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Bhutan (03/08)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.

Flag of Bhutan is divided diagonally from lower hoist side corner into yellow upper triangle, orange lower triangle; centered along dividing line is black and white dragon facing away from hoist side.


Kingdom of Bhutan

Area: 46,500 sq. km.
Cities: Capital--Thimphu (pop. approx. 55,000) Other significant cities--Paro, Phoentsholing, Punakha, Bumthong.
Terrain: Mountainous, from the Himalayas to lower-lying foothills and some savannah.
Climate: Alpine to temperate to subtropical with monsoon season from June to September.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Bhutanese.
Population: Approximately 672,425 (according to the 2005 census).
Annual growth rate: 2.082% (2007 est.). Density--45 per sq. km.
Ethnic groups: Drukpa 50% (which is also inclusive of Sharchops), as well as ethnic Nepalese (Lhotsampas) 35%, and indigenous or migrant tribes 15%.
Religions: Lamaistic Buddhist 75% (state religion), Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 25%.
Languages: Dzongka (official language), English (medium of instruction), Sharchop, Nepali.
Education: Years compulsory--11. Literacy--53% (2005 est.). Primary school gross enrollment rate (2006)--79.4%. Women's literacy (2005)--39%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2007 est.)--total: 96.37 deaths/1,000 live births; male: 94.09 deaths/1,000 live births; female: 98.77 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2007 est.)--total population 63 years; male 62 years; female 65 years.
Work force (2005): Agriculture--94%; industry--1%; services--5%. The unemployment rate is 3.1% (2005 est.).

Type: Peacefully evolving from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The Royal Government, prompted by the King, released a draft constitution in March 2005. The King and Crown Prince conducted consultations on the constitution in all 20 dzongkhag (districts) in 2005 and 2006. Bhutan will adopt the constitution in early 2008. Elections for the National Council (upper house) took place in December 2007, and elections for the National Assembly (lower house) will occur in March 2008.
National Day: December 17 (1907).
Branches: Executive--King or Druk Gyalpo (chief of state), Prime Minister (head of government), Council of Ministers, Royal Advisory Council (together they make the Cabinet or Lhengye Zhungtsho). Advisory--Monastic Order (or Monk Body-Dratshang). Legislative--National Assembly (Tshogdu). Judicial--High Court (Thrimkhang Gogma), District Courts, and local area arbitration.
Administrative subdivisions: 20.
Political parties: Two. People's Democratic Party and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa
Suffrage: Registered resident with legitimate citizenship, age 18 and above.

GDP (purchasing power parity 2006): U.S. $3.503 billion.
Real growth rate (2005): 8.8%.
Per capita GDP (2005): U.S. $1,325.30.
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power, construction, timber, gypsum, calcium carbide.
Sectors as percent of GDP (all figures, 2005): Agriculture and forestry--24.7%; industry--37.3%; services--38%.
Trade: Exports (2004)--U.S. $158 million: hydroelectricity, calcium carbide, cement, particle board. Imports (2004)--U.S. $245 million: machinery, mechanical appliances and electronics, plastics and rubber products, textiles, whiskies and prepared foodstuffs, medicines and pharmaceuticals, vegetable oils and foodstuffs. Major trade partners--India, Bangladesh, Japan, Singapore.

The people of Bhutan can be divided into three broad ethnic categories--Ngalops, Sharchops, and Lhotsampas. The Ngalops make up the majority of the population, living mostly in the western and central areas. The Ngalops are thought to be of Tibetan origin, arriving in Bhutan during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. and bringing Buddhism with them. Most Ngalops follow the Drukpa Kagyupa discipline of Mahayana Buddhism. In a country that is deeply rooted within the Buddhist religion, many people's sect of religion, as opposed to their ethnic group, characterizes them. The Ngalops predominate in the government, and the civil service and their cultural norms have been declared by the monarchy to be the standard for all citizens.

The Sharchops, who live in the eastern section of Bhutan, are considered to be descendants of the earliest major group to inhabit Bhutan. Most follow the Ningmapa discipline of Mahayana Buddhism. Sharchop is translated as "people of the east." The Ngalops, Sharchops, and the indigenous tribal people are collectively known as Drukpas and account for about 65% of the population. The national language is Dzongka, but English is the language of instruction in schools and an official working language for the government.

The Lhotsampas are people of Nepali descent, currently making up 35% of the population. They came to Bhutan in the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly settling in the southern foothills to work as farmers. They speak a variety of Nepali dialects and are predominantly Hindu.

Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure. It may have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C., but not much was known until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century A.D. when turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. In the 12th century A.D., the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately tied to its religious history and the relations among the various monastic schools and monasteries.

The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when Ngawana Namgyal, a lama from Tibet, defeated three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as ruler (shabdrung) over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. After his death, infighting and civil war eroded the power of the shabdrung for the next 200 years when in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck was able to consolidate power and cultivated closer ties with the British in India.

In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan, crowned on December 17, 1907, and installed as the head of state Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). In 1910, King Ugyen and the British signed the Treaty of Punakha which provided that British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted external advice in its external relations. When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, his son Jigme Wangchuck became the next ruler, and when India gained independence in 1947, the new Indian Government recognized Bhutan as an independent country. In 1949, India and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which provided that India would not interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs but would be guided by India in its foreign policy. Succeeded in 1952 by his son Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan began to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a program of planned development. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, and during his tenure the National Assembly was established and a new code of law, as well as the Royal Bhutanese Army and the High Court.

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wanchuck ascended the throne at age 16. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. He was perhaps best known internationally for his overarching development philosophy of "Gross National Happiness." It recognizes that there are many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient. Satisfied with Bhutan's transitioning democratization process, he abdicated in December 2006 rather than wait until the promulgation of the new constitution in 2008. His son, Jigme Khesar Namgvel Wangchuck, became King upon his abdication.

Traditionally a decentralized theocracy and, since 1907, a monarchy, Bhutan is evolving into a constitutional monarchy with a representative government. In 2002, the election laws were changed so that each citizen over the age of 21 could vote by secret ballot for a representative to the National Assembly (Tshongdu); previously, only one vote per family was allowed. The Tshongdu is composed of about 150 members, including some appointed from the Monk Body as well as some senior government representatives. They in turn elect the Council of Ministers. Prior to 2003, the Council had six members and rotated the responsibility as prime minister and head of government between each one for a period of one year, but in 2003, the National Assembly elected four additional ministers and also selected the prime minister.

The spiritual head of Bhutan, the Je Khempo--the only person besides the king who wears the saffron scarf, an honor denoting his authority over all religious institutions--is nominated by monastic leaders and appointed by the king. The Monk Body is involved in advising the government on many levels.

Bhutan is divided into 20 districts or dzongkhags, each headed by a district officer (dzongda) who must be elected. In addition, each district also is broken into smaller areas known as geog (village), led by a locally elected leader called a gup. There are 201 elected gups. In 2002, the National Assembly created a new structure for local governance at the geog level. Each local area is responsible for creating and implementing its own development plan, in coordination with the district.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State--King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
Prime Minister (Head of Government and officiating Minister of Foreign Affairs)--Lyonpo (Dr.) Kizang Dorji
Ministry of Economic Affairs--Dasho Sonam Tshering, Secretary
Minister for Trade and Industry--Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba
Minister for Home and Cultural Affairs--Dasho Penden Wangchuk, Secretary
Minister for Finance--Dasho Yanki T. Wangchuk, Secretary
Minister for Education--Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho
Minister for Health--Dasho (Dr.) Gado Tshering, Secretary
Minister for Labor and Human Resources--Dasho (Dr.) Sonam Tenzin, Secretary
Minister for Works and Human Settlements--Lyonpo (Dr.) Kizang Dorji
Minister for Information and Communications--Lyonpo Leki Dorji
Minister for Agriculture--Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen
Ambassador to the United Nations Headquarters--Lyonpo Daw Penjo

The United States and the Kingdom of Bhutan have not established formal diplomatic relations; however, the two governments have warm informal relations.

Bhutan maintains a Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. The address is 763 First Avenue, New York, NY 10017; tel: 212-682-2268, fax: 212-661-0551.

The economy, one of the world's smallest and least developed, is based on agriculture, forestry, and hydroelectricity. Rugged terrain makes it difficult to develop roads and other infrastructure. Despite this constraint, hydroelectricity and construction continue to be the two major industries of growth for the country. As these two areas are increasing productivity, there continues to be a positive outlook for development throughout Bhutan. The economic program in the current 5-year-plan (2002-07) places a strong emphasis on improving education and infrastructure with a special emphasis on increasing activities in the sectors of information and communication technology, energy, and tourism. After the global slowdown within the travel industry, Bhutan's tourist industry is beginning to show signs of recovery.

Bhutan's economy has been on an upturn due to recent subregional economic cooperation efforts. Already this plan has strengthened the current trade relations with India, as well as opened an avenue of trade with Bangladesh. In May 2003, the Bilateral Free Trade Agreement between Bangladesh and Bhutan was re-signed. Bangladesh is Bhutan's second largest trade partner, after India. In January 2004, as a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bhutan also joined the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). In February 2004 Bhutan joined the Bangladesh, Indian, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand Economic Cooperation Forum (BIMSTEC). Bhutan has applied for membership in the World Trade Organization and is in the process of developing clear legal and regulatory systems designed to promote business development


Relations between India and Bhutan are governed by the 1949 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The treaty ensures India's neutrality in Bhutan's internal affairs, in exchange for Bhutan's agreement to be guided by India in foreign policy matters. But in practice, Bhutan exercises sovereignty on many issues. India is Bhutan's largest donor and supplies approximately 80% of Bhutan's foreign assistance. In recent years, insurgents on the Indian side of the border from the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Bodos have used Bhutan as a safe haven. In December 2003, Bhutan military troops expelled Indian insurgents from Assam. Through this joint effort with India, Bhutan strengthened border security and continued cooperation with the Indian military.

Bhutan and China do not have diplomatic relations, although border talks between the two nations have occurred.

These two countries established diplomatic relations in 1983. Nepal and Bhutan are currently negotiating to resolve a 17-year-old refugee situation, in which 107,000 refugees are residing in seven UNHCR camps in Nepal. Most of the refugees claim they are Bhutanese citizens, while Bhutan alleges that most are non-nationals or "voluntary emigrants," who forfeited their citizenship rights. In 2003, a joint Bhutan-Nepal verification team categorized refugees from one camp into four groups, but progress remains stalled.

United Nations
Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with any of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Bhutan was elected to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003 and served until 2006.

Other Countries
Bhutan enjoys diplomatic relations with seven European nations, which form The "Friends of Bhutan" group, together with Japan. These countries are Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Austria. Also known as donor nations, they contribute generously to Bhutanese development and social programs. Bhutan also has diplomatic relations with South Korea, Canada, Australia, Kuwait, Thailand, Bahrain, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.

Bhutan has 8,000 members in five military branches: the Royal Bhutan Army, Royal Bodyguard, National Militia, Royal Bhutan Police, and Forest Guards. In FY 2002, the Bhutanese Government spent 1.9% of its GDP on the military or U.S. $9.3 million. India maintains a permanent military training presence in Bhutan through IMTRAT, the Indian Military Training Team.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, has consular responsibilities for Bhutan, but U.S. citizens also may request assistance from U.S. Embassies in Kathmandu, Nepal, or Dhaka, Bangladesh. The United States and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations, and the United States does not give foreign assistance to Bhutan. Informal contact is maintained through the U.S. Embassy and the Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi. Bhutan does participate in a regional program for South Asia sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that helps countries develop their power infrastructure (SARI-E). A few Bhutanese military officers have attended courses at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The U.S. Government annually brings several Bhutanese participants to United States through its International Visitors Program.

Principal U.S. Officials (U.S. Embassy, India)
Ambassador--David C. Mulford
Deputy Chief of Mission--Steven White
Public Affairs--Larry Schwartz
Political Affairs--Ted Osius
Economic Affairs--John Davison
Scientific Affairs--Dr. Satish V. Kulkarni
Commercial Affairs--Carmine D'Aloisio
Agricultural Affairs--Holly Higgins
Management Affairs--Gerri O'Brien
Consular Affairs--Peter Kaestner
USAID Mission, Director--George Deikun

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