Bhutan (11/03)

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


Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul, "Land of the Thunder Dragon"

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 (2001 est.): 698,950; urban 21%.
Annual growth rate: 2.5%. Density--14 per sq. km.
Ethnic groups: Ngalops and Sharchops 71%, Lhotsampas (Nepalese) 28%, others 1%.
Religions: Mahayana Buddhism 75% (state religion); Hinduism 25%.
Languages: Dzongka (official language), English (medium of instruction), Sharchop, Nepali.
Education: Years compulsory--11 Literacy--54% (est.). Women's literacy (est.)--20%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--70.7/1,000 (1994). Life expectancy--66 years.
Work force (1994): Agriculture--57.2%; government--2%; business--1.4%; others--1.4%. There is a high unemployment rate.

Type: Evolving from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Previously, various laws and Buddhist values guided the relationship between the state and the people, but currently a 39-member Drafting Committee composed of representatives of the people, judiciary, the Monastic Order, and the Royal Government are writing a Constitution which is expected to be presented to the National Assembly for ratification in 2005.
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: None.
Suffrage: Registered resident with legitimate citizenship, age 21 and above.

GDP (2001): U.S.$482 million.
Real growth rate (2002-03): 6.0%.
Per capita GDP (2001): U.S.$708.
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power, timber.
Agriculture and forestry (all figs., 2001): 33.8% of GDP.
Construction: 11.8% of GDP.
Finance: 10.3% of GDP.
Transport and communication: 10% of GDP.
Electricity: 9.9% of GDP.
Government service: 9.9% of GDP.
Manufacturing: 9.8% of GDP.
Trade: Exports (2001-02)--U.S.$ 97.7 million: hydroelectricity, vegetables and fruits, processed foods, minerals, wood products, textiles, machinery. Imports (2001-02)--U.S.$188.4 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, Denmark.

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. 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 descended from 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 and Sharchops are collectively known as Drukpas and account for about 74% 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 25% 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, the present king, Jigme Singye Wanchuck, ascended the throne at age 16. He has emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. The current king has established an overarching development philosophy of "Gross National Happiness." It recognizes that there are many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient.

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) when 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 a prime minister to serve for the next 3 years.

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 (August 2003)
Head of State--King Jigme Singye Wangchuck
Prime Minister, head of government and Home Minister--Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuck
Minister for Finance--Lyonpo Wangdi Norbu
Minister for Trade and Industry--Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba
Minister for Agriculture--Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup
Minister for Education--Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho
Minister for Health--Lyonpo (Dr.) Jigme Singay
Minister for Labor and Human Resources--Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering
Minister for Works and Human Settlements--Lyonpo (Dr.) Kizang Dorji
Minister for Information and Communications--Lyonpo Leki Dorji
Ambassador to the United Nations Headquarters--Vacant as of 11/1/03

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

Bhutan maintains a Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. The address is 763 First Avenue, New York, NY 10017; tel: 212-682-2371, 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. 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. 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. 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. Bhutan has requested the insurgents to leave on several occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the Bhutanese Government finds itself facing an increased number of insurgents in 2003 and has threatened military action against them if negotiations for their voluntary withdrawal fail in the next few months.

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 13-year-old refugee situation, in which 100,000 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. A repatriation process is expected to begin in 2004.

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 U.N. Security Council. Bhutan was elected to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003 and will serve 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--Robert O. Blake (acting)
Deputy Chief of Mission--Robert O. Blake
Public Affairs---Michael H. Anderson
Political Affairs Geoffrey R. Pyatt
Economic Affairs--Lee H. Brudvig
Scientific Affiars--Dr. Marco DiCapua Commercial Affairs--John Peters
Agricultural Affairs--Chad Russell
Management Affairs--Steven J. White
Consular Affairs--William Bartlett
USAID Mission, Director--Walter E. North

The U.S. Embassy in India is located on Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021 (tel. 91-11-2419-8000) (fax: 91-11-24190017). Embassy and consulate working hours are Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Visa application hours are Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Please consult the Consular Affairs Web site. Further information about Bhutan also can be obtained at the official Web site of Bhutan's Tourism Corporation.

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