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Bhutan Modern History

As late as the 1960s, the modern world made its way into Bhutan, which gradually opened up to the outside world. At the same time, the king wanted to protect the country's character and in the 1980s a "Bhutanization campaign" was launched, which led to contradictions with Nepalese-wealthy residents in the south. Eventually the king began to prepare for transition to parliamentary democracy and in 2008 the first election was held.

Up to the 1960s, there were neither modern roads, hospitals, electricity nor postal services in the isolated Bhutan. That decade, the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, initiated a modernization. The reason was partly a concern that Bhutan would otherwise face the same fate as other Buddhist kingdoms in the Himalayas: Tibet had been invaded by China and Sikkim was about to enter India.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Bhutan. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

When his father died in 1972, 16-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuck took office as Bhutan's fourth king. He launched the concept of "gross national happiness" as a guiding principle for a careful modernization and economic development without sacrificing the country's Buddhist culture and traditions.

In the 1980s, the king began reforms to strengthen national identity. He felt that Bhutan was becoming too divided between different cultural identities. In the south, Nepalese were in the majority and constituted a growing proportion of the population (see Population and Languages). At the end of the 1980s, the campaign intensified. A "Bhutanization program" was adopted, requiring all residents to observe some traditional clothing and etiquette. Nepali lost its status as an official language and teaching in that language ceased in schools. The government began to apply a citizen law that at one time made many "Southern Bhutanese" stateless.

Contemporary History of BhutanRefugee camp in Nepal

Protests against the campaign occurred, with both peaceful demonstrations as well as blast attacks and screen savages. The army was accused of assaulting the population in the south. Beginning in 1991, tens of thousands of Nepalese fled. Most of them ended up in refugee camps in Nepal, under the auspices of the UN. Bhutan authorities claimed that they were illegal immigrants. Nepal refused to accept them. Negotiations between the countries to resolve the refugee issue began in 1993 but with no great results. Soon, the number of refugees was over 100,000.

External pressure contributed to the initiation of democratization in Bhutan. The king gave up his absolute power in 1998. The role of head of government went to a ministerial council with rotating prime minister. In 2001, the king announced that the country would have a written constitution and that the legislative assembly would in future be elected by universal suffrage.

The constitutional proposal was rewritten several times and residents were invited to participate in discussions about its contents. Eventually it was decided that parties would be allowed and that the country should have a parliament with two chambers. A number of rights were written into the Constitution and reforms of the judiciary were implemented (see Political system).

The King abdicated in December 2006 in favor of his eldest son, 26-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. Both the change of faith and the cautious democratization are likely to have been affected by the events in neighboring Nepal, where the royal power was rocking and later abolished.

Free choices

In July 2007, it was announced that the first elections in the country would be held. The registration of political parties began at the same time. Only two parties were approved; a third was not allowed to stand because the candidates were deemed to lack sufficient education and the policy was contrary to the "spirit of the constitution". Thereafter, sample elections were held with inventive parties so that the population could become acquainted with the election procedure.

At the turn of the year 2007-2008, elections were held for the upper house of Parliament, the National Council, where the 25 members are not allowed to belong to any political party (see Political system).

In March 2008, elections to the lower house, the National Assembly followed. It gave Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) 45 of 47 seats, while the People's Democratic Party (PDP) got two seats.

That DPT won so much surprised many, as both parties were loyal to the king and had similar programs. Perhaps decisive was that the king was believed to support DPT. Many residents were still questioning the process of democratization initiated from the highest level and wondering what it would mean for the Conservative Kingdom. But the Bhutanese were used to doing as the king said. The turnout was almost 80 percent.

First Constitution

After the election, a government was formed with DPT leader Jigme Thinley as prime minister. He held the rotating post until 2008 as head of government a couple of times. In July, the country's first written constitution was formally adopted by the king and the two newly elected chambers of parliament.

In November 2008, two years after his father abdicated, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk was crowned in a magnificent and age-old ceremony in the capital Thimphu.

According to the original plans, local elections would also be held in 2008, but they had to be postponed as necessary legislation was not yet in place. It was not until September 2009 that Parliament passed an election law that allowed local and regional elections, which were then held between January and June 2011. No parties are allowed to participate in the local elections, all candidates stand for independence.

In October 2011, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, then 31, married a 21-year-old woman of the people, Jetsun Pema. The wedding ceremony took place according to an ancient Buddhist ceremony in a monastery from the 17th century. The present was mainly the Bhutanese royal family, no foreign heads of state or royalty were there. Thousands of Bhutanese followed the event via national television.

Corruption scandal and change of government

Shortly before Bhutan was to hold its second election in history, 2013, the DPT government suffered a setback. Parliament Speaker Jigme Tshultim and Minister of the Interior Lyonpo Minjur Dorji were convicted in March of the same year in a corruption deal involving a disputed land deal ten years earlier. They were sentenced to two and a half years and one year in prison, respectively, with the option of paying fines instead. Thirteen co-defendants received similar convictions.

In the elections to the upper house, the National Council, held in April, 67 people were candidates for the 20 electable seats (see Political system). Only six sitting members lined up and they were all re-elected. In the outgoing National Council sat four women; in the newly elected, no woman was included.

The first round of elections to the National Assembly was held in May. Two new parties lined up alongside DPT and PDP, but before the second round in July, only the two old parties remained. This time, PDP won by a wide margin.

In July 2013, the new PDP government took office with Tshering Tobgay as prime minister and with Bhutan's first female minister, Dorji Choden, who was given responsibility for housing and labor issues. Tshering Tobgay took a skeptical stance on the well-known Bhutanese method of measuring the country's economy in gross domestic happiness (GDP), intended to give a broader description of the country's condition than usual GDP. He said in an interview after the accession that BNL tends to disregard realities such as corruption, unemployment and budget deficits.

 
 

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