Country profile: Bhutan
Country profile: Bhutan
Bhutan is a tiny, remote and impoverished kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China.
Almost completely cut off for centuries, it has tried to let in some aspects of the outside world while fiercely guarding its ancient traditions.
The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul, means “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and it only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s.
The Wangchuk hereditary monarchy has wielded power since 1907. But Bhutan became a two-party parliamentary democracy after elections in March 2008. This gave a landslide victory to the pro-monarchy Bhutan Harmony Party of former prime minister Jigme Thinley. The opposition People’s Democratic Party also supports the monarchy.
Bhutan’s ancient Buddhist culture and breathtaking scenery make it a natural tourist attraction.
Tourism is restricted; visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour. Backpackers and independent travellers are discouraged.
King Wangchuk has gone to great lengths to preserve the indigenous Buddhist culture of the majority Drukpa, who have a common culture with the Tibetans and other Himalayan peoples.
National dress is compulsory – the knee-length wrap-around “gho” for men and the ankle-length dress known as the “kira” for women.
But by the 1990s, attempts to stress the majority Buddhist culture and the lack of any political representation had led to deep resentment among the ethnic Nepali community in the south.
Violence erupted and tens of thousands of Nepali speakers fled to refugee camps in Nepal.
Some 100,000 refugees live in UN-supervised camps in Nepal. Out of this refugee population have sprung a number insurgent groups – the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), the Bhutan Tiger Force and the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan.
The Bhutanese security forces believe they are behind a wave of bombings that has rocked the kingdom in the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections.
The leaders of Nepal and Bhutan had promised to try and repatriate the refugees before the elections. However, progress on this front has been negligeable, with only a small trickle of refugees leaving the camps back for Bhutan.
India does not allow the refugees onto its territory which lies between Bhutan and Nepal, and although the US and some other countries have agreed to accept tens of thousands of the refugees, some refugee leaders say that the only acceptable path is complete repatriation to Bhutan.
Head of state: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck succeeded his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, in December 2006 after the former monarch announced his abdication. A formal coronation has yet to take place.
The new king, who was 26 at the time, promised to build on his father’s efforts to transform the country into a parliamentary democracy. His predecessor gave up some of his absolute powers in 1998 and ruled in conjunction with the government, an assembly and a royal advisory council.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck studied in the US and at Oxford University, where he completed an MA in politics.
His father came to the throne in 1972 at the age of 17, assuming the title of “Druk Gyalpo” or Dragon King.
Partly educated in Britain, and having travelled abroad, the king continued the policy of limited modernisation adopted by his father. He sought to lift the “Gross National Happiness” of Bhutan by preserving its traditions and environment.
He was seen as maintaining a simple lifestyle – preferring to work in a small log cabin above the capital rather than in the fortress-like palace used by his four wives, all of whom are sisters.
Prime Minister: Jigme Thinley
Jigme Thinley became Bhutan’s first elected prime minister following the country’s first polls in March 2008.
He is the leader of the Bhutan Harmony Party, which won most votes in the parliamentary election.
The election was intended to mark the completion of the country’s peaceful transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. The move to democratic rule was ordered by the state’s popular royal house, the Wangchuks.
Mr Thinley has served as prime minister on two previous occasions, although the post has hitherto rotated among members of the council of ministers.
He can be expected to wield more power and serve as long as he retains the confidence of parliament and the king.
Born in 1952, he was foreign minister between 1998 and 2003 and later served as home affairs minister.
Television did not arrive in Bhutan until 1999. For years, the country pursued a policy of isolation, fearing that outside influences would undermine its monarchy and culture.
State-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) launched a TV service as part of celebrations surrounding King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s silver jubilee.
Radio broadcasting began in 1973 and the internet arrived in 1999.
Media freedom is restricted. Reporters Without Borders says the monarchy “makes few allowances for pluralist news”.
There are no private broadcasters, but cable TV thrives, with rival services offering dozens of Indian and international channels.