Government and Politics in Bhutan

Shabdrung & the Unification of Bhutan

From the 12 century until the end of 16 th century Bhutan was an important field of missionary activity of Buddhist religious schools but lacked the political unity. Under the politically and religiously charismatic Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), Bhutan became a unified state in the 17th century. Ngawang Namgyel was a religious leader of the Drukpa school, who took the honorary title of Shabdrung, "at whose feet one submits". He constructed his first dzong at Simtokha in the valley of the Wang River. Subsequent dzongs not only symbolized the power of the Drukpa school, since each dzong contained a monastery, but also constituted a matchless instrument of government, as each also served as centres of administration for the provinces.

However, before the Shabdrung could bring about the unification of Bhutan , he had to fight against enemies from abroad as well as inside the country. He had to contend with several Tibetan invasions and the enemies within were the 'Five Groups of Lamas'-the long-established religious schools in western Bhutan , headed by the Lhapas, old foes of therukpas. The Shabdmng battled successfully against this coalition and firmly established the political and religious power of the Drukpas in western Bhutan . He was not able, in his lifetime, to fulfill his ambition of unifying central and eastern Bhutan , but his wish was carried out shortly after his death in 1651. In 1656, after a difficult military campaign, central and eastern Bhutan were drawn into the Drukpa sphere of political influence and Bhutan took on its definitive shape.

Shabdrung's Government System

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel gave Bhutan a remarkable system of administration and law. He established a state clergy under a religious leader, the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and a political system administered by monks at whose head he placed a temporal chief, the Desi. This dual system of government, choesi, was to be unified and transcended in the person of the Shabdrung and the theocracy lasted until the monarchy took over in 1907. The country was divided into three large provinces- Dagana, Paro and Trongsa-headed by governors, or penlops. Each dzong was directed by a dzongpon. Thus, a whole hierarchy of officials was established. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel also gave the country a legal system based on Buddhist moral principles and customary rules in general use at that time. In 1651, the Shabdrung went into retreat at Punakha Dzong and died soon afterwards. His death was kept secret for over half a century in case turmoil should erupt in the newly created country while a worthy successor to the Shabdrung was being sought. From the middle of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, the penlops increased their power to the detriment of the central government. Furthermore, the dual system of government, devised to be run by a strong man, favoured political inertia in the absence of a reincarnation of the Shabdrung's forceful personality. Terrible power struggles took place among the Desi, the penlops and the dzongpons as a consequence. The combination of these factors led to instability and increasingly frequent internal disputes that ended in incessant civil wars.

The coming of the British

Up until the middle of the 18th century, the Bhutanese government had conducted foreign relations only with the Kingdom of Cooch Behar on its southern border and with regions within Tibet 's cultural sphere ( Tibet , Ladakh , Sikkim ). Now it was faced with a new factor in the form of British hegemony in Assam and their expansion into the Himalayas.

In the second half of the 18th century, British missions seeking preferential trade agreements with Tibet and Bhutan succeeded in establishing good relations with the Bhutanese without, however, gaining the concrete results that they hoped for. But the conflicting interests between the two countries over the question of the Duars (the narrow southern plain) rapidly soured these good relations and the expeditions in the 19th century were marked by hostility. Continual skirmishes on the southern border from the 1830s onward escalated until they broke out, in 1864, into a conflict known as the Duar War. In November 1865, the Treaty of Sinchula restored friendly relations: Bhutan lost the fertile strip of land that made up the Duars, but in exchange it received an annuity from the British.

New Leadership Ugyen Wangchuk

During this time, the progressive weakening of the central government became more marked and, in the second half of the 19th century, it contributed to the emergence of the power of the two main penlops, in Paro and Trongsa, who in fact controlled western Bhutan and central and eastern Bhutan respectively. The Penlop of Trongsa, named Jigme Namgyel, helped by a network of alliances and his own political genius, became the strong man of Bhutan after 1865. Upon his death in 1881, he bequeathed the position of Penlop of Trongsa to his son, Ugyen Wangchuck. The new governor strengthened the alliances forged by his father and claimed a decisive victory over his fiercest opponents at Thimphu in 1885. From then on, Bhutan enjoyed its first period of political stability in many generations.

Ugyen Wangchuck favoured increased co-operation with the British. On the suggestion of his eminent advisor, Kazi Ugyen Dorje, he served as intermediary in the delicate negotiations between the Tibetans and the British. In 1904, at the time of the British expedition into Tibet under Colonel Francis Younghusband, he won the confidence and respect of the latter and he was awarded the title of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE) in 1905. The British were consequently very pleased and relieved when an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and the people elected Ugyen Wangchuck to be the First King of Bhutan on 17 December 1907. Thus ended the theocractic, dual system of government established by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, and a hereditary monarchy was inaugurated.

Monarchy and Modernization

King Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926 and was succeeded by his son, Jigme Wangchuck, who reigned until his death in 1952. The reigns of the first two kings were marked by political stability and a degree of economic prosperity after the years of internal conflict that had drained the country's economy. A desire to open the country to the outside world, the influence of enlightened men such as KaziUgyen Dorje and his son Gongzim Sonam Tobgye, and aid from Great Britain permitted the establishment of the first Western-style schools and the sending of the first Bhutanese students to India for advanced training. The third king, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck (r 1952-72), is considered the father of modern Bhutan . Inheriting a country at peace, he understood that the world was changing and that Bhutan , if it wished to survive, could no longer continue its political isolation but must start developing.

In 1961, with the help of India , the King launched the first five-year plan of development, with particular emphasis on road-building. In 1962, Bhutan joined its first international organisation, the Colombo Plan, and in 1971 it was proudly admitted to the United Nations. After the sovereign's death in 1972, his son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, ascended the throne at the age of 17. Brought up by the late king with an eye to his future role as monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck had no trouble in taking over the reins of state, and quickly dedicated himself to a policy of socio-economic development for the country while maintaining its ancestral traditions and cultural heritage. With emphasis on the well-being of the people, and their ability to profit from the advances of the modern world without losing their sense of identity, the King is challenging the classic process of modernization with a carefully thought out plan that embraces all of Bhutan's heritage.

Central Government

The system of government is a monarchy. His Majesty the King is the head of state, but since 1998, he is no longer the head of government, having left this function to a prime minister. He is assisted by a cabinet. It is made up of ministers and secretaries of state. Ministers have been, since the major political reform of 1998 initiated by the king, elected by the members of the National Assembly for five years and each minister, in turn, is head of government for one year. Each ministry is divided into departments or divisions. The first draft of the constitution was submitted to the King in December 2002.

A 39-member Constitution drafting committee headed by chief justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye and comprises of elected members of the people, monastic body, the judiciary and the executive arms of the government was formed soon after His Majesty commanded the drafting of a Constitution on September 4, 2001. After six meetings, the drafting committee formally submitted the first draft of the Constitution to His Majesty in December last year. On the command to make further improvements the Constitution committee submitted the second draft in June 2003. Since then it is also being reviewed by international constitutional experts.

The National Assembly

The National Assembly was created in 1953 and consists of 150 members: 100 representatives of the people, elected for three years, ten representatives of the clergy and 40 representatives appointed by the king from among his ministers, royal counsellors, district heads and other high officials. The Assembly meets once a year for three weeks in the Assembly Hall in Thimphu . The sessions are public. Laws are discussed and voted on and national problems debated.

Royal Advisory Council

Set up in 1965, the Royal Advisory Council is an advisory body that is always in session. Its purpose is to advise the king and also to make sure that resolutions passed by the National Assembly are properly carried out. It has a three-year mandate and consists of nine members who must be approved by the assembly: two members from the state clergy and six members elected by secret ballot by the National Assembly from among candidates elected in the districts. The head of the Council (Zhung Kaloen) is appointed by the king.

The Judicial System

Judicial power is held in the last resort by the king, to whom all Bhutanese may appeal. A High Court of six judges was established in 1968 with its seat in Thimphu . Four of the judges are appointed by the king and two represent the people, elected by the assembly. All districts have a local court presided over by a magistrate who is appointed by the Chief Justice, but village headmen still try the less important cases.

The Code of Law is based on the one established by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. While still keeping its Buddhist foundations, it has been adapted to meet modern problems. Bhutan is certainly a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Court cases deal essentially with family disputes or quarrels over property rights. There were no lawyers, each person pleaded his case personally; there were, however, "mediators" for complex cases. These now receive training sanctioned by a state diploma. A major reform of the judicial system is under way, judges are now trained from the legal point of view, and the Code of Laws was reviewed in 2001. Bhutan will soon have lawyers.

Local Administration

Inherited from the administrative system devised by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century, local administration underwent modifications during the 20th century. Twenty districts (dzongkhag) were created, each led by a head of district, the Dzongdag responsible to the Home Ministry.

The Dzongdag is aided in his duties by an assistant, the Dzongrab, who deals with internal administrative matters. The most populated districts have been divided into sub-districts, dungkhag, which are led by a Dungpa, a civil servant appointed by the government and attached to the dzongdag. Each district is divided into blocks (gewog), administrative units grouping several villages.

A district development committee (Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogchun), made up of representatives of the people and ranking civil servants of the district, meet to discuss development projects. At the block level, decisions are passed on by a village headman called Gup, elected by the villagers, who also doubles as a magistrate for minor disputes. There are also, since 1991, block development committees (Gewog Yargye Tshogchun). In. 2002, as part of the government's decentralizations and devolution policy, both the district development committees and the block development committees have been given more decision-making powers as well as certain financial responsibilities.

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