EARLY POLITICAL HISTORY OF BHUTAN
The political forces that shaped Bhutan after its seventeenth- century unification were primarily internal until the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century. Thereafter, British pressure and protection influenced Bhutan and continued to do so until Britain's withdrawal from the mainland of South Asia in 1947. The nationalist movements that had brought independence to India had significant effects on Sikkim and Nepal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Despite the absence of political parties, political activities carried out by elite political factions have played a role since the 1960s. These factional politics have generally been devoid of ideology, focusing instead on specific issues or events. Only with the 1964 assassination of Lonchen Jigme Palden Dorji did factional politics cause a national crisis.
In the early 1990s, there were rumors that the exiled family of Yangki, the late Druk Gyalpo's mistress, including an illegitimate pretender to the throne, were garnering support among conservative forces in Bhutan to return to a position of authority.
Democracy in Bhutan
Bhutan adopted democracy quite late. After 100 years of absolute monarchy, it was finally declared a constitutional monarchy in 2008 and held its first ever general election the same year The country until then had no written constitution and the monarch was the supreme authority.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth king, began the process of democratizing Bhutan when he gave up some of his absolute powers in 1998. In March 2005, he unveiled the government's new draft constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms. In December 2006 he abdicated the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in order to give him experience as head of state before the democratic transition. The country’s first political parties were allowed to form in 2007. The constitution was put into effect in 2008. The first general election, in 2008, was contested by only two political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Sangay Negdrup and the Druk Phuntshum Tshogpa (DPT) led by Jigme Y. Thinley, both of whom had served as Prime Ministers under the monarch. The first general election was held in 2008. Only two parties took part, and the royalty-linked Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT) won. In second election, in 2013, opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) won.
Bhujel Dhan Kumar wrote in the South Asia Journal: “The first democratically elected government was formed by the DPT in July 2008 after its landslide victory with forty-five out of forty seven seats in the parliament. The country felt quite optimistic when Jigme Y. Thinley became its first democratic prime minister as he is considered an experienced man who had served the country in various capacities, including as foreign minister, home minister and prime minister under the absolute monarchy that preceded the election. Under the new government, the country saw numerous changes and developments but the government was not free from errors. [Source: Democracy in Bhutan: A Critical Assessment by Bhujel Dhan Kumar, South Asia Journal, July 8, 2015]
“The very first democratically elected government... completed its tenure on a controversial note. The government at times has shown an aggressive attitude toward criticism, but it ultimately learned to live with some of it. The autocratic behavior of the government is linked to the system followed during the monarchy that preceded it. The constitutional bodies and agencies have played their roles in upholding the democratic institutions and democratic values. Accordingly the media emerged strong and has been able to provide a greater platform for citizens to speak out. At times there have been clashes and divergent views between the democratic constitutional bodies but it has only made them become stronger in their functions. On the whole, democracy in Bhutan has been satisfactory because it has been able to tackle corruption issues that had occurred under absolute monarchy and would have never come to light if Bhutan was still an absolute monarchy where people in power had the ultimate authority. Government has learnt to be more tolerant with time and accept public criticism, although reluctantly. Lastly it is commendable that the opposition has done the hardest job in the first ever democratic governance in the country. Bhutanese democracy is still in its infancy and there is still a lot to achieve and strive for. The people have to still wait and see what awaits them in the next five years from a new government.”
See Separate Article DEMOCRACY IN BHUTAN: DOUBTS, GRADUAL STEPS, FIRST ELECTIONS AND A LINGERING MONARCHY
Political Philosophy, Nationalism and Discrimination in Bhutan
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Since its foundation in the seventeenth century, Bhutan has professed a political system of choesrid zungjug: the union of religious and temporal power. Because theocratic leaders, including monks and religious kings, ruled Bhutan for ages, religion has played a vital role in governing the country. [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“The resonance of religious influence persists in political idioms such as Tsawa Sum (a concept borrowed from Buddhism to refer to the trio of the king, country, and people) and Gross National Happiness, the overall goal of the country's development policies. The latter concept has been promoted by the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, as a means of maximizing both spiritual happiness and economic development. There have been controversies about which sects should be supported by the state. One of the key issues of debate surrounding the drafting of a constitution” was “whether or not Bhutan should in fact have a secular government. The adoption of a secular system would end the historical status of Buddhism, and of the Drukpa Kagyu school in particular, as the state religion. Most Bhutanese, however, attribute the sovereignty, peace, and prosperity of their country to its close association with Buddhism and pray for its longevity, as can be seen in the last two lines of the national anthem: "May dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, flourish / May the sun of happiness and peace shine on the people."
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “Discrimination against Lhotshampa [Nepalese] is rife. A series of laws passed in the 1980s revealed tough remits for the acquisition of citizenship, even if an individual were married to a Bhutanese national, and the fact that naturalized citizenship can be terminated if a person criticizes the government. Still, there is some justification for this policy because militant Lhotshampa movements have called for a merging of Bhutan into a greater Nepal. Some of these militants, whom the government calls "anti-nationals," have been involved in campaigns of violence and have done damage to some infrastructure and development projects. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002 <=>]
“Nationalism and tradition are actively promoted in Bhutan. In part due to the economic and military-political weakness of the country in international relations and also due to the perceived threat from the Lhotshampa community's tendency to reduce Bhutanese identity, the government emphasizes rules of national dress, the code of etiquette (driglam namzha), and the national language (Dzongkha). <=>
Political Parties in Bhutan
Main political parties: 1) United Party of Bhutan (Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa) or DNT, led by Lotay Tshering (prime minister, beginning 2018); 2) People's Democratic Party (PDP), led by Tshering Tobgay (prime minister 2013-2018); 3) Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) or DPT, led by Pema Gyamtsho (former leader Jigme Thinley was prime minister, 2008-2013); 4) Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party or BKP. Druk Chirwang Tshogpa or DCT merged with DPT in March 2018. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
In 2005 the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk issued a royal edict encouraging the formation of political parties in preparation for the country’s 2008 shift to a democratic system. Political parties were illegal in Bhutan until the country transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in the mid 2000s. Opposition groups, composed mainly of ethnic Nepalese, included the Bhutan State Congress (BSC), People’s Forum for Democratic Rights, and the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), a militant group. Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008; Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2007]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: During the monarchy period, the government discouraged political parties and none operated legally. The BSC composed mainly of ethnic Nepalese has long maintained its headquarters in nearby India; other such groups, all very small and headquartered in either India or in Nepal, include the People's Forum for Democratic Rights and the Students' Union of Bhutan. A militant opposition group, operating under the banner of the Bhutan People's Party (BPP) and affiliated with the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) in Nepal, was founded in 1990 in Siliguri, India. It claims to represent the interests of the thousands of ethnic Nepalese who have migrated (or been forced to flee) from farming areas of southern Bhutan. Allegedly supported by the Communist Parties of India (CPI) and Nepal (CPN), the BPP was responsible for demonstrations in September 1990 in Bhutan; it has charged the Bhutan government with human rights violations and "ethnic cleansing" in the area. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]
Political Parties in Bhutan in Monarchy Period
According to “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”: “Despite being illegal, political factions have played a major role in Bhutanese politics. Separatist organizations have arisen in some of the nation’s territories while pro-democracy organizations have been petitioning for reforms since the 1950s. Most of Bhutan’s political groups operate in exile in India or Nepal and are largely focused on representing the rights of the nation’s ethnic groups. For example, the Bhutan State Congress (BSC), formed in 1952, was the nation’s first political party and supported democratization and increased representation for the country’s Nepalese population. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]
“The Bhutan Peoples Party (BPP), a socialist democratic party formed in 1990, has operated in Nepal for several years. The BPP is Bhutan’s largest political party and represents Bhutan’s Nepalese population. The Bhutanese government has called the BPP a terrorist organization because it was involved in riots and instances of ethnic violence in 1991 and 1992. The BPP, in turn, has accused the Bhutanese government of arresting and deporting thousands of democracy supporters during the 1990s. In 2001 the BPP’s founding president, R. K. Budathoki, was assassinated in Nepal.
“The Bhutan National Democratic Party (BHDP) and the Druk National Congress (DNC) are pro-democracy groups, operating from exile in India. The BHDP is noted for its promotion of capitalist market reforms and liberal social policies while the DNC, formed in 1994, supports socialist democracy and increased representation for the Sarchops ethnic group.
“Bhutan has a number of small communist parties operating in exile, some of which have instigated armed assaults on the government. The Bhutan Communist Party (BCP), located in Nepal, announced in 2003 that it intended to participate in the 2008 government in the hopes of encouraging a transition to communism. The BCP’s political interests include repatriating exiled citizens and establishing free education and an employment-training system for all citizens.
Elections in Bhutan
Legal voting age: 18 years of age (compared to 16 in Ethiopia and Austria and 25 in United Arab Emirates, most country are 18) =
Voter turnout:71.5 percent in 2018; 66.1 percent in 2013; 79.5 percent in 2008 [Source: President IDEA idea.int ]
In March 2008, Bhutan held its first general parliamentary election in accordance with the constitution and the result shocked the nation. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT, for Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) won 45 seats, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), run by the king’s relatives by marriage, took only two seats. [Source: Reuters, July 18, 2008]
With the elections for new 47-seat National Assembly, Bhutan completed its transition to full democracy. Only two parties contested the election: The DPT was formed by the merger of the previously established Bhutan People's United Party. The PDP was led by Sangay Ngedup. The DPT won over 67 percent of the vote. Jigmi Thinley's DPT was most closely aligned with monarchy and its views about "Gross National Happiness," — the all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Bhutan experienced a peaceful turnover of power following a parliamentary election in 2013, which resulted in the defeat of the incumbent party. The BBC reported: The opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the second-ever parliamentary election in Bhutan. It beat the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party, which has strong links to the king. The turnout was high at about 80 percent, said officials. The kingdom's struggling economy and ties with neighbouring India were key issues in the campaign. [Source: BBC, July 13, 2013]
“The PDP won 32 of the country's 47 parliamentary seats according to Bhutan's Election Commission. The DPT, which won the last election in 2008, only secured 15 seats. PDP leader Tshering Tobgay was named prime minister.The PDP has criticised the government for a recent deterioration of ties with India, a key ally. India's recent massive reduction of oil and gas subsidies for Bhutan has sparked speculation that this may be because of the Himalayan country's improving relations with China. The PDP’s victory left many surprised as it had only managed to win 12 seats in the primaries that were held in May. At that time, the PDP secured just 32.5 percent of the votes, against the DPT’s 44.5 percent.
Results of the National Assembly election in 2018: National Assembly — first round — percent of vote by party — DNT 31.9 percent, DPT 30.9 percent, PDP 27.4 percent, BKP 9.8 percent; second round — percent of vote by party — NA; seats by party — DNT 30, DPT 17; composition — men 40, women 7, percent of women 14.9 percent; note — total Parliament percent of women 12.5 percent. National Council — seats by party — independent 20 (all candidates ran as independents); composition — men 23, women 2, percent of women 8 percent. = The monarchy is hereditary but can be removed by a two-thirds vote of Parliament; leader of the majority party in Parliament is nominated as the prime minister, appointed by the monarch
Politics in Bhutan at the Time of the 2008 Elections
At the time of the 2008 election, Simon Denyer of Reuters wrote: “Even today national dress is compulsory, knee-length robes with long socks for men, elegant gowns for women. Criticism of the elite was almost unheard of, even a year ago. But democracy is coming, and “it is more real than we realized”, said Kinley Dorji, of newspaper Kuensel. True, there are only two political parties, with almost identical manifestoes based on the present government’s latest five-year plan and what people call “His Majesty’s vision”. Both promote Gross National Happiness (GNH), the king’s idea that traditions and the environment should not be sacrificed in the ruthless pursuit of economic growth. Both say development must be more “equitable” than in the past, but both party leaders are drawn from the elite, one the brother of Wangchuck’s four wives, the other a man closely associated with the idea of GNH. Each party leader has served twice as prime minister under royal rule. [Source: Simon Denyer, Reuters, March 21, 2008]
“Yet debate is arriving in Bhutan. As the two parties accuse each other of some low-level corruption and vote-buying, the press has in the process become freer. “Ours was a society where people needed to be respected, and not really be stripped in public,” said Gopilal Acharya, editor of the Bhutan Times newspaper. “But these are public figures, and people have a right to know what kind of people they are.”
“Yet for now this remains a closely controlled democracy. Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi disqualified a third party from running because he felt it lacked sufficient leadership, candidates and resources. “The Election Commission has moral responsibility, we are the gatekeeper,” he said. “We will only let in somebody who we can assure can manage the country, if not better than the king, then at least maintain its present state.”
“There are limits to debate, too, and they are strict. No criticism of the royal family, no raising of ethnic issues in a “divisive” way. In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan for demanding democracy and protesting against discrimination, and more than 100,000 now live in crowded camps inside Nepal. A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiled groups say many of them have been denied identity cards — and thus voting rights — making a “mockery” of the election. Rebel groups have emerged from the refugee camps in the past year and have threatened to disrupt the polls. They detonated three bombs inside Bhutan on Thursday, injuring a policeman, and eight others this year, with one death.
“Yet within Bhutan, there is real hope that democracy will also bring with it gradual change for the Nepali minority. The parties have fielded a combined total of 19 ethnic Nepali candidates in the country’s 47 constituencies. “For either of the parties to survive it has to have support in the three main regions, the east, west and south,” said Tashi Tsering, spokesman for the People’s Democratic Party. “It is an issue that neither party is taking up very strongly at this point in time, but one the new government has to face and address immediately.”
“For the Buddhist majority, democracy is still slightly baffling, but it is a change many people are learning to embrace. “We can speak out now,” said 28-year-old Ugyen Dorji, an administrative assistant in a school in the capital Thimpu. “After democracy they have to come here, and talk to low-level people.”
See Separate Article DEMOCRACY IN BHUTAN: DOUBTS, GRADUAL STEPS, FIRST ELECTIONS AND A LINGERING MONARCHY
Campaigning During the 2008 Elections
Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Newspapers have shuddered at the negative campaigning between the two new parties: the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or DPT, and the People's Democratic Party, or PDP. But even Bhutan's gloves-off politicking seems more akin to a sandbox squabble than the vicious mudslinging common in the West: A typical dispute centers on one party's attempt to use yellow in its logo, which the other side indignantly points out is the king's color. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]
“Buddhism-inspired social harmony” is “now under threat from the evils of Western-style party politics. “It frightens me," said Dorji Yangki, 18, as she hung out with friends in the main square in Thimphu. Like many youths here, she likes her fashions new and hip, such as bluejeans and sneakers — but not her politics. “Democracy is just starting right now," Yangki said. "We can see the candidates fighting, and it's just the beginning."
“In reality, very little separates the two parties. Neither dares deviate from the blueprint for increasing "GNH" — gross national happiness — laid out by the king, based on sustainable development. “Bhutanese politics is still without ideology," said the Harvard-educated Sonam Tobgay Dorji, a candidate for the People's Democratic Party. "So basically, what people are looking at is what candidates can deliver."
“The politicians' promises are of the usual kind in the developing world: more roads, reliable electricity, better sanitation, safe drinking water. But to an electorate afraid of change, both parties also preach stability. The DPT, whose slate of nominees boasts five former ministers in the royal government, promotes itself as the safest hands for an uncertain time, while the PDP projects a younger, more dynamic image, a party able to "walk the talk," as its slogan goes. The leader of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will be Bhutan's first elected prime minister.
“This may well be one of the most micro-managed elections on Earth, with officials eager to regulate almost every aspect of the process to ensure the smoothest, most harmonious outcome possible. They even held a mock election last year to prepare voters. There are rules on fund-raising limits, the size of posters, where they can be displayed, what goodies can be handed out to voters, how the parties ought to treat each other (only "constructive criticism," please). Candidates must have a college degree, which drastically shrinks the available pool. Monks are ineligible to vote, in order to keep religious institutions and figures above politics.
“The parties are also barred from campaigning on matters of "security" or "citizenship" — code words for Bhutan's most intractable issue, its population of ethnic Nepalese. A crackdown on "illegal immigrants" by the king more than a decade ago resulted in tens of thousands of Nepali speakers fleeing the country. Independent observers are monitoring participation in the election process by ethnic Nepalese who stayed behind.
Social Media and Politics in Bhutan
On the impact of Facebook and social media on Bhutanese politics, The BBC reported: “Tara Limbu, a journalist and social media activist, says young people now have a platform to talk about what they really think - and disagree with each other. She said: Youngsters are increasingly using social media to network. They have started to take up social and political issues and get involved in discussions. For example, there is one page called Bhutan Street Fashion. That page is very popular and it has more followers than any other mainstream media in Bhutan. [Source: BBC, February 19, 2014]
“People were criticising political parties and their policies very openly using their real identities. The page discusses everything from fashion to social issues to politics. The younger generation have started using social media to promote their causes. In Bhutan we are not used to criticising the government or politicians. But social media has changed all that. During the parliamentary elections [in 2013], we could see how people were active on social media - that is where the discourse was. Remember, these latest elections were only our second ever parliamentary polls. But this time people were criticising political parties and their policies very openly using their real identities. We could also see divisions within friends and families based on politics. Social media is what gave us a platform to do that.
Social media played a major role in bringing about reform. Tashi Gyeltshen, a film-maker, told the BBC: When the previous government introduced an act to control tobacco usage, my friends and I started a Facebook page called: "Amend the Tobacco Control Act." We did this after a 24-year-old monk, Sonam Tshering, was arrested for bringing in about US$2 (£1.22) worth of tobacco to the country - he was sentenced to three years in jail in 2011. It was the very draconian law that allowed this to happen. But social media helped us to make an important change. It started a debate and allowed people to come out and openly talk about their dissatisfaction with the Act. Around 4,000 like-minded people took part and because of that Facebook page, we were able to make the government aware of the dissatisfaction around the nation. What followed was a discussion in parliament and then the government amended the act. His Majesty the King also gave amnesty to 16 people who were sentenced under the Tobacco Control Act. I believe this wouldn't have been achieved without the power of social media.
Women in Government
As of 2020, of the 47 seats in the National Assembly 40 were men and seven were women (women, 14.9 percent). Of the 25 seats in the National Council, 23 were men and two were women (women, 8 percent). Total Parliament percent of women 12.5 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
The first woman member of the National Assembly was seated in 1979. Women obtained the right to vote in 2007, the same as men (compared to 1893 in New Zealand and 2011 in Saudi Arabia).
Even though the government in Bhutan encourages greater participation of women in government, male members of the traditional aristocracy dominate the political system. According to the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index: “In 2010 the Government reported that the participation of women in local governance remains low, with only 0.5 percent of local public office positions held by females. Women are also under-represented in other areas of public life. In 2010, women constituted 29.5 percent of civil service employees and 0.06 percent of the police. “Similarly, in the judiciary, women made up only 3.4 percent of Drangpons (including the Chief Justice, Justices, and Dungkhag Drangpons); although they made up 44 percent of Registrars. The first woman was elected to the Supreme Court in 2012. [Source: OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Development Center, genderindex.org, 2014; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
“It is proposed that women’s under representation in decision making positions may be linked to traditional beliefs that women’s lack of physical strength and sexual vulnerability make them less capable than men. This view has been further strengthened by religious beliefs that women are further away than men in achieving enlightenment in the cycle of rebirth.It has also been attributed to the late start of education in Bhutan, particularly for women.
“Bhutan’s first ever female minister, Dorji Choden, was elected in 2013 for the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement.68 Bhutan seems to have an effective women’s civil society, although Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern that the Government does not provide adequate resources to the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) to allow it to operate effectively. More While in principle the Citizenship Law allows for both men and women to transfer their citizenship to their children should they marry non-Bhutanese spouses, the situation is not reflected in practice: children of Bhutanese men who are married to foreign women are eligible for Bhutanese citizenship, while it is often not the case for Bhutanese women married to a foreigner.”
Local Government in Bhutan
Administratively, Bhutan is divided into 20 districts (dzongkhag, singular and plural); Bumthang, Chhukha, Dagana, Gasa, Haa, Lhuentse, Mongar, Paro, Pemagatshel, Punakha, Samdrup Jongkhar, Samtse, Sarpang, Thimphu, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Trongsa, Tsirang, Wangdue Phodrang, Zhemgang. Before Bhutan was divided into 18 districts, and before that 15 districts, each with its own dialect. Most districts are centered around fertile valleys and divided from other districts by mountain ranges. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Brenda Amenson-Hill, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
Each district (dzongkhag) is headed by a district officer (dzongda) who must be elected. Each district is broken into smaller areas known as gewog (village areas of subdistricts), which average 230 square kilometers in area. The gewogs in turn are divided into chewogs for elections and thromdes "municipalities" for administration.
Each gewog is led by a locally elected leader called a gup. There are 205 gewogs and elected gups. In 2002, the National Assembly created a new structure for local governance at the gewog level. Each local area is responsible for creating and implementing its own development plan, in coordination with the district. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]
Bhutan has traditionally been divided into four regions — East, Central, West, and South — each administered by a governor appointed by the king. The institution of Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) was created in 1981 and Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly) was formed in 1991 by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1972-2006) as part of his effort to decentralize and reform the Bhutanese government. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]
Local Government in the Monarchy Period
Local government in 1991 was organized into four zones, or dzongdey, and eighteen districts, or dzongkhag. Before the zonal administration system was established beginning in 1988 and 1989, the central government interacted directly with district governments. The new level of administration was established, according to official sources, to "bring administration closer to the people" and to "expedite projects without having to refer constantly to the ministry." In other words, the zonal setup was to provide a more efficient distribution of personnel and administrative and technical skills. The zonal boundaries were said to be dictated by geophysical and agroclimatic considerations. Zonal administrators responsible for coordinating central policies and plans acted as a liaisons between the central ministries and departments and district governments. Each zonal headquarters had nine divisions: administration, accounts, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, engineering, health, irrigation, and planning. The divisions were staffed with former civil service employees of the Ministry of Home Affairs and with technical personnel from the various sectors in the districts. Four zones were established in 1988 and 1989: Zone I, including four western districts, seated at Chhukha; Zone II, including four central districts, seated at Chirang; Zone III, including four central districts, seated at Geylegphug; and Zone IV, including five eastern districts, seated at Yonphula. Although Thimphu District and Thimphu Municipality were within the boundaries of Zone I, they remained outside the zonal system. By 1991, however, only Zone IV was fully functioning. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Eighteen districts comprised local government at the next echelon. Each district was headed by an appointed district officer, (dzongda, assisted by a deputy district officer, dzongda wongmo or dzongrab), who was responsible for development planning and civil administration. Formerly appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, district officers have been appointed by the Royal Civil Service Commission since 1982. Each district also had a district development committee comprising elected representatives and government officials.
Districts were further subdivided into subdistricts (dungkhag) and village blocks or groups (gewog). Ten of the eighteen districts had subdistricts, which were further subdivided into village groups. The subdistrict served as an intermediate level of administration between district government and some villages in larger districts. These same districts also had village groups that were immediately subordinate to the district government. In the remaining eight smaller districts, village groups were directly subordinate to the district government. In 1989 there were 191 village groups, 67 of which were organized into 18 subdistricts and 124 of which were immediately subordinate to the district government. Subdistrict officers (dungpa) led the subdistricts, and village heads (gup in the north, mandal in the south) were in charge of the village groups. Despite greater central government involvement with economic development programs since the 1960s, villages continued to have broad local autonomy. There were 4,500 villages and settlements in 1991.
Bhutan also has two municipal corporations — Thimphu and Phuntsholing — headed by mayors (thrompon). Thimphu's municipal corporation was set up in 1974 as an experiment in local self-government. Headed by a chairperson, the corporation concentrated on sanitation and beautification projects. A superintending engineer, an administrative officer, a plant protection officer, and a tax collector served under a chief executive officer. Ward councillors carried out local representation in the city's seven wards. In subsequent years, municipal boards were set up in the larger towns.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022