Politics

Bhutan has glimmer political history until Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal entered the country from Tibet. Earlier to this, the country remained divided into several principalities controlled by petty rulers. There was no central government. Small independent monarchies began to develop by the early ninth century. Each was ruled by a deb (king), some of whom claimed divine origins. The kingdom of Bumthang was the most prominent among these small entities. By the eleventh century, all of Bhutan was occupied by Tibetan-Mongol military forces.

Bhutan’s political history is very much attached with religion. Buddhist leaders played significant role in shaping the early history. They had good influence in the society. They were the powerful religious and political chieftains forced out of Tibet aftermath of Gelukpa anarchy in Tibet. Over the period, Drukpa Kagyukpa School, led by Tibetan Monk Phajo Drugom Shigpo proselytize the Bhutanese society sidelining another sub sect of Kagyukpa – Lhapa. Since 12th century, this sect rules the country in both religious and political fronts.

Ngawang Namgyal, who adopted Shabdurng as his title, fleeing from Tibet established a theocratic-political system in Bhutan in 1616. He was temporal and spiritual leader of Bhutan. He promulgated a code of law and built a network of impregnable dzong, a system that helped bring local lords under centralized control and strengthened the country against Tibetan invasions.

Tibetan armies invaded Bhutan in 1629, 1631 and 1639 but were thwarted whereby Drukpa sub sect developed a strong presence in western and central Bhutan. In 1643, a joint Mongol-Tibetan force sought to destroy Nyingmapa refugees who had fled to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. The Mongols had seized control of religious and civil power in Tibet in the 1630s and established Gelugpa as the state religion. Bhutanese rivals of Ngawang Namgyal encouraged the Mongol intrusion, but the Mongol force was easily defeated in the humid lowlands of southern Bhutan. Another Tibetan invasion in 1647 also failed.

During Ngawang Namgyal’s rule, administration comprised a state monastic body with an elected head, the Je Khenpo (lord abbot), and a theocratic civil government headed by the Druk Desi. The State Council was a central administrative organ that included regional rulers, the shabdrung’s chamberlains, and the Druk Desi. In time, the Druk Desi came under the political control of the State Council’s most powerful faction of regional administrators. The shabdrung was the head of state and the ultimate authority in religious and civil matters.

Ngawang Namgyal’s regime was bound by a legal code called the Tsa Yig, which described the spiritual and civil regime and provided laws for government administration and for social and moral conduct.

During the first period of succession and further internal consolidation under the Druk Desi government, there was conflict with Tibet and Sikkim. Internal opposition to the central government resulted in overtures by the opponents of the Druk Desi to Tibet and Sikkim. In the 1680s, Bhutan invaded Sikkim in pursuit of a rebellious local lord. In 1700, Bhutan again invaded Sikkim, and in 1714 Tibetan forces, aided by Mongolia, invaded Bhutan but were unable to gain control.

Throughout the period of theocratic system in Bhutan, after the death of first Shabdrung in 1650, Bhutan experienced continued civil rife – unstable politics was the synonym of theocratic rule. The local chieftains remained powerful whose ultimate aim seemed to kill or dethrone the reigning Desi to get the seat. The monastic body attached close link with the power politics.

During this period, Bhutan came into contact with British India who was in mission to expand business and penetrate into Tibet. In initial instances, Bhutan’s hostilities to British mission added fuel to already volatile internal politics. After few resistances, Bhutanese forces surrendered before the powerful British force. Bhutan lost a chunk of land to British and had to be satisfied with annual subsidy in monetary terms. That ended the popular war with British India called Duar War (1864–65) that lasted five months. It resulted in Bhutan’s defeat, loss of part of its sovereign territory, and forced cession of formerly occupied territories. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sinchula, signed on November 11, 1865, Bhutan ceded territories in the Assam Duars and Bengal Duars, as well as the 83 square kilometre territory of Dewangiri in south-eastern Bhutan, in return for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees.

Aftermath of war, Bhutan built closer relations with India which resulted in installation of monarchy in 1907 under the British guidance. Tongsa ruler Ugyen Wangchuk started hereditary monarchy in the country. Fifth in the line, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk is the current reign of the country.

Bhutan’s modern development, in economic and political, received a lift during the period of third king Jigme Dorji. The political freedom that Bhutanese gained during this period was substantially chopped off during the period of fourth monarch Jigme Singye, who has been regarded the most controversial among the Bhutanese monarchs. Though third monarch subdued the call for political reform in early 1950s, he accepted change several years after allowing people to exercise some sort of democratic rights.

His reign remained political unstable due to internal dispute among the top officials. Murder of Mahasur Chhetri, a dominant political figure in southern Bhutan and the murder of Prime Minister Jigme Palden pushed Bhutan to close to defunct.

In 1990, Bhutan evicted over 100,000 of its Nepali speaking citizens on forged charges of being illegal immigrants. Bhutan denies recognising them as Bhutanese citizens despite international pressure. The refugee community in exile have formed several political and apolitical groups to lobby for their equitable share in Bhutan.

In 2007 and 2008 Bhutan held first parliament elections for two Houses in history. Only two parties were allowed to contest the elections. Druk Phunshum Tshogpa, which swept 45 out of 47 seats in National Assembly, rules the country. People’s Democratic Party with two seats is in opposition. National Council has no representation of the political parties.

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