Bhutan's fourth hereditary monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, became Bhutan’s leader in 1972 when he was just 16 years old. For many years he was the youngest reigning monarch in the world. Many of the government official that worked for him were just as young. Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father, Wangchuck, who had involved his son in the work of government at an early age and had appointed him crown prince and ponlop of Tongsa and then abdicated, making Jigme Singye Wangchuck only a few months before dying.

Pico Iyer wrote in Time: “King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, great-grandson of Bhutan's first hereditary monarch” ruled “his people more in the spirit of Buddha than of more worldly princes. He was formally crowned in June, 1974. He gradually democratized the Bhutanese government. By 1999 the king was no longer head of government; that position was held by head of the cabinet, which is responsible to the national assembly. Since then the country has moved slowly toward adopting a new constitution; in 2005 the draft of the proposed constitution was released.

Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: ““The fourth king is the most beloved figure in modern Bhutanese history, with a biography that has the flavor of myth... It was a heady historical moment” when he became king. “Bhutan had opened to the outside world just two decades earlier, in 1952, abolishing slavery and undertaking the arduous task of reconciling its medieval infrastructure, politics and culture to late-20th-century life. For millennia, Bhutan had been isolated: a land of devout Buddhism and pristine natural beauty, cradled by the Himalayas, which served as a bulwark against both military aggressors and modernity. Now, the burden of modernization fell on the shoulders of the teenage king. [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Even Shangri-la must change. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972, Bhutan suffered from some of the highest poverty, illiteracy, and infant-mortality rates in the world — a legacy of the policy of isolation. “We paid a heavy price,” the king would say later. His father, Bhutan’s third king, had begun opening up the country in the 1960s, building roads, establishing schools and health clinics, pushing for United Nations membership. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck would go much further. With the self-confidence of a ruler whose country has never been conquered, he has tried to dictate the terms of Bhutan’s opening — and in the process redefine the very meaning of development. The felicitous phrase he invented to describe his approach: Gross National Happiness. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

Pico Iyer wrote in Time: “In the 1970s “long before "positive psychology" became a boom in the West, King Jigme, suggested that nations be measured by "gross national happiness"; the rich are not always happy, after all, while the happy generally consider themselves rich.” In 2005, “he launched an even more radical idea: self-deposition. To urge his people toward independence, he announced that he would step down two years from now (his son would officially take over) and that his country would hold its first national democratic elections. King Jigme — who gave up absolute power in 1998 and sent every household in the land a new draft constitution [in 2005] that allowed for his impeachment — is setting a quietly revolutionary precedent. If most politicians are inherently suspect because they seem so eager to grab power and so reluctant to surrender it, what does one make of a leader who voluntarily gives up his position, as if placing his people's needs before his own?” [Source: Pico Iyer, Time, April 30, 2006]

Life of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

Jigme Singye Wangchuck was born November 11, 1955 in Dechencholing Palace in Thimphu. to Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck. At the age of four, in 1959, the young Crown Prince received the offerings of good wishes and respects by the public, monks, and officials for the first time in Tashichho Dzong. [Source: Wikipedia]

Jigme Singye Wangchuck was educated at various western and Asian learning institutions. He began his studies with tutors at Dechencholing Palace when he was six years old, in 1961. Later he attended St. Joseph's School in Darjeeling, India. From 1964-1969, he attended Heatherdown School in England. He then resumed his education in Bhutan at Namselling Palace and then Ugyen Wangchuck Academy at Satsham Choten in Paro, which was established in 1970. He never graduated from university because he had the assume the throne at such an early age.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck grew up close to his father, accompanying him to tour to remote parts of Bhutan, and gaining first hand knowledge of his land and his people. He was influenced by his father, and continued the modernization and socio-economic reforms that his father had begun. [Source: drukasia.com]

Jigme Singye Wangchuck played goalie in soccer for a while until he realized that Bhutanese were afraid to score goals against him and then switched to basketball. He liked to play the game well into his monarchy and was regarded as a skilled three point shooter and playmaker. Describing the king at his court in the early 1990s Bruce Bunting wrote in National Geographic: "Dark-haired and straight backed, he was dressed in the traditional robe, or “gho”, all Bhutanese men wear. The king worked his way down the court with regal assurance, dribbling past defenders who gave him a wide berth, he sank the basket." [Source: Bruce W. Bunting, National Geographic, May, 1991]

Singye Wangchuck’s Coronation: Becoming the World’s Youngest King

King Jigme Sinye Wangchuck took office on July 24, 1972, a few months before the death of his father, who had abdicated and handed power to his son. Jigme Singye Wangchuk was crowned King of Bhutan at age 18, making him the youngest monarch and leader in the world at that time. He took the title “Druk Gyalpo” or Dragon King. His coronation on June 2, 1974 was the first time many Bhutanese tried popcorn and ice cream cones.

King Jigme Sinye Wangchuck’s father — Jigme Dorji Wangchuck — had a heart ailment and knew that his days were numbered. In the last years of his life he prepared ho son to be king. As a young man Jigme Sinye accompanied his father on inspection tours and became head of the country's planning commission at the age of 16. After the Jigme Dorji died in 1972, Jigme Sinye was unanimously approved by the 150-member National Assembly. He ran the country for two years before his coronation. Before the coronation, there were rumors of plans to assassinate the king and burn down Tashichhodzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress and palace of the king. Claiming that there was no security problems the king mixed freely with his subjects and didn't take any special precautions.

King Jigme Sinye Wangchuck was crowned on an elaborate golden throne at 9:10am on June, 2, 1974 (the forth-month of Wood-Tiger Year, at the auspicious Hour of the Serpent). He was given the five-colored scarf owned by his great-great-grandfather in the crucial ceremony that only the kings hands are allowed to touch. [Source: John Scofield, National Geographic, October 1974]

The coronation itself took only one morning but the celebrations held in conjunction with it went on for several days with performances by the royal dance troupe and drills by bodyguards with medieval iron-helmets and rhinoceros hide shields, drinking from cups made of human skull. There festivities also included clothes made from bones of executed criminals, demon dances, archery contents, music from the royal marching band. meals with caviar and foie gras and pigs fattened on marijuana,

About 150 foreign guests were invited to the coronation. It was the most foreigners ever allowed on the country up that time. The guests included Patrick Moynihan, then ambassador to India. The coronation cost US$3 million, about a fifth of the national budget. Much of the money went to pave streets, producing electrical generating equipment and construct guest houses for tourists. Things that would improve the lives of everyone.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s Four Wives and 10 Children

Jigme Singye Wangchuck had four wives, all sisters, and ten children: five sons and five daughters. In 1979 Jigme Singye Wangchuck privately married four sisters who were descendants of two of the shabdrung, the rulers of the old dual system of government. In 1988, in order to legitimize the eventual succession to the throne for his oldest son, Dasho Jigme Gesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the Druk Gyalpo and his four sister-queens were married again in a public ceremony in Punakha. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The four sister-queens are: 1st consort — Dorji Wangmo; 2nd consort — Tshering Pem; 3rd consort — Tshering Yangdon (mother of the current king); 4th consort — Sangay Choden "My only excess is that I have four wives," the king the told the Washington Post. The king took his wives on fishing trips below sacred mountains. One of them told Time, “It wouldn’t work if we weren’t sisters. There would be too much rivalry. Bhutanese liked to joke that the reason he married sisters was so he could avoid having four mother in laws. Instead he has only one. To marry four women the king had to get around an old law that limited a man to marrying only three women.

As of the mid 1990s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck lived in a small, simply-furnished home was across from the Tashichhodzong (See Below). His wives lived in separate residences in the hills overlooking the capital. All of his children attended schools in Thimphu, including the crown prince. The king closely guarded the privacy of his family. Many of the king's family members have positions in his government. The third sister gave birth to the present king. The king’s mother, the Dowager Queen Pemadechen (Ashi Kesang Dorji), continued to reside in the royal palace at Dechenchholing, living as a Buddhist nun. [Source: [Source: Washington Post, Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

King Formalizes Marriage to Four Sisters and Names Crown Prince

In October 1988, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan publicly formalized hisa marriage to four sisters he wedded in private in 1979 and named the eldest of his eight children heir to the throne. Jonathan S. Landay of UPI wrote: “The traditional hour-long Buddhist ceremony was performed as scheduled at an ancient monastery in Punakha, the former capital. It was followed by an official proclamation that Wangchuk, 33, had chosen as his successor Jigme Gesar Namgyal Wangchuk, his eight-year-old son by Tshering Yandon, the next to the youngest of his wives and his chief consort, the official said. [Source: Jonathan S. Landay, UPI, October 31, 1988

“The crown prince is among four sons and four daughters born to Wangchuk and his consorts, who range in age from 23 years to 28 years. Bhutan Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering told a news conference at the Bhutan Embassy that the rites would be attended only by members of the royal family and senior Buddhist priests. The high point was to be when the king draped around his neck nine sacred scarves drawn from around the mummified body of the most revered figure in the nation's history, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, of whom Wangchuk's four wives are descendants.

Celebrations were held for three and included archery contests, feasting and dancing. No foreign dignitaries were invited to the marriage because it was 'purely a national event' and the outside world did not have 'much interest' in the king's decision to name an heir. Asked why Wangchuk had waited nine years to formalize his marriage, government official Tsering said, “The late king and the present king are extremely simple people, very simple people who don't like public show, ostentation.”

Wangchuk had long been urged by the Buddhist clergy and public officials to formalize and consecrate publicly his marriage to the four sisters he wedded nine years ago in a secret ceremony and establish a line of succession, Tsering said. The private wedding had 'full validity in religion and the law,' Tsering said. But, he added that 'for many years now, a lot of pressure has been building up because a lot of people did not feel that a private wedding is a good thing.' Also, he said, 'there was great anxiety' that unless the line of succession was set down soon 'there would be complications later.'

“Marrying sisters is a long-standing and 'popular' custom among all sections of Bhutanese men, Tsering said. Namgyal, the ancestor of the four royal consorts, is credited with unifying the nation during the 17th century and developing a theocratic administrative system that survived until 1907, when a provincial governor and the present king's relative was elected hereditary ruler.

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck: Queen and Elvis Fan

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck was the most active of the queen mothers in the early 2010s. She was one of the sister wives of Jigme Singye Wangchuck but not the one who was mother of the current king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. AFP reported: “Born in a village in western Bhutan in 1955, she was one of none siblings, including three sisters who also married Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the forth king of Bhutan. Her father was a mule trader and cattle merchant who acted as her midfife, cuttin her umbilical chors, She attended school in Darjeeling but also gathered firewood, milked cows and worked in the fields. [Source: AFP, January 24, 2010]

“The Queen Mother in Bhutan revealed her childhood love of Elvis Presley and the fear she felt at her first ever sighting of an automobile. Speaking at the Jaipur Literary festival in northern India, where she read extracts from her book “Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan,” Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck recalled her early upbringing in a tiny, isolated village in the west of the kingdom.

“Her memories were of an austere but close-knit family life, where gender roles were blurred and husbands acted as midwives. “My father delivered me as well as four of my brothers and sisters. He was very skilled with his hands,” said Queen Wangchuck, 59, the eldest of four sisters married to the former monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuk.

“At the age of six, the future queen was uprooted when her father decided to send her and her younger sister to boarding school in Darjeeling in northeast India so that she could receive an English-language education. The journey involved a challenging three-day trek across rugged terrain from the Bhutanese capital, during which the two young children were strapped to the saddle of a horse. “At one point it took fright and flew off. The saddle turned over and my sister and I were trapped under the belly of the galloping horse. It was terrifying,” she said.

“Having survived the trip to Thimpu, she was then given her first ride in an automobile, which was to take her across the border and into India. “It was a jeep, and when we first saw it, it made a huge impression. We couldn’t believe it actually moved,” she recalled. “It was frightening to get into it. Villagers on the way thought it was some sort of fire-breathing dragon and they used to bring grass to feed it when we stopped.” Despite persistent homesickness, the queen said her time at boarding school in India was a happy one and opened her eyes to new experiences she could never have had in Bhutan which was then firmly closed to the outside world. “My happiest memory at school was my first Elvis Presley movie. I even remember its name, “It Happened at the World’s Fair.” I thought he was wonderful,” Wangchuck said.”

Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s Lifestyle As King

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck dressed in a grayish gho (the traditional Bhutanese ribe) with long socks and white sneakers. He greeted visitors in his opulent throne room, decorated with silk tapestries, yet wore the same simple garment of his countrymen wore.

Tashichhodzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) served as the year-round central government complex in Thimphu. It is a stone-and-timber structure, has thick whitewashed walls, seven towers covered with red roofs, and a series of interior courtyards. The entire structure is richly ornamented. The current Tashichhodzong complex, which has more than 100 rooms, was completed in 1969 after seven years of construction on the site of an older dzong of the same name. Originally built in the twelfth century, the Tashichhodzong had been rebuilt in the eighteenth century and required the 1962-69 reconstruction because of damage over the centuries from fires and earthquakes. It also was the residence of the spiritual leader of Bhutan, the Je Khenpo, during the summer. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *] King Jigme Singye Wangchuck reportedly had a photographic memory and was known for his detailed scrutiny of policy issues. It is said that he sometimes memorized important reports. King Wangchunk speaks fluent English. When he was king he enjoyed playing basketball in his free time. He had tapes of NBA games sent to him from New York. Meeting were sometimes interrupted so the king could listen to the final minutes of Lakers’ games on his shortwave radio. He didn’t have satellite television before his subjects. He relied on his radio and reports from newspapers brought in from India one or days late. He also enjoyed playing golf.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck seldom traveled abroad and lived simply. He spent several weeks each year traveling around his kingdom in a Toyota Land Cruiser. He also used to drive around with a Mercedes full of Coke. The king has several yaks and a jet helicopter. Periodically the king retreated to a log cabins alone for some relief. The cabin itself was very basic. Visitors sometimes scolded the king for not getting some better furniture. One cabinet minster told Time, “His majesty has no desire for material wealth. He would have made an excellent lama.”

Jigme Singye Wangchuck as Leader

After becoming king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck became increasingly interested in economic development and traveled extensively throughout the country. He also has traveled a great deal outside of Bhutan, attending international meetings and personally representing his country in New Delhi on frequent occasions. A young, vigorous head of state unafraid to break from the bureaucracy and constraints of his office — including his trips to the countryside where the Druk Gyalpo could be seen "serving the people" — Jigme Singye Wangchuck presented the monarchy as progressive and symbolic of national unity. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Jigme Singye Wangchuck reign was marked by moving Bhutan along on the path to modernize and democratize. The King slowly started the process of decentralizing his power. In 1998, the position of Prime Minister was created. In 2006, the King announced the time had come for a democratic government. Two years after the King’s reign ended and in accordance to his wishes, the Constitution was enacted in 2008 and elections were held in the same year, giving birth to democracy in Bhutan. The king was is regarded as accessible. Any Bhutanese citizen could receive an audience with him. [Source: drukasia.com]

Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: “Under his leadership, electricity and modern medical care reached Bhutan’s remotest areas; the country established a hydropower industry and navigated the perilous geopolitics that come with its geography — a landlocked plot, home today to about 753,000 citizens, that is wedged between India and China, the most populous nations on earth. In 2006, the king shocked his subjects by unilaterally ending Bhutan’s absolute monarchy, leading an effort to draft a constitution and institute free elections, a process that culminated, in 2008, with the country’s first general election. But the king’s most celebrated contribution is in the realm of what might be called political philosophy. It was he who formulated Bhutan’s signature quality of life indicator, Gross National Happiness, an ethos of environmental sustainability, cultural preservation and “holistic” civic contentment that has made Bhutan a fashionable name to drop in international development circles and among New Age enlightenment seekers.” [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]

The king endorsed the creation of secular schools, the promise of universal education, the establishment of primary health centers, developed irrigation to improve agricultural yields and the launching of manufacturing belt along the Indian border. In 1988, wilderness areas with rare flora and fauna were turned into wildlife sanctuaries. An avid environmentalist the king was outraged when his aunt was arrested in Taiwan with an estimated US$1 million worth of rhinoceros horn. Reforms also included being “ready for ...a market economy. But we have t go slowly.” At that time the government began taking steps to become a member of the WTO.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s Family, the Dorjis and His In-Laws Help Run Bhutan

After his accession to the throne in 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was assisted by his uncle, Dasho (Prince) Namgyal Wangchuck, and his elder sisters, Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck and Ashi Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck, who served in the ministries of finance and development as the Druk Gyalpo's representatives. (Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck later became minister of finance.) [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck wives belong to the Dorji Family. The close ties between the Wangchucks (family of the Bhutanese kings) and Dorjis (a powerful family that dates to 12th century and produced monarchs, prime ministers, Dzong lords and governors) were personified by Jigme Singye Wangchuck. His mother, Ashi Kesang Dorji (ashi means princess), was the sister of the lonchen, Jigme Palden Dorji. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who had been educated in India and Britain, had been appointed ponlop of Tongsa in May 1972 and by July that year had become the Druk Gyalpo. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991*]

With his mother and two elder sisters as advisers, the new Druk Gyalpo was thrust into the affairs of state. He was often seen among the people, in the countryside, at festivals, and, as his reign progressed, meeting with foreign dignitaries in Bhutan and abroad. His formal coronation took place in June 1974, and soon thereafter the strains between the Wangchucks and Dorjis were relieved with the return that year of the exiled members of the latter family.

The reconciliation, however, was preceded by reports of a plot to assassinate the new Druk Gyalpo before his coronation could take place and to set fire to the Tashichhodzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion, the seat of government in Thimphu). Yangki was the alleged force behind the plot, which was uncovered three months before the coronation; thirty persons were arrested, including high government and police officials. *

Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s in-laws were not popular. According to the Washington Post they were widely accused of abusing their powers to enrich themselves with monopolistic controls of the sandstone and timber industries. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, October 13, 2011

Jigme Singye Wangchuk and Gross National Happiness

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is perhaps best known internationally for the development of his all-encompassing philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” that recognizes that there are many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient to measure them.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s father King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk liked to say that life in Bhutan was measured in term of "gross national happiness,” which was more important than “Gross National Product.” The measurement was a kind of challenge to Western measurements of material happiness. According to the Bhutanese government the happiness index has been rising every year. For a while the government fail to define exactly what was measured in the index but did say it was based in “a sustainable balance among economic, social, emotional and cultural needs of the people.”

Although the average per capita income was around US$550 in the 1990s no one went hungry. At that time people lived longer, ate better and earned more than they ever had before and enjoyed free education and health care.

Jigme Singye Wangchuk and Preservation of Culture

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk took many measures to preserve Bhutan’s traditional culture. He established a commission to maintain Bhutan’s 2,000 monasteries and made “driglam namba”, the ancient code of conduct, part of the school curriculum. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he issued a series of edicts designed to “preserve native culture.” The Bhutanese National Assembly passed a law that called for the restoration of driglam namzha and stated that buildings had to be built to conform to traditional architecture and satellite dishes were not allowed.

In 1988, the Bhutanese government made a decision to take active measures to protect the unique and precious heritage of Bhutan, the last remaining stronghold of Himalayan Buddhism. Accordingly, many temples and monasteries were closed to outsiders. Under the 1989 promulgation of Driglam Nam Zha (Etiquette and Manners) people were required to wear traditional Bhutanese clothes such as the gho in public. Western clothes were banned. Those who didn’t wear traditional clothes had to pay stiff fines and faced jail terms. Some of these laws are still place today to some degree.

Government decrees promulgated in the 1980s sought to preserve Bhutan's cultural identity in a "one nation, one people" policy called driglam namzha (national customs and etiquette). The government hoped to achieve integration through requiring national dress — the kira for women and the gho for men — in public places (by a May 1989 decree that was quickly reversed) and insisting that individual conduct be based on Buddhist precepts. The government stressed standardization and popularization of Dzongkha, the primary national language, and even sponsored such programs as the preservation of folksongs used in new year and marriage celebrations, house blessings, and archery contests. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Other cultural preservation efforts, especially those aimed at traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts that had long been under royal family patronage, were embodied in the Sixth Development Plan. Bhutan participated in the Olympic Games and in other international games, and imported high-tech bows for use in national archery tournaments, although for a time only the simple traditional bow was permitted in contests within Bhutan. .

Discriminatory Aspects of Bhutan’s Preservation of Culture Effort

To promote national unity, Dzongkha, the language of the Buddhist Bhutanese was made the national language and the language taught in school. The teaching of minority languages was discouraged. There were also laws that discouraged Bhutanese from marrying non-Bhutanese and limited the number of journalists, tourists and other foreigners allowed to enter the country.

In 1989 the government also moved to implement the Citizenship Act of 1985, which provided that only those Nepalese immigrants who could show they had resided in Bhutan for fifteen or twenty years (depending on occupational status), and met other criteria, might be considered for grants of citizenship by nationalization. An earlier law, passed in 1958, had for the first time granted Bhutanese citizenship to Nepalese landed settlers who had been in Bhutan for at least ten years. To ameliorate some of the differences between the ethnic communities, interethnic marriages among citizens, once forbidden, were allowed as a means of integrating the Nepalese. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The government explained its cultural identity programs as a defense against the first political problems since the Wangchuck Dynasty was established in 1907 and the greatest threat to the nation's survival since the seventeenth century. Its major concern was to avoid a repeat of events that had occurred in 1975 when the monarchy in Sikkim was ousted by a Nepalese majority in a plebiscite and Sikkim was absorbed into India. In an effort to resolve the interethnic strife, the Druk Gyalpo made frequent visits to the troubled southern districts, and he ordered the release of hundreds of arrested "antinationals." He also expressed the fear that the large influx of Nepalese might lead to their demand for a separate state in the next ten to twenty years, in much the same way as happened in the once-independent monarchy of Sikkim in the 1970s. To deter and regulate Nepalese migration into Bhutan from India, the Druk Gyalpo ordered more regular censuses, improved border checks, and better government administration in the southern districts. The more immediate action of forming citizens' militias took place in October 1990 as a backlash to the demonstrations. Internal travel regulations were made more strict with the issue of new multipurpose identification cards by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 1990.

Nepalese Reaction to Bhutan’s Cultural Preservation

The edicts designed to “preserve native culture” focused on Buddhism and Bhutanese culture. This "Bhutanisation drive" alienated the country’s largely Hindu Nepali population. Nepalese within Bhutan formed political groups and tried pressure the government to make social reforms.

In the face of government resistance to demands that would institutionalize separate identities within the nation, protesters in the south insisted that the Bhutan People's Party flag be flown in front of administrative headquarters and that party members be allowed to carry the kukri, a traditional Nepalese curved knife, at all times. They also called for the right not to wear the Bhutanese national dress and insisted that schools and government offices stay closed until their demands were met. The unmet demands were accompanied by additional violence and deaths in October 1990. At the same time, India pledged "all possible assistance that the royal government might seek in dealing with this problem" and assured that it would protect the frontier against groups seeking illegal entry to Bhutan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The government responded with force, and violence broke out. Large numbers of people of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan. The majority of them, estimated to be between 100,000 and 135,000 in number, ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. [Sources: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments” Thomson Gale, 2008; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]


Development and Modernization Under Jigme Singye Wangchuk

In term of development,Jigme Singye Wanchuck emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. He helped create the country's telephone system, constructed numerous factories and hospitals, and built over 100 schools. A network of roads was built, connecting to even remote areas of the country. Students were encouraged to study overseas. Bhutan’s first airline, Drukair, began operatios. [Source: drukasia.com; “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Gavin Rabinowitz of Associated Press wrote: “The kings first decided to begin opening the country to the outside world in the 1960s, embarking on a program of deliberately slow-paced reforms. At that time Bhutan was a medieval society with no paved roads, no electricity and no hospitals. It was only at the coronation of” Jigme Singye Wanchuck “in 1974 that foreign dignitaries and the media were allowed into Bhutan for the first time. Some methods of preserving Bhutanese culture seem heavy-handed to some, particularly to members of a Hindu minority concentrated in southern Bhutan. More than 100,000 of them were driven out in the early 1990s. Most now live in refugee camps in Nepal, and Bhutan refuses to take them back. Bhutanese say the slow pace of exposure to the outside world allows them to maintain their own culture and pursue Gross National Happiness, an overarching political philosophy which seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. [Source: Gavin Rabinowitz, Associated Press, November 6, 2008]

In June 1999 Bhutan took large steps toward modernization when it legalized television and the Internet. The first Internet cafe opened in Thimphu in 2000 and the country's first university opened in 2003. A January 2005 agreement with India provided Bhutan the opportunity to link to Indian railways to Southern Bhutan. There is no internal rail system in Bhutan and foreigners are not permitted to travel to many of its areas in an attempt to minimize the effects of tourism on the local culture. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]

Until 1999, Bhutan officially had no televisions, no satellite TV or television stations. "We are trying to modernize our country, not Westernize it" the Bhutanese Foreign Minister told the Washington Post, "We have not allowed satellite TV. We feel it will erode or country in no time — within a year or two our value system would change." The rules were ignored. Some people had satellite dishes hidden in their barns. Others watched movies on pirated videos brought in from India on home VCRs. In the late 1990s, the country had 25 video stores, the largest which rented out 350 videos a day, including many new Hollywood and Bollywod films.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “In 1989, in an attempt to preserve Bhutan's culture, the government banned the viewing of foreign television by ordering all TV antennas in the country to be dismantled, but in June 1999 permitted television into the country. The last country in the world to permit television within its borders, Bhutan — which had remained virtually unchanged for centuries — was suddenly bombarded with 46 cable channels.The introduction of television into Bhutan was sparked by the World Cup Soccer Final of France in 1998. The 3-0 victory of the home side over Brazil was watched by thousands on a big screen in Bhutan's National Square. TV in Bhutan was such a success that a year later, on the 25th anniversary of his coronation, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk decided to allow the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), founded in 1973, to broadcast TV programming. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Reforms and Democracy Under King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

Perhaps the most important thing Jigme Singye Wangchuck did was launch democratic reforms. In 1998, the position of Prime Minister was created. In 2005 the King announced the time had come for a democratic government. He unveiled the draft of Bhutan's first constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms.He researched the constitutions of more than 50 nations, seeking comments from the public and consulted with the 20 Dzongkhags (Bhutan’s administrative and judicial districts). Two years after the King’s reign ended and in accordance to his wishes, the Constitution was enacted in 2008 and elections were held in the same year, giving birth to a new system of governance. [Source: drukasia.com]

In the late 1990s democratic reforms were initiated. They included slowly turning over day-to-day governance to a selected council, and giving the legislature the right to dethrone the king with a no confidence vote and allowing periodic test of the king’s rule with period ic votes of confidence. Jigme Singye Wangchuk continued his father's policy of sharing authority with the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly. In 1998, the king announced plans that would move Bhutan to a true constitutional monarchy. He gave up his his role as head of government and assigned full executive powers to a cabinet consisting of ministers and advisors to be elected by the National Assembly. The draft for a first constitution for Bhutan was debated in the country's 20 districts before being officially presented in March 2005. As part of his reforms, the king introduced legislation in a monarch would have to abdicate in favor of his hereditary successor if the National Assembly supported a vote of no-confidence against him by a two-thirds majority.

Even with all this there were a lot of shortcomings with Bhutanese democracy at this stage. The National Assembly was made of representative chosen mainly by the monarchy, military and religious elite. The king controlled the military and had sole authority over security issues. The Council of Ministers — a subgroup of the cabinet approved by the king — elected one of its members on a rotational basis to serve a one year term as chairman, the head of government.

Foreign Policy Under King Jigme Singye Wangchuck

The King continued to expand international relations, joining many regional organization and cooperative bodies and making itself heard in the United Nations, cementing the nation’s independent and sovereign status. [Source: drukasia.com]

When civil war broke out in Pakistan in 1971, Bhutan was among the first nations to recognize the new government of Bangladesh, and formal diplomatic relations were established in 1973. An event in 1975 may have served as a major impetus to Bhutan to speed up reform and modernization. In that year, neighboring Sikkim's monarchy, which had endured for more than 300 years, was ousted following a plebiscite in which the Nepalese majority outvoted the Sikkimese minority. Sikkim, long a protectorate of India, became India's twenty-second state. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

To further ensure its independence and international position, Bhutan gradually established diplomatic relations with other nations and joined greater numbers of regional and international organizations. Many of the countries with which Bhutan established relations provided development aid. Moderization life brought new problems to Bhutan in the late 1980s. Charges of ethnic cleansing were voiced against the monarchy for their actions against Nepalis in Bhutan (See Below

Tensions with Nepalese

An uprising by the Nepalese minority in Bhutan in 1989 was triggered by a national policy of forcing non-ethnic Bhutanese to adopt Bhutanese Buddhist traditions. This resulted in the expulsion of thousands of ethnic Nepalese regarded by the government as illegal aliens. These moves caused tensions within Bhutan, and with Nepal and India, in the 1990s. An agreement between Bhutan and Nepal in 2003 permitted some of the ethnic Nepalese expelled from Bhutan and living in refugee camps in Nepal to return to Bhutan, but most remained in the camps; some began being resettled abroad in 2008. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed, Columbia University Press]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: The mostly Hindu "Nepali Bhutanese," comprising approximately a third of Bhutan's population, were granted citizenship in 1958. However, Bhutan changed its citizenship laws in the late 1980s, making the Nepali Bhutanese illegal immigrants. In 1990, the Bhutanese government expelled 100,000 Nepali Bhutanese, who fled to refugee camps in eastern Nepal. In 1993, Bhutan and Nepal established a Joint Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) to address the issue of ethnic Nepalese refugees. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]

“Nepalese activism, spearheaded by the Bhutan People's Party based in Nepal, continued through the early 1990s. It resulted in violence from both sides, and brought charges of violations of human rights against Bhutan's security forces. In 1996, "peace marches" of refugees from Nepal into Bhutan were met by force, and the marchers were deported by the Bhutanese police. The following year, the National Assembly adopted a resolution (later discarded) that prohibited family members of ethnic Nepalese refugees from holding jobs in the government or armed forces. The government also began resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other regions of the country on land vacated by the refugees. In 1998, Foreign Minister Jigme Thinley took office with a mandate to settle the refugee issue. Although Bhutan and Nepal originally agreed in principal that the refugees be divided into four categories (1) bonafide Bhutanese; (2) Bhutanese émigrés; (3) nonBhutanese; and (4) Bhutanese who have committed crimes in Bhutan, the question of what to do with the more than 100,000 refugees living in the camps in Nepal remained unresolved. =|=

“At the 10th JMLC round of talks held in December 2000, negotiators created a Joint Verification Team (JVT) to interview and verify the status of the Bhutanese refugees, but by the 11th round of JMLC talks held in August 2001, the verification process was moving at a rate of only 10 families per day. In addition to the JMLC talks, Foreign Secretary Level talks (FSLT) were held in November 2001, at which differences between the Nepali and Bhutanese positions on the issue of categorization of the refugees were clarified: Nepal proposed to reduce the four categories to two (Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese), a plan that was rejected by Bhutan. =|=

“In October 2003, the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments agreed to repatriate approximately 70 percent of the refugees from the first of the seven camps to undergo the verification procedure. However, following an incident where refugees at one of the camps injured three Bhutanese inspectors, progress came to a halt in December 2004. =|=

Indian Insurgents

Assamese and West Bengali separatist guerrillas established bases in Bhutan, from which they make attacks into India. After attempts to negotiate the Assamese guerrillas' withdrawal failed, Bhutan mounted attacks to demolish their bases. In 2003. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed, Columbia University Press]

According to “Gale Encyclopedia of World History”: “Beginning in 2000 Assamese separatists set up makeshift military bases in southern Bhutan and used them to launch attacks against Indian targets in Assam. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) are the leading parties in the Assamese separatist movement. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

“Bhutanese representatives joined with Indian officials to negotiate with the ULFA in the spring of 2003. When the negotiations failed, the government issued an edict calling for members of the BRA, a volunteer military force, to begin training for military operations against the separatist bases. On December 15, 2003, the BRA and the Indian military coordinated a set of attacks against the separatist strongholds, eventually routing the rebels from Bhutan. Dozens of Assamese were arrested or killed during the attack; a number of BRA members were killed as well. The 2003 operation was the first time the BRA had taken such action in more than a century.

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

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