The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, December 22, 2008

All In The Family P. Kharel

in the eve of King Jigme Kheshar Namgyal’s coronation earlier this month, the French news agency, AFP, put out a story datelined Thimpu: "The isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is to crown its new ruler, with an Oxford-educated bachelor ascending as head of state of the world’s newest democracy." Home to 600,000 people and wedged in remote hills between India and China, Bhutan held its first "democratic" elections for a new parliament and prime minister in March.

Jigme Singhe Wangchuck abdicated two years ago to pave the way for the crowning of the eldest of his five sons and five daughters born to the four sisters he had married over the years. In 1989, he announced his nine-year old son, Keshar, as crown prince, much to the surprise of the rest of the world, including the international media that had been describing the absolute monarch as a bachelor. Such background of Thimpu’s royalty causes some sections to exercise caution in mentioning the marital status of the 28-year-old Keshar.

Systematic suppression

The Bhutanese people were aware of Jigme’s wives and children but so terrified were they of incurring the royal wrath that they maintained an absolute silence. Eventually, the palace, through its embassy in New Delhi, announced to the world that Jigme, till then projected as a highly eligible bachelor, had declared Keshar as his crown prince. The media quoted official sources that the much-married monarch and father of several children had only followed "Bhutan’s way" of announcing marriage and crown prince.

Jigme wielded absolute power. So does his son, except for cosmetic changes in the political structure. The country did not have a formal constitution till recently. Some in the media are dubbing the mere drafting of a constitution and the subsequent elections for parliament democratic exercises. In reality, power is concentrated in the Wangchuck family. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese were delisted or not included at all in the voters’ list for the so-called democratic exercise in March. The majority of members in the legislature have direct ties to the Wangchuck family and its relatives.

Nepalese till the 1980s constituted the largest ethnic grouping representing more than 40 per cent of the country’s population. Nepali language was the lingua franca for Bhutanese in general. But Bhutan’s royals threw out 100,000 Nepalese in the early 1990s during a state-sponsored campaign to impose compulsory national dress and ban the Nepalese language.

The remaining members of this community have been relentless victims of systematic suppression ever since. They are held in high suspicion and deprived of opportunities in government service and other positions of power or lucrative salaries. Obtaining licences for setting up an industry or a major business establishment is an extremely uphill task. Palace nod is required for anything involving financial transaction. Little wonder that the BPP leader Rizal recently described governance in his country as "a family affair".

Driglam Namzha, a royal edict, makes it mandatory for all residents in Bhutan to wear the Druk dress for both men and women. Those not complying are fined, arrested and even tortured. Dashain and Tihar, the two major festivals of Hindus, are not allowed to be celebrated openly. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese have been systematically denied citizenship certificates. Human rights leader Dhan Bahadur Rai, founding general secretary of Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), has been in jail since the last 17 years.

Tek Nath Rizal, now in exile in Nepal, was abducted from Nepal in 1989 and jailed in Bhutan. On November 16, 1989, a Druk aircraft landed at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. The next day Rizal was abducted from Biratnagar and brought to Kathmandu to be dumped into the awaiting Druk aircraft. He was immediately kicked and thrashed by Bhutan’s three senior officials - Vechho Namgey, ADC to King Jigme; Khando Wangcu, a deputy director and son-in-law of the then Bhutanese Tourism Minister; and Gop Wangchhe, royal advisor. The three who abused Rizal were all promoted for the "fine job" they rendered. In a judicial farce, the Bhutanese court declared him guilty of sedition. So absurd was the verdict that the resultant embarrassment compelled the royal regime to eventually give an early release.

Nothing can be said or written against the absolute monarch and his family. The very international media that expressed great concern over the reported killings of a couple of hundred Chinese in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crisis chose to ignore the fact that the Druk regime killed over 500 people in the autumn of 1990. The ferocity with which Bhutan’s main thoroughfares were turned into killing fields and the manner in which the media largely ignored the gruesome act became conspicuous when they gave wide coverage to Bangladesh as President H.M. Ershad was compelled to pull back the army after 70 persons participating in demonstration against his rule were killed, and he resigned not long after in 1990.


The secretive nature of the Druk regime is underscored by its earlier stand that the country’s population stood at 1.3 million. The opposition claimed it to be less than half of that. The cat was out during the protest campaign in 1990, and today the population is placed officially at 600,000. But there are fears that at least 100,000 ethnic Nepalese are not included as Bhutanese nationals. Another 100,000 in the refugee camps in Nepal are also delisted.

In a country where only the state-run newspaper is in circulation, the royal regime arrests people for reading foreign newspapers, especially those originating in Nepal. Ethnic Nepalese are frequently termed "foreigners", "anti-nationals", "terrorists" or "economic refugees". Nepalese began settling in the area in the seventh century and in large numbers since the 17th century as against the fact that the Wangchuk dynasty was established only five generations ago.

The Oxford-educated Keshar would do well to realise before it is too late that serious trouble might be brewing against his regime, what with reports of rebel groups in India training some Bhutanese youths for an armed movement in Bhutan.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that minority languages, like Nepali and other endangered languages, need protection.

    The promulgation of English as the world's "lingua franca" is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is the position of English at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations. A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at