria--were considered for citizenship. Nepalese immigrants who were asked to leave because their claims to citizenship did not conform to the 1985 Citizenship Act openly voiced their discontent with the government. Illegal immigrants often were militant antinationals.

In the 1980s, the Bhutanese, believing their identity threatened by absorption of a growing Nepalese minority and the specter of annexation by India, promulgated a policy of driglam namzha, "national customs and etiquette." This policy, sought to preserve and enhance Bhutanese cultural identity and bolster Bhutanese nationalism. The policy mandated the wearing of national dress for formal occasions and the use of the official language, Dzongkha, in schools. In 1989, it was decreed that Nepali, which had been offered as an optional language, was no longer to be taught in the schools. Subsequent government decrees contributed to a growing conflict with ethnic Nepalese, who sought to maintain their own identity and viewed these edicts as restrictive. Ethnic strife increased as the aftereffects of Nepal's prodemocracy movement spread to Bhutan, where Nepalese communities demonstrated against the government in an effort to protect their rights from the driglam namzha policy. Expatriate Nepalese political groups in Nepal and India supported these antigovernment activities, further alienating the Bhutanese.

Bhutan's military force, the Royal Bhutan Army, is very small; in 1990 it numbered only 6,000 persons. The Druk Gyalpo is the supreme commander of the army, but daily operations are the responsibility of the chief operations officer. The army's primary mission is border defense although it also assists the Royal Bhutan Police in internal security matters.

Bhutan is considered a least-developed country. Its work force is largely unskilled, and a wide gap exists between the rich and the poor. Farming is the mainstay of the economy and accounts for most of the gross domestic product. Although Bhutan did not begin to establish its industrial base until the 1950s, careful economic planning and use of foreign aid have resulted in measurable improvements in economic efficiency and performance over the last four decades. As is the case in Nepal, tourists bring in a major portion of the country's foreign exchange.

Social status in Bhutan depends primarily on economic standing in the community. Specifically, it depends on landownership, occupation, and perceived religious authority. The society is male dominated. Although as of 1992 the government officially encouraged increased participation of women in political and administrative life, women remained in a secondary position, particularly in business and the civil service. Bhutanese women, however, do have a dominant social position, and land often passes to daughters, not to sons. Bhutan's traditional society is both matriarchal and patriarchal; the head of the family is the member in highest esteem. However, men predominate in government and have more opportunities for higher education than do women.

As of 1992, education in Bhutan is free for eleven years but not compulsory. Men have literacy rates about three times higher than those for women, and school enrollment levels are higher for males. As is the case in Nepal, social services are not widespread. Modern medical care is lacking, as is clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. Not surprisingly, gastrointestinal diseases are widespread. Nutrional deficiencies are also prevalent; serious malnutrition, however, does not appear to be a problem. Like Nepal, the country had high morbidity and death rates in the early 1990s.

Foreign aid, grants, and concessionary loans constituted a large percentage of Bhutan's budget in the early 1990s. Like Nepal, Bhutan received foreign assistance from the United Nations, the Colombo Plan, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, as well as official development assistance and other official flows. Because Bhutan had no formal diplomatic relations with the United States as of 1992, no official aid was forthcoming from Washington.

Bhutan's foreign policy has been affected by its geostrategic location. From the seventh century until 1860, the country's foreign policy was influenced by Tibet; next followed a period of British guidance over foreign affairs. After India received independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, Bhutan came under India's influence. Thimphu and New Delhi's relationship is governed by the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between the Government of India and the Government of Bhutan--in force in perpetuity--which calls for peace and noninterference in internal affairs and New Delhi's guidance and advice in external relations. Like Nepal, however, Bhutan is exhibiting greater independence in its foreign policy, and by the early 1990s was, in effect, autonomous in its foreign relations. Thimphu has established bilateral diplomatic relations with other countries and has joined various multilateral and regional organizations. Bhutan belongs to the United Nations, as well as to organizations such as SAARC, the Nonaligned Movement, and the Asian Development Bank. It does not accept compulsory United Nations International Court of Justice jurisdiction.

Both Nepal and Bhutan were facing refugee problems in the early 1990s; statistics on the number of refugees come from diverse sources and are discrepant. In April 1992, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that since 1986 more than 30,000 ethnic Nepalese had left Bhutan because of political discontent, poor employment prospects, or because they were considered illegal immigrants. A much higher figure is projected by G.P. Koirala, Nepal's prime minister, who has estimated that in the early 1990s Nepalese from Bhutan seeking to escape the sanctions imposed by driglam namzha arrived in Nepal at the rate of 200 persons daily.

Antinationals in Bhutan used the growing number of southern Bhutanese-Nepalese in the refugee camps within Nepal as a means to publicize and internationalize their plight. To this end, they encouraged Nepalese to leave Bhutan and also encouraged Nepalese from India to enter the camps. For Bhutan, the departure of the Nepalese often meant the loss of skilled laborers; however, it also resulted in the exodus of unwanted agitators. For Nepal, the refugees were an added economic burden--more people needing housing, food, clothing, education, and other social services. Living conditions in the refugee camps within Nepal were reported to be poor. As of mid-1992, the camps were filled with people holding Nepalese citizenship cards, Bhutanese citizenship cards, and UNHCR certificates attesting they were "Bhutanese refugees." However, because each party seeks to present its own case, all statistics and statements related to the Nepalese refugee situation must be viewed cautiously.

The refugee problem presented a challenge to India, which needed to balance its interests in maintaining Bhutan's stability with the necessity of not inflaming nationalist passions among its own ethnic Nepalese population and not upsetting its relations with either Nepal or Bhutan. India would not allow its territory to be used as a staging ground for protests by Bhutanese residents of Nepalese origin. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Indian laborers who entered Nepal in search of work displaced underemployed and unemployed Nepalese workers.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Bhutan Map Economy History