Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure.
It may have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C., but not much was known
until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century A.D. when
turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. In the 12th century
A.D., the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant
form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately
tied to its religious history and the relations among the various monastic
schools and monasteries.
The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when Ngawana Namgyal, a
lama from Tibet, defeated three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious
schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established
himself as ruler (shabdrung) over a system of ecclesiastical and civil
administrators. After his death, infighting and civil war eroded the power
of the shabdrung for the next 200 years when in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck was
able to consolidate power and cultivated closer ties with the British in
In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan,
crowned on December 17, 1907, and installed as the head of state Druk Gyalpo
(Dragon King). In 1910, King Ugyen and the British signed the Treaty of
Punakha which provided that British India would not interfere in the internal
affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted external advice in its external
relations. When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, his son Jigme Wangchuck became
the next ruler, and when India gained independence in 1947, the new Indian
Government recognized Bhutan as an independent country. In 1949, India
and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which provided that
India would not interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs but would be guided
by India in its foreign policy. Succeeded in 1952 by his son Jigme Dorji
Wangchuck, Bhutan began to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a
program of planned development. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations
in 1971, and during his tenure the National Assembly was established and
a new code of law, as well as the Royal Bhutanese Army and the High Court.
In 1972, the present king, Jigme Singye Wanchuck, ascended the throne
at age 16. He has emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance,
the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural
developments. The current king has established an overarching development
philosophy of "Gross National Happiness." It recognizes that there are
many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient.
Traditionally a decentralized theocracy and, since 1907, a monarchy,
Bhutan is evolving into a constitutional monarchy with a representative
government. In 2002, the election laws were changed so that each citizen
over the age of 21 could vote by secret ballot for a representative to
the National Assembly (Tshongdu) when previously, only one vote per family
was allowed. The Tshongdu is composed of about 150 members, including some
appointed from the Monk Body as well as some senior government representatives.
They in turn elect the Council of Ministers. Prior to 2003, the Council
had six members and rotated the responsibility as prime minister and head
of government between each one for a period of one year, but in 2003, the
National Assembly elected four additional ministers and also selected a
prime minister to serve for the next 3 years.
In recent years, insurgents on the Indian side of the border from the
United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Bodos have used Bhutan
as a safe haven. Bhutan has requested the insurgents to leave on several
occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the Bhutanese Government finds itself
facing an increased number of insurgents in 2003 and has threatened military
action against them if negotiations for their voluntary withdrawal fail.
Nepal and Bhutan are currently negotiating to resolve a 13-year-old
refugee situation, in which 100,000 refugees are residing in seven UNHCR
camps in Nepal. Most of the refugees claim they are Bhutanese citizens,
while Bhutan alleges that most are non-nationals or "voluntary emigrants,"
who forfeited their citizenship rights. In 2003, a joint Bhutan-Nepal verification
team categorized refugees from one camp into four groups.