A land of mountain peaks and rolling valleys in the midst of the Himalayas, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan covers just 46,500 square kilometres, a little larger than Switzerland. Never colonized, Bhutan or Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) is still largely veiled in mystery. While it joined the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1970s and has recently developed more trading partners, its two million people remain in virtual isolation, protected from the rest of the world.
This self-imposed segregation, controlled from the capital Thimbu, means the ancient customs of Himalayan life have remained substantially untouched. The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the Wangchuck dynasty has been in place since 1907), fiercely protects Bhutan in order to retain the power of the hereditary monarchy and conserve the nation’s deep Buddhist traditions.
This has proved to be a grave problem for people in the south of the country, known locally as Lhotshampas, who are ethnic Nepalis and predominantly Hindu. The 1985 Citizenship Act actually reclassified many southerners as ‘illegal immigrants’. In 1989 the Nepali language was dropped from the school curriculum and Lhotshampas were forced to abide by the dress codes of the Buddhist north. The inevitable protest demonstrations from 1990 onwards met with fierce repression. The ensuing political crisis has produced a steady stream of refugees into eastern Nepal, where 100,000 Bhutanese are now stranded in camps supervised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The movements for democracy during the 1990s in neighbouring Nepal and India sparked further political protest, including demands for human rights. But Bhutan remains a monarchy with no constitution and no bill of rights. The King – who is head of state, head of government and head of the highest court of appeal – does not allow the formation of political parties. Amnesty International reports that political prisoners have been held since 1989 and have suffered torture and ill treatment.
Nevertheless, the Government claims to be committed to social and political modernization. According to the current (eighth) five-year plan, effective public services and decentralization are among the state’s modernizing priorities – the plan is to decentralize the decision-making process to district and community levels. The King’s philosophy of ‘Gross National Happiness’ over Gross National Product will ring some bells with Greens: economic development and growth, he believes, must benefit the majority of Bhutanese and remain in harmony with the country’s unique culture, religion and environment. The loss of 100,000 southerners will in itself act as a brake on development, as the southern region has been economically the most dynamic and developed since the turn of the century.
The political opposition is focused on two organizations set up in exile in Nepal: the Druk National Congress and the People’s Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan. Both parties claim that the Government effectively views demands for a democratic system and greater respect for human rights as promoting ‘anti-national’ activities.
Bhutan is one of Asia’s poorest countries but its late development and sparse industrialization mean it can today take advantage of a wealth of natural resources that have hitherto been unexploited. Around 65 per cent of Bhutan, for example, is still covered in woodland. This forest serves as a valuable global resource in reducing levels of carbon dioxide – and the need for international action on climate change may yet mean that Bhutan can benefit from its trees without cutting them down. If Bhutan were to ‘sell’ its ‘pollution rights’ to other nations, it would yield a much higher income than if they were to fell the trees and sell them.
Leader: King Jigme Singye Wangchuck; Prime Minister Lyonpo Jigme Thinley.
Economy: GNP per capita: $470 (Nepal $220, US $30,600).
Monetary unit: Ngultrum.
Main exports: electricity, wood, cement, and calcium carbide.
Main imports: fuel and lubricants, grain, machinery and parts, vehicles, fabrics, rice.
People: 2.1 million. People per square kilometre: 44 (Britain 238).
Environment: Bhutan’s forests are still virtually untouched. There is, however, soil erosion and limited access to
Culture: The main ethnic groupings are the Drukpas in the north and Lhotshampas in the south. The Drukpas include the Ngalong in the west, Bumthang in the centre and Sharchop in the east. Some Lhotshampas have Nepali and Tibetan roots.
Languages: Dzongkha (the Ngalong-based national tongue), Nepali, and other Tibetan and Nepali dialects.
Religion: The state religion is Buddhism, in a form closely resembling Tibetan tantric Buddhism. Many southerners are Hindu, however.
Sources: World Guide 2001/2002; State of the World’s Children 2001; Danida Udenrigsministeriet; Amnesty International; Britannica.com; www.bhootan.org; K Heissler: research associate on Nepal and Bhutan at the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) in New Delhi.
Previously profiled June 1989
The proposed reforms could prove interesting: the ruling class can hardly expect to grant itself the same privileges as under the old rules while advocating a more modern civilization. The Government's role in the refugee problem has been half-hearted and disappointing. The feudal monarchy is politically indefensible - though Bhutan's isolation from Western development has been in many ways beneficial.