Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck’s (1862-1926) reputation as statesman swelled amongst the people of Bhutan when he took over the helm of affairs of eastern Bhutan as Trongsa Penlop in 1882. This, however, injected fear into his adopted brothers Thimphu Dzongpon Alo Dorji and Punakha Dzongpon Phuntsho Dorji. The assassination plan that they conspired led to the Battle of Changlimithang of 1885. This event, often described as Bhutan’s “last civil war”, consolidated Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck’s authority as the undisputed leader of Bhutan. A man of vision and a seasoned diplomat, he successfully restored the prolonged strained relations between British-India and Bhutan by accompanying Younghusband to Tibet in 1904 as a mediator. As a mark of appreciation for successful mediation in 1904 between Tibet and the British he was accorded with the insignia of the Knight Commander of the Indian Empire in Punakha Dzong in 1905.
The people of Bhutan felt the need to institute a system that would ensure peace and order that had been restored by the Trongsa Penlop. The unanimous response to this need was the enthroning of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan on December 17, 1907, in Punakha Dzong by a body of monks, Penlops, Dzongpons of different districts, and people’s representatives. The crowning of Bhutan’s first king ushered in a period of unity, prosperity and peace in the country that had been in civil strife for years.
One of the first responsibilities undertaken by the King was the revising of 1865 Treaty of Sinchula and signing of the Treaty of Punakha on January 8, 1910. The signing of the treaty ensured a lasting peace and friendship between British-India and Bhutan.
Another contribution of the First Druk Gyalpo was the establishment of Bhutan’s first school in Haa in 1914 besides enrolling 46 Bhutanese boys in Dr. Graham’s Homes, a Scottish mission school in Kalimpong. Later, in 1915, another school was started at the King’s palace in Bumthang. By 1919-20, there were 21 students studying in Bumthang and 28 in Haa.
After the demise of the Founder of the Wangchuck Dynasty in 1926, Jigme Wangchuck (1905-1952) was enthroned as the Second Druk Gyalpo on March 14, 1927, at Punakha. His Majesty’s reign can be best described as a period of consolidation and national integration.
He instituted the Nangi Lhengye Zhi, the central cabinet, that comprised four important officials. Many unnecessary posts were abolished and the powers of the dzongpons reduced easing the tax burden on the people. The Druk Gyalpo also centralized and created an effective system of revenue collection that was used for development activities. When the reign of the nation was passed down to the third king, Bhutan had been transformed from a feudal society to a modern state.
The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949 was signed on August 8 in Darjeeling. The treaty was the basis for the friendly and cordial relations between Bhutan and India for more than half a century. Replacing the 1910 Treaty of Punakha that Bhutan had signed with the British-India, the 1949 Treaty focused primarily on friendship and peaceful co-existence, and free trade and commerce between the two countries.
His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972) was enthroned in 1952 as the third hereditary king of Bhutan. Known as the Father of Modern Bhutan, His Majesty initiated numerous reforms.
The first political reform taken by His Majesty was the establishment of Tshogdu, the National Assembly, in 1953 creating a representative form of government and making Bhutan a constitutional monarchy. The Tshogdu aimed at involving the people in decision making and eventually develop a politically conscious society. In 1968, the rules and regulations of the National Assembly were revised with the King voluntarily surrendering his veto power for the decisions of the Tshogdu. Further, the power to pass the vote of no-confidence and remove the ministers and the King himself was entrusted to the National Assembly. Another milestone in the political reform is the institution of the Lodroe Tshogde, the Royal Advisory Council, in 1965. The Royal Advisory Council served as the coordinating link between the legislature and the executive. The council advised the king and the council of ministers on key issues of policy and ensured the implementation of the resolutions passed by the National Assembly. The institutions of the Tshogdu and Lodroe Tshogde guaranteed that the voices of the people were heard through their representatives. This was one of the first initiatives toward decentralized decision making.
The freedom granted to the serfs is a great gift of His Majesty. The serfs were given land and resettled away from their masters to avoid any tensions and uneasy feelings that might brew between them. They could now enjoy the fruits of their sweat and be free and full citizens.
The visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1958 became an epoch making event in the relations between the two countries. The visit marked the first step toward planned economic development in Bhutan. A new beginning in the process of economic development was made in 1961 with the initiation of the First Five Year Plan with a budget of Rs 174.7 million. The Plan aimed primarily at building basic infrastructure like road, communication system, agriculture, animal husbandry, transport and power. The planned economic development propelled the country on the path of economic progress.
The visit by the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, on May 2, 1968, retraced her father’s footsteps and further cemented the Indo-Bhutanese friendship. In the same year, Bhutan accepted the Indian proposal to set up an envoy of the Indian Government in Thimphu. This was a wise and timely decision as the political, economic and cultural relations between the two nations was steadily growing. In May 1971, Lyonpo Pema Wangchuk presented his credentials as the ambassador of Bhutan to India while his Indian counterpart, B.S. Das, did in July the same year. In April 1970, President V.V. Giri became the first Indian head of state to visit Bhutan.
Bhutan also applied for United Nations membership and attended its General Assembly in 1970 as an observer. Thereafter, with the support of India, Bhutan became the UN member on September 21, 1971. Bhutan’s admission to the UN was represented by HRH Prince Namgyel Wangchuck, Lyonpo Sangay Penjor and Lyonpo Dawa Tsering. The UN soon became a gateway to the world for Bhutan as it enhanced its bilateral and multilateral relations. It also allowed Bhutan to become partners of development projects and received both technical and financial support from the UN agencies. Bhutan’s sovereign status was further strengthened through the UN membership.
The untimely demise of the Father of Modern Bhutan on July 21, 1972, thrust the responsibility of steering the nation to Trongsa Penlop Jigme Singye Wangchuck (b.1955) at the age of 17 with formal coronation held on June 2, 1974.
Bhutan joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1973. Later, at the 1976 NAM summit His Majesty emphasized that the ever increasing expenditure on weapons of mass destruction was a vicious cycle leading mankind ever closer to disaster.
In an interview with the Indian media in 1979, His Majesty declared that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product (GDP). In 1986, the Financial Times of London ran an article titled “Gross National Happiness”, making the concept known to the western world. GNH has today become the guiding philosophy of Bhutan’s development. The concept of GNH is based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.
Decentralization has been the driving force of major reforms during the reign of the Fourth King. In 1981, the Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogdu was established, shifting the policy making decisions from the centre to the 20 districts of Bhutan. Later, in 1991, Geog Yargye Tshogchung was also instituted taking decentralization down to the grassroots. With the participation of the people in formulating the plans the people identified themselves with the plan and took greater responsibilities.
Bhutan became a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. Underscoring the rationale for regional cooperation in South Asia, His Majesty said at the first SAARC summit in 1985: “We have to bear in mind that in spite of all our heterogeneity, we are geographically one homogeneous unit, that our peoples have lived together in peace and friendship for countless centuries, and that they share many values rooted in our common past.”
The commissioning of the Bhutan’s first mega hydropower project, the 336-MW Chhukha Hydroelectric Project, in 1986 was a milestone in the economic progress of Bhutan. Till the 1,020-MW Tala Hydropower Project was commissioned in 2006, Chhukha was the biggest contributor to Bhutan’s exchequer. The National Revenue Report of 2005-2006 reveals that Chukha Hydropower contributed Nu 2,092.682 million, which is 30.01%, to the total revenue of Bhutan.
The greatest leap in the process of devolution of power took place in June 1998 when His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck dissolved the erstwhile cabinet and delegated executive powers to an elected Council of Ministers. The Royal Kasho issued to the 76th session of the National Assembly stated: “Our country must have a system of government, which enjoys the mandate of the people, provides clean and efficient government and has an in-built mechanism of checks and balances to safeguard our national interests and security.”
His Majesty also commanded the drafting of Bhutan’s first ever Constitution on November 30, 2001. Under the Chairmanship of Lyonpo Sonam Tobgay, the Chief Justice, the Constitution Drafting Committee referred to the constitutions of more than 50 countries and submitted the first draft to the Druk Gyalpo on December 9, 2002. The King declared before the Lhengye Zhungtshog on March 21, 2005, that “The adoption of the Constitution will provide the legal framework for a democratic political system that is best suited for Bhutan and will establish a system of governance that will safeguard the security and sovereignty of the nation and ensure the wellbeing of the Bhutanese people for all times to come.” In March 2005, the draft Constitution was released and consultations with the people in all the 20 districts took place.
Bhutan had become a hideout to the militant outfits like the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization. The presence of the insurgents posed a serious threat to the national security and endangered the lives of the people. When the repeated requests and dialogues held to make the militants leave the Bhutanese soil peacefully failed, His majesty led the Bhutanese forces to flush them out in December 2003. The operation was a great success; the militants were flushed out in an incredibly short span of three days.
On December 17, 2005, the Fourth King stunned the nation by announcing in Trashiyangtse that he will relinquish the throne in favor of Trongsa Penlop Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (b. 1980). Accordingly, on December 14, 2006, the Trongsa Penlop took over the Throne with the formal Coronation announced for 2008. Handing over the reins at a special sitting of the Lhengye Zhungtshog in 2006, His Majesty said: “It is my wish and prayer that during the reign of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Palden Drukpa will remain strong and glorious, that our country will achieve greater prosperity with the sun of peace and happiness shining on our people, that all the national objectives of the country and the hopes and aspirations of our people will be fulfilled and the Bhutanese people will enjoy a greater level of contentment and happiness.”
The Fifth King made his first public address as the King of Bhutan at the Changlimithang ground on December 17, 2006. The King said that his responsibilities, first and foremost, would be to safeguard and strengthen the peace and tranquility of the nation; the sovereignty and security of the country; fulfill the vision of Gross National Happiness and; strengthen the new system of democracy. The King said that these aspirations can be fulfilled by building a strong and dynamic economy with each and every Bhutanese striving for excellence in all their endeavors.
On February 8, 2007, Bhutan and India embarked on a new historic epoch of friendship and economic cooperation by revising the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty. The treaty was signed by His Majesty Jigme Khesar in the Indian capital, New Delhi.The revised treaty portrayed a commitment by the two countries to face new realities and committed, among others, not to allow the use of their territories for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other. The updating of the treaty was a reflection of the mutual desire of the two countries to enhance the relationship to an even higher level of cooperation and goodwill.
With the dates for Gyalyong Tshogde election set for December 31, 2007, and Gyalyong Tshogdu for 2008, the Election Commission of Bhutan began educating the people on taking part in the democratic process through media and mock elections. Currently there are two political parties: the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by former agriculture minister, Sangay Ngedup, and Druk Phuensum Tshokpa (DPT), led by the former home minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley.
Bhutan is on the threshold of entering into a new era of democracy with a new King and a new government. The journey ahead from 2008 lies in the hands of the people. People will now decide their own future. The government chosen by the people will steer the country. His Majesty Jigme Khesar is affectionately known as the “People’s King.” This clearly indicates that besides being a symbol of unity in a democratic country there is common wish that His Majesty will also continue to guide the new government. The path ahead is a challenge for Bhutan. It is time for the Bhutanese to tread with commitment to strive and carve out a strong democratic nation. If the Bhutan’s Man of Vision gifted Bhutan with democracy, it is the responsibility of the People’s King and Bhutanese to cherish this invaluable gift so that the next generation will inherit even better nation.
Reprinted from National Day complimentary advertisement booklet with the 17th December 2007 issue of the Bhutan Times.