Questions are being raised about whether Bhutan is reconsidering its position and approach towards Beijing. This comes in the wake of recent statements made by Bhutan's political leadership, particularly Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, regarding the border-related complexities between Bhutan, China, and India.
Tshering stated that China "holds a stake in finding a resolution" to the territorial dispute. This need not be seen as an unparalleled or unprecedented statement, given Bhutan's history with China on the issue.
Bhutan's internal politics appear placid, depicting stability on the surface. But its history has been fraught with bitter conflicts. Family rivalries between the ruling clans of the Wangchuks and the Dorjis are legendary. The monarchy has faced coups and assassination attempts.
For instance, there was a pro-China lobby, which strongly opposed the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck's (reign 1952-1972) attempts to keep Bhutan close to India. The Prime Minister during his reign, Jigme Palden Dorji was assassinated in 1964. The successor King too faced an abortive attempt on his life at the time of his coronation in 1974.
In all, it is all quite indicative of the palace politics and family conflicts among Bhutan's ruling elite. This is especially true when it comes to the complex questions of policies towards Tibetans and Nepalese residing in Bhutan.
Bhutan's Ethnic Dynamics
There is a vital dimension of Bhutan's internal dynamics that influences relations with China and other countries, which is that the Bhutanese society is made up of two dominant ethnic groups. These are the ruling Drukpas, who are of Tibetan origin, and the Bhutanese citizens of Indo-Nepali origin.
An estimated 650,000 Nepali-speaking people live mainly in the southern belt of Bhutan. They comprise a combination of caste and ethnic groups, including Bahun, Chhetri, Gurung, Limbu, Newar, Rai, and Tamang. The Nepali population makes up about 30-35 percent of Bhutan's total population. This has often been viewed by the Drukpas as a threat.
The Nepalese, for decades, have claimed discrimination when it comes to appointments in the higher echelons of the army, state administration, judiciary, and other senior political posts. The Kings have made their best attempts to placate these grievances. However, the questions surrounding the enduring hegemony of the Drukpas refuse to ebb. Besides, Bhutan's ruling elite have been suspicious that the Nepalis may try to undermine the dominance of the Drukpas, eventually becoming a threat to Bhutan's monarchy.
Bhutan's foreign policy initiatives in the past too, have aimed at increasing international contacts. This is potentially seen as one of the safeguards against the possibility of external interference. The establishment of diplomatic relations with Nepal was significant in this respect. It induced greater respect for the Bhutanese King and traditional institutions among the Nepalis of Bhutan. But most importantly, it cut down on the anti-monarchist stimulus domestically.
Natural, Traditional Borders
The Bhutan-Tibet boundary is a natural, traditional, and customary one. It follows the crest of the Himalayan range which forms the main watershed between the Amo Chu and the waters flowing into Ram Tso, Yu Tso, Nyang Chu, and Kuru Chu in Tibet and the Paro Chu, Punakha, Thimbu Tongsa, and Bumtang rivers in Bhutan.
This natural alignment has also been the traditional and customary boundary between China and Bhutan. There is no evidence of any direct Chinese treaty relations with Bhutan. Chinese assertions of past authority over Bhutan are based on a "supposed inheritance" of rather vaguely defined Tibetan "suzerain" rights.
These Chinese "claims" are highly dubious. They are devoid of facts and/or evidence, especially when it comes to their applicability. Bhutan has been linked with the Dalai Lama through a tributary relationship ever since the 17th century. This was an indirect consequence of the long struggle between rival Buddhist sects which centered in Tibet, having repercussions throughout the Himalayan region.
China's Blatant Violation of Bhutan's Authority
Meanwhile, upon seizing and occupying Tibet, Chinese officials illegally dispossessed the designated authority of the Government of Bhutan on eight enclaves situated in western Tibet. Bhutan had exercised administrative jurisdiction over these enclaves for more than 300 years. These enclaves (entire villages) are Khangri, Tarchen, Tsekhor, Diraphu, Dzung Tuphu, Jangehe, Chakip, and Kocha.
Bhutan, for centuries, appointed officers who governed these villages, collected taxes, and administered justice. Tibetan authorities consistently recognized that these villages belonged to the Bhutanese Government. The villages were not subject to Tibetan officers and laws, nor did they pay any Tibetan taxes. There was thus a blatant violation of Bhutan's legitimate authority over these eight enclaves. This was officially raised too by Bhutan in 1959 to the Chinese Government, although to no avail.
The Bhutanese elite could well be considering "softening" their thinking and approach towards China. But the latter's hauteur policies in Tibet continue to arouse hostility in traditional Bhutanese society, which remains very close culturally and spiritually to Tibet.
That said, Bhutan's policy towards China shall always remain constrained by its inherent apprehensions over the ultimate objective of China's chessboard plan for the Himalayas.
- [All Politics is Global] Bhutan Caught in China's Great 'Five Fingers' Strategy
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- Irrepressible Tibet: Seven Decades of Fighting Chinese Lies with Compassion and Truth
Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.