Ethnicity, Politics and Economy of Modern Bhutan


With the passage of time Bhutan grew nationally as well as internationally and in its sixth five-year plan,adopted the policy of ‘one nation, one people’ and as a follow-up action in 1988, conducted a census in the region of southern Bhutan to guard the nation from illegal immigration; paid tax receipts were made valid document from 1958-neither earlier nor later, was required to prove one’s citizenship. In the second place, the birth certificates were also considered legal,it however, created a panic situation in the southern region and the population of the area, especially minority groups of Nepali speakers of Lhotshampa community staged protests for their civil and political rights along with a demand to change the political system continuing since 1907.

To face the situation, government used the Bhutanese Army and Police and initiated identifying participants and their supporters engaged in anti-State violence. All such persons were put behind bars and remained in jails for months without a court trial. After completion of the census work, about one lakh of minority Nepali people were declared illegal immigrants.

Thus, the results of the census were used as a political tool to identify and evict the dissidents involved in anti-government protests and demonstrations waged by the Lhotshampa community of Bhutan, which at the time constituted, about 45 per cent of the total population as per the statistics. Earlier, the platform for this legal ramification and social unrest was laid in 1977 and 1985 when the Nepalese population viewed Bhutan’s pronounced policy of ‘one nation one people’, largely affecting the Nepali ethnic community.

Ethnicity in Bhutan

At the time, the ethnic group of Nepali origin raised their voice for civil and political rights, which resulted in the forceful expulsion of minority citizens from the southern part of Bhutan in the early 1990s: it had got an extended dimension of Gorkhaland movement in the neighbouring State of West Bengal along with a fear of its extension up to the Kingdom of Sikkim where overwhelming Nepali people were living and natives of the land remained in minority. In the course of retaliations on the part of Bhutanese State forces, they were accused of violating human rights on a large scale with charges of rape and torture.

According to an estimate about 107,000 Bhutanese refugees were living in seven camps of Eastern Nepal as of 2008, while others had/have moved to other host nations like, Canada, Norway, the UK, Australia, and the US. The United States of America has admitted the influx of more than 60 thousand refugees between the fiscal year 2008-2012. Thus, the refugees of Bhutanese origin faced a tough day ahead as they were refused by the Nepal Government to consider them as their citizens or extend them any related facility. On the other hand, Bhutan Government did not recognise any political party who raised the issue of refugees and took up their matters of grave concern. After the episode, the Government of Bhutan is now fully conscious and conducted an exhaustive census in southern Bhutan to review the status of illegal immigration.

Recent political movements

Bhutan, a country of South Asia, witnessed a breakthrough in politics in 2008 as a result of its social contract since 1907 when it switched from hereditary monarchy to a constitutional one, with a parliamentary form of government under the kingship of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, having universal suffrage. Its legislature is composed of two Houses-the National Assembly and the upper-house called National Council comprising 25 members. The Executive power of the State are exercised by the Council of Ministers led by the Prime Minister, while judicial powers are vested in the Courts whose ‘chief administrative’ is the Chief Justice. In a further development the first General Elections under the new system were held for the members of the National Assembly on 24 March 2008 in which the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT), led by Jigme Thinley and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), led by Sangay Ngedup participated.

DPT won the elections taking 45 seats out of 47 and Jigme Thinley, leader of the party served as the PM from 2008 to 2013, while in succeeding elections held in 2013, the PDP won 32 seats with 54.88 per cent of votes and its leader Tshering Tobgay remained as Premier between 2013 to 2018. The latest Elections for the members of National Assembly were held in 2018 and the winner of ‘largest seats’ in the fray formed the government with the help of others. In the sphere of foreign relations, Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with more than 50 countries and maintains close ties with the European Union. It had/has remained in close touch and mutual understanding with India traditionally, despite strained relations with Nepal due to refugee issues and a formal relation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Status of economy

The base of the economy of modern Bhutan is agriculture and it provides livelihood to more than 55.4 per cent of its population while the other subsidiaries include forestry, tourism and sale of hydroelectric power to India. The overall economy of Bhutan was marginal with no access to seaports or trading centres and even no railway connectivity within the country to transport materials from one place to another, although in January 2005 it had signed an agreement with India and three years later (2008) also inked a ‘free trade’ accord. The signed agreement allowed Bhutanese imports and exports from third markets to transit India without tariffs, however, due to the closing of border with China because of refugee influx, it has a weak economic connection with PRC, but despite these constraints Bhutan has, in the recent past registered itself as the second fastest growing economy of the world.

In comparison to earlier annual growth of 8 per cent in 2005 and 14 per cent in 2007, the country performed well and exhibited an annual growth of 22.4 per cent during the last decade. The position of industrial sector is not so good due to various theoretical and practical hurdles, but to some extent cottage industry is growing day-by-day and other industries, such as cement, steel, wood, processed fruits, alcoholic beverages, calcium carbide and ferroalloy have been set up to boost the development of nation’s economy. As a result, the agriculture products are also limited to rice, chilies, dairy (mostly cow), buckwheat, barley, root crops, apples, and citrus and maize at lower elevations., Bhutan’s main export partner include India 58.6%, Hong Kong 30.1%, and Bangladesh 7.3%, while in the import sector New Delhi, too, accounted for more than 74.5%, Japan 7.4%, and Sweden 3.2%. Bhutan’s industry sector contributes about 22% in country’s economy and in view of the growing technological need and requirement of the nation, it is likely to expand in the coming years and decades.

About the Author:

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is presently Professor and Head, Department of Political Science and Dean of Social Sciences at B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura (Bihar), India. Has 21 books published, in addition to 900 articles in national and international journals and daily newspapers from 25 foreign countries.

By Dr. Rajkumar Singh