Political Developments

Bhutan Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress