Bhutan’s rugged mountains and dense forests long rendered it almost inaccessible to the outside world, and the country’s rulers reinforced this isolation by banning foreigners until well into the 20th century. Then, under pressure from neighboring countries with strategic interests in Bhutan, a slow change began. In committing to policies of social and administrative reform coupled with economic development, Bhutan began to cultivate its international contacts.
The emergence of Bhutan
The historical origins of Bhutan are obscure. It is reported that some four to five centuries ago an influential lama from Tibet, Sheptoon La-Pha, became the king of Bhutan and acquired the title of dharma raja. Bhutan probably became a distinct political entity about this period. La-Pha was succeeded by Doopgein Sheptoon, who consolidated Bhutan’s administrative organization through the appointment of regional penlops (governors of territories) and jungpens (governors of forts). Doopgein Sheptoon exercised both temporal and spiritual authority, but his successor confined himself to only the spiritual role and appointed a minister to exercise the temporal power. The minister became the temporal ruler and acquired the title of deb raja. This institution of two supreme authorities—a dharma raja for spiritual affairs and a deb raja for temporal matters—existed until the death of the last dharma raja in the early 20th century. Succession to the spiritual office of dharma raja was dependent on what was considered a verifiable reincarnation of the deceased dharma raja, and this person was often discovered among the children of the ruling families. When the last dharma raja died in the 1930s, no reincarnation was found, and the practice and the office ceased to exist.
For much of the 19th century Bhutan was plagued by a series of civil wars as the governors of the various territories contended for power and influence. The office of the deb raja, in theory filled by election by a council composed of penlops and jungpens, was in practice held by the strongest of the governors, usually either the penlop of Paro or the penlop of Tongsa. Similarly, the penlops, who were to be appointed by the deb raja, in practice fought their way into office. Throughout most of Bhutanese history a continuous series of skirmishes and intrigues took place throughout the land as superseded jungpens and penlops awaited an opportunity to return to power.
In 1907, after the dharma raja had died and the deb raja had withdrawn into a life of contemplation, the then-strongest penlop, Ugyen Wangchuk of Tongsa, was “elected” by a council of lamas, abbots, councilors, and laymen to be the hereditary king (druk gyalpo) of Bhutan. The lamas continued to have strong spiritual influence.
Despite its long-standing tendency to isolate itself from the rest of the world, Bhutan was the object of several foreign invasions in the centuries after its establishment. Ugyen Wangchuk became Bhutan’s Druk Gyalpo in 1907.
Beginning in the early 1960s, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk embarked on a program to reform the country’s economy and its quasi-feudal social system. New roads and hospitals were built, and a system of secular schools was established as an alternative to education in Buddhist monasteries. Transformation of the social system began with the abolition of slavery, the restriction of Bhutia polyandry and Nepalese polygamy, and a slight liberalization of royal rule. Bhutan’s government institutions were also restructured, though the king retained firm control over the country’s political life. Political instability occasionally surfaced, notably in 1964, when the prime minister was murdered in a dispute between rival political factions, and in 1965, when an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on the king himself. Limited numbers of tourists were permitted to enter the country beginning in the 1970s, and in 1971 Bhutan officially ended its political isolation by joining the United Nations.
In 1972, 16-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuk succeeded his father as king. Jigme Singye Wangchuk continued his father’s reform and development policies, channeling money into infrastructure, education, and health, but he also tried to preserve Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage and natural environment. In 1988 Bhutan launched a national policy demanding that everyone adhere completely to Buddhist traditions.
By the turn of the 21st century, Bhutan had moved to embrace democracy as well as to eliminate vestiges of its historical isolation from all angles—geographic, political, economic, social, and technological. Accelerating this initiative was the abdication of the king in 2006 and the transfer of the throne to his politically progressive son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. By the end of 2007 the country had held direct elections—the first in its history—for the National Council, the upper house of a new bicameral parliament. Elections in March 2008 for the National Assembly, the lower house of the new parliament, marked the completion of the change to a democratic system.
In the decade that followed, both democracy and economic development showed promising growth and success. Bhutan continued to increase political participation within the country and held competitive elections every five years. Three different political parties won in the country’s first three elections. Economic growth was among the most rapid in the world, and extreme poverty was nearly eradicated. The development of both democratic institutions and economic growth was reinforced by a number of successful initiatives, such as a substantial increase in school enrollment and youth literacy.