Dialogue  April-June 2009 , Volume 10 No. 4

Exclusive Democracy in Last Shangrila – Bhutan

Rongthong Kunley Dorji


Bhutan, a small Himalayan Kingdom nestled between two giants of Asia, China in the north and India in the south and known to world as the last Shangrila became the world’s youngest democracy in 2008, with the adoption of its first ever written constitution. The country also celebrated 100 years of the institution of the Wangchuck dynasty. The festivities culminated with the coronation of the fifth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, who became the youngest monarch in the world and the first constitutional head of democratic Bhutan.

However, in the midst of the festivities and celebration, pioneers and distinguished forbearers of the democratic struggle were legally excluded from participating in the historical transition and celebrations. The conspicuous absence of these leaders has raised the genuineness of the democratization in Bhutan. Exiled leaders decried that the democracy in Bhutan is farce and staged to hoodwink the international community from the pressing political issues at home and the humanitarian crisis surrounding the one hundred thousand Bhutanese refugees sheltered in eastern Nepal. Typical of Bhutanese fondness for exclusiveness, western tourists are more familiar of Bhutanese exclusiveness as they have to shell out US $300 per day for a stay in Bhutan. In total rebuke to democrats, Bhutan also instituted this exclusive democracy in clinical precision.

Political system during the pre-Monarchy era

Bhutan’s history is obscure because of its historical records being lost to fires and natural calamities. Until the fifteenth century, Bhutan was known as a ‘Lho-Mon”, a land south of Tibet inhabited by savages. The country was divided into numerous estates and principalities among numerous clan chieftains, who always engaged themselves in fighting to prevail over others. However, no one succeeded until the arrival in Bhutan of Zhabdrung Nagwang Namgyal1 (1594-1651), a Tibetan lama. A religious leader, charismatic, visionary and able administrator, he fought numerous wars and unified the country under a single central administration in 1637, and named the country ‘Druk Gyalkhab” (Land of dragon) and its inhabitants as Drukpa. A typical theocratic form of government was instituted and he named it “Choe-Sid system” or the dual system of governance, where the Je Khenpo was in-charge of religious matters as the head of the Drukpa Kargyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan, while the Desid (Deb Raja) was in-charge of state affairs. The Desid was nominated by the Punakha Dzongpon, the Thimphu Dzongpon, the Wangdi Phodrang Dzongpon, the Zhung Droneyer, the Zhung Kalyeon, the Zhung Dongsapa, the Tongsa Penlop, the Paro Penlop, the Daga Penlop and the Zhung Draktshang. The Je Khenpo on the other hand, was appointed from amongst the Dorji Lopen, the Yangbi Lopen, the Drabi Lopen, the Tshenyi Lopen and the Dratshang Umzey. The Dorji Lopen was usually considered the first choice for the post of the Je Khenpo, since he was usually the most learned among the group. Both these positions had a fixed tenure of three years, but it wasn’t uncommon for their tenures to be extended.

The sheer forceful personality of the Zhabdrung and reverence for him ensured that the country remained peaceful for a half century even after his death. After the official announcement of his demise, the regional Penlops (barons) and Dzongpons then reinstated the earlier system of local Chieftains. They were back into their old game-fighting. However, this time, a price was much bigger. Everybody tried to manipulate the system to become the Desid or to appoint their man to occupy the post. This infighting and intrigues in the country catapulted Jigme Namgyal, a cunning and courageous man who changed the course of Bhutan’s history forever.


 Jigme Namgyal (1824-1881), the architect of Bhutanese monarchy and the father of the first King, Ugyen Wangchuck, rose to become the governor of Tongsa in 1853, after ten years of service from the lowest ranks of the administration. Because of his farsighted vision and tact, he exploited the civil-war like atmosphere to his advantage by slowly removing rivals and potential rival through intrigues. To ensure his supreme authority, he appointed his loyal, trusted associates and relatives to important governmental posts. In fact, the Desid was more like a figurehead, while real power was vested with the Tongsa Penlop, a fact well documented by Sir Asley Eden’s political mission (British India) in 1863 and its failure that led to the subsequent Anglo-Bhutan war in 1864-1866. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sinchula in 1866. Bhutan was defeated and lost the territory of 18 Duars and Kalimpong to British India. Jigme Namgyal became the Druk Desid twice in 1877-1878 and1880-1881. He died in 1881 after completing the majority of the groundwork for his son’s eventual tryst with destiny.

The first King, Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926) inherited his father’s farsighted vision, idealism, passion and tact. He became the Paro Penlop in 1878. A coup d’etat staged by the Dzongpons of Tashichodzong, Paro, Wangdi and Punakha unseated Desid Gawa Zabgpo and appointed their man, Sanjay Dorji. The battles of Changlimithang ensued in 1885. He defeated the plotter and victory established him as the undisputed leader in Bhutan. This battle also ended the civil war situation in Bhutan since 1705. He became the Tongsa Penlop in 1886.

His contribution to the success of Young Husband mission to Tibet in 1904 received appreciation from British India. He visited Calcutta in 1906 at British India’s invitation. After 256 years and 57 Desids, he was enthroned as the first hereditary King of Bhutan on 17th December, 1907, with the blessing of the British. He died in 1926 and was succeeded by the 2nd King, Jigme Wangchuck (1905-1952).

During the reign of 2nd King, Indo-Bhutan treaty was signed in 1948. A perpetual friendship with independent India was achieved even though, Bhutan have to take advice from India on regard to Defence and external affairs. The treaty was finally reviewed in 2007 and obliterated the archaic provisions like need for the Government of India’s advice to Bhutan in the areas of Defence and its external affairs. However, the compensations Bhutan so far received for 18 Duars was absent in the new treaty.

Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972) was a paramagnetic leader unafraid to experiment new ideas. He valued the strength in people and spent the rest of his life in developing systemic changes to uplift the quasi-feudal society. As soon as he ascended the throne, he abolished serfdom and feudal caste divisions. He founded the National Assembly in 1953 as the highest decision making body in the country. He saw his country’s precariousness, yet recognized the importance of geopolitical strategy interests of both neighbors. He visited India in 1954 and strengthened the Indo-Bhutan relationship that resulted in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India visiting Bhutan in 1958. Nehru had to undertake a 2-week long yak ride to reach Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Jigme Dorji Wangchuk founded the supreme law in 1959. With assistance from India, he catalyzed Bhutan’s first five year plan in 1961, and the first ever vehicular road was built and Thimphu was connected to the Indian National Highways. In 1968, a High Court was instituted. Bhutan also became the 125th member of United Nations Organization in 1971. His work was cut short when he died in 1972 at a fairly young age of 44 years.

The Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, ascended the throne at a tender age of 17 years. His uncle and mother were at the helm of the government until 1980, whereafter he took over the rein of state affairs and started to implement policies that sowed the seed for political outburst.

The Democratic struggle in its infancy

I. Sharchop2 rebellion

                The Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972) introduced taxation reforms similar to India’s in 1952. The people of Gomdar, Narphung, Kangpar, bordering the Indian territory were unhappy with the government’s new tax system. They believed people in India paid less tax. So, some four hundred house-holds thought that joining India would absolve their tax woes. Under the leadership of Kangpar Lha-tshap and Narphung Khotsa33.

Author interviewed him in 1973 after his release from prison, a delegation went to Shillong, Maghalaya and met Lal Sahib (the Governor) and presented their appeal. These people were ignorant of Delhi and thought Lal Sahib in Shillong was the India’s supreme leader. The Lal Sahib informed the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who intimated the King of Bhutan about the issue. King dispatched Gyalpo Zimpoen (Royal Chamberlain) Thinley Dorji, the present Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s father to suppress the rebellion.

 He arrested more than forty people. Those arrested were taken to Punakha and imprisoned for 12 to 20 years. More than ten people were thrown alive into river. Like Kanglung, Shek-tala, who was initially imprisoned for four years but later on, Lyonchen Jigme Palden Dorji, the then Prime Minister had him thrown alive into the Punakha River. Many families fled the villages and took refuge in India. At present there are some two hundred house-holds living since then in India, scattered in Maghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

II. Lhotshampa4 rebellion

                A section of Lhotshampas from Tsirang and Samchi districts formed the “Bhutan State Congress in 1952. Advocates of this party were adherent supporters pursuing the cause of a Greater Nepal and had a tacit understanding with Nepalese democratic leaders whom they had met at Banaras, India, while pursuing Sanskrit education at Benaras Hindu University (BHU). However, their objective was foiled by government. Many people including leaders were arrested. Those arrested faced a similar fate like that of their Sharchop counterparts. Some fled to India. Mr D B Gurung5 returned to Bhutan in 1970, after receiving a royal pardon in 1969. He also received a pension of Rs.1000/- and a chauffer driven car. After his death in 1976, the erstwhile Bhutan State Congress came to an end.

Refugees and the birth of political parties

 A nationwide census was conducted in 1988 on the basis of The Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985 which upholds the 1958 Citizenship Act. Because of the disproportionate rise in ‘illegal ethnic Nepalese’ and Bhutan’s statutorily requirement of both parents to be Bhutanese citizens to be eligible for Bhutanese citizenship created problems with bonafide Bhutanese citizens. There are many factors contributing to the rise of disproportionate ‘aliens’ but, members of the royal family, ministers and elite Lhotshampa are the main contributors.

To begin with, thousands of ethnic Nepalese from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, and from across the border were brought inside Bhutan to work in orchards and farms of the royal family and ministers in southern Bhutan. The census team didn’t have the guts to brand them as ‘illegal’ since the royal family employed them. Likewise, elite Lhothsampas too recruited Nepalese from across the border to work in their orchards and farms. Permission to recruit labourers was granted by the concerned authorities but the authorities never checked whether these labourers had left or not after the expiry of their permits.

 Elite and educated Lhothsampas brought brides from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Nepal and Sikkim along with her relatives. Similarly, Lhothsampa females married from outside the country, but contrary to their tradition, their husbands and their families also came to Bhutan due to prospects of better opportunities. It will be relevant to state here that Bhutan has the highest land per capita in the whole of South Asia.

Mr. Teknath Rizal, a member of the Royal Advisory Council, along with friends, put forward a petition to the King to look into this matter in 1988. Unfortunately, the King relied heavily on the inputs of Mr. Rizal and the Home Ministry under Dago Tshering. Both didn’t report the ground facts prevailing then. While one was trying to seek vendetta, the other was misplacing sympathy. Though Mr. Rizal was unceremoniously terminated from the post of Royal Councilor, he escaped imprisonment after receiving a royal pardon. He fled Bhutan for Nepal and formed the People’s Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan (PFHR). This underground organization distributed pamphlets drafted by Mr. Raten Gagmere, a biology lecturer in Bhutan. The Government discovered their underground activities and some thirty people were arrested. Teknath Rizal, Jogen Gazmere, and Sushil Pokhrel were extradited from Nepal in 1989. Mr. Teknath Rizal was released in 1998 after a decade behind bars.

The democratic struggle in its youth

In 1990, under the leadership of R. K. Budathoki, a revolution took place in southern Bhutan. Their sole objective was granting of citizenship rights. Due to the rise in the number of displaced people, a transitory camp was established at Garganda, India. Later on, due to certain political reasons, it was shifted to Nepal. In late 1991, there were only 2-3 thousand Bhutanese refugees sheltered in Nepal. In Samchi and Sarbang, the King personally requested the people not to leave the country. The people, however, were intimidated by the forces of the Government and thus replied to the King that they were leaving the Kingdom. The King in a fit of anger chased away thousands of Lhothsampas from the Bhutan.

 The UNHCR looks after the refugee camps and provides education and basic amenities and other services. Many human rights organization were formed in the camps. Some political outfits like Bhutan People’s Party (BPP) and Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) were also formed.

Political parties began campaigning for human rights and citizenship rights of the refugees. These parties were more like human rights organizations and less like political parties and suffered from credibility problems. Firstly, the parties were formed by ethnic Nepalese dissidents and their area of operation was centered in the refugee camps in Nepal. Secondly, most of the leaders were young and many questioned their maturity and grasp of political understanding. Thirdly, other communities inside Bhutan frowned upon them for burning of the National dress, Gho and Kira6, an apparel identified and associated with the majority ethnic, Sharchop and Naglong communities. Fourthly, infighting broke out between parties on the question of camp management.

A matured political movement

After my imprisonment and torture in Bhutan in 1991 for my alleged role in ‘a rebellious movement’ headed by Mr. Budathoki, and my consequent release after finding no evidence to support the charges, I fled Bhutan and took refuge in Nepal.

Because of the open rebellion by the Lhotshampa community, the Government had resorted to an iron fist rule. The people were persecuted for the slightest dissidence. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned without proper trial. I daily received the reports of government abuses in Bhutan and people inside the country repeatedly requested me to establish a political party. After weighing the pros and cons, I formed the Druk National Congress in 1994 in Nepal. The basic ideological premise of the DNC is that only the establishment of constitutional Monarchy in Bhutan can bring about a just and humane solution to the political crisis including that of the refugees.

However, I was aware of the factors responsible for the failure of the 1952 movements in the east and the south as well as the movement under Budathoki. I held numerous meetings with organizations and leaders. Finally, in 1996, various political and human rights organizations in exiles jointly formed the United Front for Democracy (UFD), with me as its Chairman. It comprised of almost all the educated and intellectual section of the Bhutanese in exile. In the capacity of Chairman of the UFD, I came to Delhi twice to garner the support of the Indian people. But, I was arrested by the Government of India in 1997, at the request of the Royal Government of Bhutan. The plan was to whisk me away to Bhutan. However, I was saved from being sent to Bhutan due to the timely judicial intervention. I was kept in judicial custody for fourteen months and received bail in 1998. Extradition proceeding is still continuing in the Courts.

A mass protest throughout Bhutan had been planned, but my imprisonment derailed this. People inside Bhutan were discouraged because of India’s action. Most people inside Bhutan became hopeless and feared after witnessing my fate. People witnessed the Government of Bhutan’s long tentacles in the form of the Government of India. But, in 0ctober 1997, Eastern Bhutanese staged a mass protest rally and demonstration against the RGOB for its discriminatory religious policies, despite heavy odds stacked against them. All the participants were members of the DNC. The RGOB suppressed them, imprisoning 200-300 people and even brutally killed two. The people were given various sentences, ranging from 5 to 13 years rigorous imprisonment.

My arrest and subsequent press coverage in Delhi had a great effect on Bhutan. For the first time, the international community came to know about the absence of democracy in Bhutan and the treatment of Bhutanese refugees by the Royal Government of Bhutan. In order to present Bhutan’s commitment to democratic ideals and to discredit our claims, the fourth King was forced to constitute a new system of ministry and introduced one-year term for the Prime Minister and voting for ministers.

The UFD became non-functional after my imprisonment, despite the appointment of an acting Chairman. In reality, a majority of exiled leaders were apprehensive of travelling to India fearing the possibility of meeting the same fate as me. The political center shifted once again back to Nepal from India. For some years, the movement slowed down. Moreover, the agents of RGOB infiltrated into various organizations based in exile including my party and it successfully brought its split in 2001. But the main objective of the RGOB – to banish the DNC from the face of this earth – was not achieved, since DNC enjoys a strong membership and support within Bhutan.

Democracy sets roots in Bhutan

In October, 2004, during the fourth King’s eight day working visit to India, his principal secretary, Dasho Pema Wangchen met me at my residence at Delhi with a message that I should return to Bhutan. We discussed and covered a wide range of topics, including religion and issue of refugees. My conditions for return were the establishment of democracy under constitutional monarchy and legal ensuring of human rights. But I received no further response. In retrospect, I understood the actual reason for the visit. Most of my opinions on democracy appeared in the Draft Constitution that was released on the 26th of March, 2005, by the King. We welcomed it and also submitted suggestions to seek further improvements in the Constitution.

The King along with the then Crown Prince toured Bhutan to inform the people about the Constitution. But unfortunately, there was never any public discussion. In same year, the King also informed the nation that the Draft Constitution would be adopted in 2008. But in 2006, he abdicated the throne, contravening his doctored Constitutional provision where the King will have to resign at 65. His premature resignation at 51 years brings out several plausible answers. The most significant being his unpopular, coldhearted and uncompassionate and family-centric policies that had sullied his image, rendering it incompatible with Bhutan’s democratic era. It was all of his own making. The Crown Prince had a clean image without any apparent incumbency baggage. Handing over the reins to a new Monarch would reinstate the King’s image and also enable him to rule from behind curtain.

Despite the Constitutional provision requiring a multi-party system in Bhutan, only two political parties have been allowed to operate, both having close proximity with the Palace. One of the parties is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by Mr. Sangay Nidup, maternal uncle of the King, and the second is the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), headed by Mr. Jigme Thinley, the matrimonial relative of the King. On 14th November, 2008, Jigme Thinley’s son, Palden Y Thinley, married the princess, Kesang Choden, bringing him even closer to Royals. The third party, Bhutan People’s United Party (BPUP), formed by Mr. Sigay Dorji, was disqualified/unregistered by the Election Commission on November 27, 2007, on the ground that this party doesn’t have will, competence, experience, qualification and appropriate support to contest elections. In fact this party showed the signs of commitment to a genuine democracy by repeatedly questioning the existing polices of the regime, unlike the other two parties. In addition, all political parties in exile including us are banned.

The regime introduced a ridiculous and outrageous stipulation in the Election Act, as a prerequisite eligibility criteria, i.e., candidates aiming to contest elections to the Parliament, must have a university degree of the western education format. This exclusive provision of the Election Act means that 90% of the population are excluded from representing their people in the Parliament, and will never be able to contribute actively towards nation-building. Thus, patriotic, experienced and loyal nationalists are legally denied any role in determining the polity of the nation. This has happened because the King very well understands that his past policies have created dissatisfaction among the large section of the population. If these people get an opportunity in any democratic set up, he will be cornered from all quarters and there will be an imminent mutiny. Therefore, he allowed only his bureaucratic cronies to participate in political process, because they were hand-in-glove in the past policies and benefits. Besides, he also suppressed the latent disquiet and dissent in middle class by offering a share of democracy pie.

The elections to the National Council was held before the elections to the National Assembly, in contravention of the practice prevalent in many democratic countries. The election to the National Council was held in a stifling atmosphere, and the regime conducted the elections to the National Assembly on March 24, 2008, in the similar circumstances. The results of elections to both houses have vindicated our apprehension. Majority of contestants and winners come from a bureaucratic background. Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) won 45 seats out of 47. People’s Democratic Party (PDP), managed to win two seats. Interestingly, Mr. Sangay Nidup failed to win in his own constituency. The resounding defeat for PDP was due to excessive suppression suffered by public under the King’s in-laws. The massive DPT win was because of the lack of alternatives and the limited choice available to people of Bhutan to vote for. After the elections, Mr Sangay Nidup submitted his resignation to the party. But the party Central Committee then had rejected his resignation on the grounds that it would send a negative massage to party cadres throughout the country. But he again submitted his resignation during last December from the post of party president and this time, it was accepted by party secretary. For the moment the PDP is headless.


The Institution of democracy and the adoption of the Constitution is a huge achievement for Bhutanese political leaders. Some credit must also go to India for putting pressure on Bhutan. Though it is exclusive, the political leaders must take some satisfaction in their work. Instead of condemning the democracy, every leader in exile in my opinion must consider it as a sum of the fruits of their sacrifice and their protracted and hard struggle. The new challenge is huge. But, we must work to ensure that the attitude and approach of the new Government in Bhutan changes. The Royal Government of Bhutan must include the excluded. The necessity of the exiled political parties’ inclusion in Bhutanese democratic process is a must. Moderate exiled political parties have not accepted the agenda of the uprising extremist groups. They are in fact trying to prevent a violent culture getting into Bhutan for the sake of peace and stability in the country. However, if the government’s indifference continues, there is a possibility of extremist groups elbowing the moderate groups into periphery or joining hands together. The resulting consequences will be disastrous for Bhutan and to India as well. India cannot afford an unstable nascent democracy embroiled in unrest. As for me, life comes in full circle. I hope I will be back in Bhutan in near future.


    1  Father of Nation (Bhutan) and the head of temporal and secular.

    2  The inhabitants of eastern Bhutan are called Sharchop.

    3  author interviewed him in 1973 after his release from prison.

    4  Bhutanese citizen of Nepali origin are called Lhotshampa.

    5  Author met him and interviewed him at Thimphu in 1972.

    6  Ten thousand people burnt Gho and Kira at Gelephu.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati