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History of Bhutan

The history of Bhutan:



Archeological finds suggest the mountain valleys of Bhutan have been inhabited for several thousand years. The Bhutanese are related to the Tibetans to the north, sharing physical, linguistic, and cultural traits, indicating that at some unknown time in the past a significant migration of Tibetans arrived over the Himalayan mountain passes to establish the base of the present population.

Arrival of Buddhism

In the 8th century the Indian Guru Padmasambhava arrived in Bhutan, bringing Buddhism and establishing a number of temples and monasteries, including the famous Taktshang monastery built high on a cliff face above the Paro valley and Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang.

Bhutan emerges as a country

Until the early 1600s, Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefdoms until unified by the Tibetan lama and military leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal . Escaping political foes in Tibet he arrived in Bhutan in 1616 and initiated a program of fortification and military consolidation, overseeing the construction of impressive dzongs or fortresses such as Simtokha Dzong which guards the entrance to Thimphu valley. An insightful leader, he used cultural symbols as well as military force to establish a Bhutanese national identity, including the initiation of a number of sacred dances to be performed in the annual tsechu festivals.

The Shabdrung also established the dual system of government by which control of the country was shared between a spiritual leader (the Je Khempo ) and an administrative leader (the Desi Druk ), a policy which exists in modified form to this day.

Treaties with Britain

Although subject to periodic Tibetan invasions from the north, Bhutan has retained continuous autonomy since its founding by the Shabdrung. In the early 1700s, the Bhutanese invaded the kingdom of Cooch Behar to the south, placing it under Bhutanese suzerainty. In 1772 the Cooch Behari appealed to the British East India Company who joined with the Behari in driving the Bhutanese out and attacking Bhutan itself in 1774. A peace treaty was concluded in which Bhutan pulled back to its pre-1730 borders. The peace was not to hold, however, and border conflicts with the British were to continue for the next hundred years including the Duar War (1864-1865), fought over control of the Bengal Duars.

Civil wars

The 1870s and 1880s were marked by civil war between the rival power centers of Paro and Trongsa valleys. In 1885 Ugyen Wangchuck , the penlop (governor) of Trongsa, gained control of the country and ended the civil war, aided by support from the British (the penlop of Paro being aligned with the Tibetans).

Establishment of the monarchy

Under British influence a monarchy was set up in 1907 which established Wangchuck as absolute ruler of Bhutan. Three years later a treaty was signed whereby the country became a British protectorate.

Independence in 1949

Independence was attained in 1949, with India subsequently guiding foreign relations and supplying aid.

Emergence from isolation

Under the direction of Bhutan's third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan adopted a policy of gradual exposure to the outside world. Bhutan gained United Nations recognition as a sovereign country in 1971.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the present and fourth king in the line, ascended to the throne in 1972 at age 17 upon the death of his father. His coronation in June 1974 was the occasion for inviting a select number of diplomats and guests from around the world to the isolated kingdom, marking the beginning of regular (if modest) interaction with outside visitors.

The fourth kings has since shown great skill in steering his country towards 21st century modernity while preserving the distinctive Bhutanese cultural with its roots in the 17th century. He is best known in the West for his goal of seeking the highest 'Gross National Happiness' for his country, rather than the more conventional Gross National Product.

Current threats to stability

Assamese separatists

Several guerilla groups seeking to establish and independent Assamese state in northeast India have set up guerilla bases in the forests of southern Bhutan from which they launch cross-border attacks on targets in Assam. The largest guerilla group is ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom). Negotiations aimed at removing them peacefully from these bases failed in the spring of 2003. Bhutan is faced with the prospect of having to strengthen its token army force to obtain an eviction of the guerillas, or risk giving India a pretense and reason for annexing Bhutan itself as the 23rd state of India.

Military action against Assamese separatists December 2003

On 15 December 2003 the Royal Bhutan Army began military operations against guerilla camps in southern Bhutan, in coordination with Indian armed forces who lined the border to the south to prevent the guerillas from dispersing back into Assam. News sources indicated that of the 30 camps that were target, 13 were controlled by ULFA, 12 camps by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and 5 camps controlled by the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO)[1]. By January, government news reports indicated the guerillas had been routed from their bases.

Ethnic Nepalese refugees

In 1988 Bhutan evicted over 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents from districts in southern Bhutan, creating a large refugee community that is now being detained in seven temporary United Nations refugee camps in Nepal. After years of negotiations between Nepal and Bhutan as to their status, in 2000 Bhutan agreed in principle to allow certain classes of the refugees to return to Bhutan. However none have been allowed to do so yet. Significant unrest is now reported to be fomenting in the camps, especially as the United Nations terminates a number of educational and welfare programmes in an effort to force Bhutan and Nepal to come to terms.

Bhutanese Communist Party (BCP)

The UN refugee camps appear to be have been the spawning grounds of the new Bhutan Communist Party , the BCP, which announced itself in April 2003 and called for an overthrow of the monarchy, and perhaps to establish a 'people's war' similar to the nearby Nepalese People's War. A related organization, the Bhutanese Revolutionary Students Union (BRSU), has claimed responsibility for the September 2001 assassination in India of R K Budhathoki, the exiled founder of the Bhutan People's Party , a rival anti-monarchy group.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45