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Political Culture in Bhutan: A Lost Narrative

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 07, 2010

    On August 22, 2010, leaders of exiled Bhutanese formed a joint front under the leadership of R.K. Dorji, the founder of the Druk National Congress. The major parties in exile which decided to come under one umbrella were the Bhutan Peoples Party, Bhutan National Democratic Party and Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee. This development is being framed as unique, since this is for the first time that a united front has been formed in order to strengthen the voices of the refugees in exile. The aim of the joint front, as the leaders put it, would be to advocate repatriation of all refugees to Bhutan. Resettlement, for one, they argue is a temporary solution and returning to the homeland with dignity and honour is perhaps what is desired by all Bhutanese refugees. While this political objective has been articulated clearly, the strategic objective, as another leader puts it, would be to persuade India to take a lead role in influencing Bhutan’s refugee policy. The refugee leaders for quite some time now have been blaming India on its hands-off policy towards the refugee issue, which they allege has accounted for all the suffering which the refugees settled in the camps of Eastern Nepal have gone through.

    However, while the articulation of the political and strategic objective of the front is quite clearly stated, there are voices expressing public reservation on the formation of the front, particularly from two refugee leaders, Bhampa Rai and Thinley Penjore, who have questioned the credibility of the front as they claim that their own exclusion from the front is unfair given that they represent a substantive mandate of the people. While Rai is associated with Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Representative Committee (BRRRC), Thinley Penjore is known to be associated with Druk National Front-Democratic (DNC-D). Bhampa Rai is a doctor by profession and is known for his association with the issue of human rights in the camps of Nepal. Thinley Penjore, though initially associated with Druk National Congress which represents the Sharchops inhabiting Eastern Bhutan, has formed a break away faction called Druk National Front-Democratic. It is also interesting to note that the National Front for Democracy in Bhutan, constitutes of Bhutan People’s Party, Druk National Congress- (Democratic), Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front (BGNLF) and Bhutan National Democratic Party. However, in the recently constituted joint front, only Bhutan People’s Party and Bhutan National Democratic Party from National Front for Democracy were called for participation and Druk National Congress-(Democratic) and Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front (BGNLF) were conspicuously missing. An immediate explanation for this exclusion can perhaps be the conscious decision to send a symbolic message that the front is bereft of any violent intentions. Significantly, Balaram Poudyal, who represents the Bhutan National Democratic Party, made a statement that “his party was unaware of Maoist party in the camp(s) of Nepal which has been reported to be fighting against the regime with arms.” He further stated, “I have no knowledge where … such cadres live and what they do.” The front in this avatar perhaps intends to be more politically correct in engaging the international community. As Tek Nath Rizal of Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee has clearly stated, the issue of Bhutanese refugees is no longer a “bilateral deal” and that after the resettlement programme it has become a “matter of international concern.” The refugee leaders know well that any affiliation with an armed struggle would not lead them too far, especially given the fact that around 30,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States alone. It is also no exaggeration to state that the Communist Party of Nepal is still blacklisted in United States of America!! Any affiliation with the Maoist elements in the repatriation scheme could distinctly weaken American engagement.

    While the international outreach of the front could increase with such a political message and strategy, its internal outreach within Bhutan also has to be deliberated upon if the leaders want an effective change or intend to influence Bhutan’s policy on refugees. In the absence of this road map, any argument on India’s role in leveraging the refugee issue with Bhutan would appear too fragile and a bit exaggerated. In fact, over a period of time it would become a cliché. Indeed to some extent it already has! A major reason for an over-emphasis on the Indian role is that the political culture of Bhutan has often been overlooked and understudied.

    Political Culture can be defined as a set of beliefs, which people in a given society develop over a period of time towards various issues within a political system. Bhutan, in this sense, provides a unique political culture as it has a rich history of Machiavellian politics, political ambitions and wars over the assertion of identity. The deeply entrenched Drupka identity in the polity of Bhutan is perhaps just a pointer to how the Drupkas have sustained their centuries’ long effort to guard the political corridors of decision-making in the Himalayan Kingdom. Deeply under the sway of Tibetan invasions from 861-900 A.D., which had inadvertently led the country towards political fragmentation, it was only in the twelfth century that a particular Buddhist sect known as the Kargyupka (Drupka) decided to settle in the country. As a result, from the 12th century onwards many Lamas of Drupka sect entered Bhutan and a distinct religious Drupka identity emerged. The well guarded sensitivity towards non-interference of external powers in its internal politics is well reflected in the way Bhutan interacted with the East India Company in the 18th century and various British expeditions in the 19th century. After the civil war in Bhutan in 1885 when Ugyen Wangchuck emerged as the virtual ruler of Bhutan, a policy shift towards the British was adopted. As under the leadership of Ugyen Wangchuk, Bhutan not only witnessed stability but also moved South towards British India for security and stability reasons. While the British on their part wanted a strong leader who could serve their interests in securing trade routes to Tibet, Ugyen Wangchuk, as the new monarch, was looking for a strong ally who could deter threats from Tibet. Consequently in 1910, the Treaty of Punakha was signed under which the British acquired the right to “advise” Bhutan on its external relations. Bhutan meanwhile secured assurance from the British that a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Bhutan would be respected. Dissuading Tibetan invaders from the North was the primary incentive behind the signing of the Anglo-Bhutanese Treaty. It can be said that the Treaty of Punakha was therefore a win-win outcome for both the concerned parties. This policy continued with independent India and in 2007 the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was revisited and Article II, which talked about the right of India to advice Bhutan in its foreign policy objectives, was conspicuously dropped.

    The Wangchuk Dynasty which has ruled Bhutan for almost a century does find a special place in Bhutan and the Drupka identity for obvious reasons continues to shape policy decisions. According to some sources there are nine Nepali members in the ruling party, DPT, in Bhutan, though experts say that this is far less considering the total population size of the Nepalese in Bhutan.

    Opposition outside the country has also stemmed from exiled refugees which apart from ethnic Nepalese include the monks of Nyingmapa sect, who according to some sources were exiled by the government in the early 1990s. A domestic discourse on the faultlines of minority politics in Bhutan has however been conspicuously missing in the public domain.

    Thus, making inroads into the domestic political space in Bhutan can be one of the most daunting challenges for the issue of refugee repatriation. Creating levers of influence and pursuing a pro-active engagement with Bhutan’s decision-makers through persuasion and negotiation is thus the most effective way of shaping political will in order to engage the Bhutanese establishment over the issue of refugee repatriation. Perhaps understanding the domestic political culture of Bhutan can provide some insight on the ways and means which could inform such a strategy.