Digital Himalaya Journals

Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants Dorji Penjore between 2004-06 and 2004-08

Item Metadata


JSON: dhimjournal-1.0365158.json
JSON-LD: dhimjournal-1.0365158-ld.json
RDF/XML (Pretty): dhimjournal-1.0365158-rdf.xml
RDF/JSON: dhimjournal-1.0365158-rdf.json
Turtle: dhimjournal-1.0365158-turtle.txt
N-Triples: dhimjournal-1.0365158-rdf-ntriples.txt
Original Record: dhimjournal-1.0365158-source.json
Full Text

Full Text

 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants*
Dorji Penjore*
'Vulnerability' best sums up the plight of small states in any
discourse on security. Many size factors interplay to entangle
most small states in a network of insecurities, and smallness
has seldom been beautiful. Small states have often been the
'objects of conquest' in the big powers' scramble for dominion
during the colonial and cold war periods. They have been
conquered, cornered, exploited and reduced to mere buffer
states or pawns in war-games, sometimes changing many
hands, since their military - the traditional guarantor of
security - was weak.
A normative shift in the concept of security today brought
about by uni-polar world and the process of globalization
does no good either, despite existing international law and
post-Kuwait, -cold war norms. The new security threat is
more subtle, dangerous and difficult to contain. While the old
military threat still looms large, new forces working across
borders are beyond their control, and this complicates the
security situation further. How will small states fare under
this new world order? There are both opportunities and
challenges arising from both the realist and idealist world
orders and the process of globalization.
Bhutan is a small Buddhist kingdom with an area of 40,076
square kilometers landlocked between India and China. These
two Asian giants have asymmetric geography, demography,
economy,    military,    natural    resource    endowments    and
* This is an abridged version of the paper written for Asia Pacific
Center for Security Studies (APCSS), Honolulu, Hawaii.
+ Researcher, The Centre for Bhutan Studies.
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
civilizations vis-a-vis Bhutan.1 But these two regional powers
have been competitors, not partners in the regions, thus
creating a difficult atmosphere for its small neighbours. Like
Nepal, Bhutan is like 'a yam between two boulders'2 and this
geo-strategic location makes Bhutan so important in big
neighbours' perception of security.
Bhutan has never been colonized and as a result Bhutanese
society has traditionally been sensitive to the issues of
security, and preserving its sovereignty, independence and
territorial integrity has historically been a constant
challenge.3 The two great world wars and cold war have
spared Bhutan unlike its neighbours. However, it was the
focus of big powers politics - Tibetans and Mongols from
north, and the British India from the south. Today they are
replaced by China and India. Bhutan fought seven wars in
the north and three in the south to protect its territorial
Its long history and tradition of political independence, UN
membership, political leaderships and successful bilateral
and multilateral politics have indeed played a big part in
avoiding the fates of its neighbours - integration of Tibet with
China (1959) and Sikkim to India (1976). Bhutan closed its
old historical ties with Tibet (China) due to various political
and historical reasons. The geography, moreover, favoured
India, for Himalaya barred an easy access to the north.
Today, Bhutan's relation with China remains frozen like
Himalayan ice itself, while Bhutan-India relation burns like
heat of Indian tropics. But the global shift in the regional and
1 Bhutan lost about 3000 square kilometers of its land to the British
India during the Duar War, 1864-65, and a few hundred square
kilometers to China in process of settling border disputes.
2 Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1778, then the Raja of Gorkha, used this
metaphor to compare Nepal's plight between India and China.
3 Tashi Choden and Dorji Penjore (2004). Economic and Political
Between Bhutan and Neighbouring Countries, Thimphu: The Centre
for Bhutan Studies
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
international relations mostly brought about by forces of
globalization is changing this status quo.
This paper discusses three broad crosscutting security issues
facing Bhutan today - a) Sino-Bhutan border conflict, its
security implications, and how resolution of border problem
will further complicate its security; b) possible changes in the
Indo-Bhutan relation due to other forces such as India's
north-east insurgents, improving Sino-Bhutan relation and
its implication on India's security concern; and c) the dark
side of globalization - the impacts of Bhutan joining World
Trade Organization (WTO), and the introduction of satellite TV
and information technology which are changing the very
fabrics on which Bhutan's national identity is writ large.
Besides other problems, the above three issues are going to
have major impacts on the security of Bhutan in the next few
Bringing History into Perspective
An understanding of Bhutan's political history is a
prerequisite for getting full pictures of the above issues.
Bhutan has a long history of Buddhist civilization beginning
Eighth century AD. However, it was unified as a nation
between 1616 and 1652. Historically, Bhutan - the land of
peaceful dragon - has never been at peace; Bhutan was a
victor4 as much as it has been a vanquished.5 Throughout its
history, its big neighbours and imperialists had posed great
security threats - Tibet in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed
by the British India in the 19th century.6 However, it was
never    colonized,    thus    making    the    issue    of   security,
4 Bhutan invaded the kingdoms of Cooch Behar and Sikkim
5 Lost all three wars fought with the British, and ceded one-third of
its southern territories.
6 Karma Ura, "Perception of Security," in South Asian Security:
Future, Dipankar Banerjee (eds.) (Colombo: Regional Centre for
Strategic Studies)
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity very
sensitive today.
Tibet seriously challenged Bhutan's statehood because it
supposedly stood in its way of consolidating the entire
Himalayan Buddhist regions into a Gelugpa domain. The
process of founding of Bhutan and Tibet as nations, Bhutan
under First Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651?) and
Tibet under V Dalia Lama Ngawang Losang Gyatso (1617-
1682), were almost parallel events.7 Tibetans and combined
Tibetan-Mongol forces unsuccessfully invaded Bhutan seven
times in the 17th century.8 But the event of 1730 was to
haunt the country. During the internal strife of 1729-1735 in
western Bhutan, Paro Penlop declared independence and
invited the Tibetan forces for assistance. Joint military forces
of Paro Penlop and Tibetan defeated the Bhutanese
government troops for the first time. The Tibetan ruler
Pholanas informed the Chinese emperor that he had brought
Bhutan under the emperor's rule, and the Chinese vague
suzerainty claim over Bhutan was based on this little piece of
Historically, Bhutan had a cordial relation with the British
India before it expanded its border to the north. The whole
stretch of plains measuring 3000 square miles along the
present India's borders called Duars was under Bhutanese
sovereignty.10 Bhutan became a rightful kingmaker in Cooch
Behar kingdom, and even stationed a small force. Relation
became rocky after the interests of the British and Bhutan
7 V Dalai Lama consolidated Gelpgpa School by persecuting other
schools, Drukpa Kagyu being one.
s In 1618, 1634, 1639, 1644-46, 1649, 1656-57, 1675-79)
9 Karma Ura, pp 136. Chinese claim was based on the work of
Chinese historian Tieh-tsung where he wrote that China assumed
suzerainty over Bhutan beginning 1831.
10 There were a total of 18 Duars under Bhutanese rule - 7 Assam
Duars in Darrang and Kamrup, and 11 Bengal Duars from river
Testa to Manas, including districts of Ambari Falakata and Jalpesh.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
clashed in Cooch Behar, resulting into the first Anglo-Bhutan
War in 1772. This was the beginning of the British interests
in Bhutan as a gateway to British trade with Tibet. Many
missions were consequently sent to extend and 'explore
frontiers of knowledge' and open trade route to Central Asia.
Duar War and the Treaty of Sinchula, 1965
The British annexation of Assam in 1829 brought Bhutan
into a direct contact with the British, leading to hostility
(1837-64) with the East India Company and later with the
British Empire. Over the next century, the British interests in
Bhutan changed from trade to security following the Great
Game between Russia, China and the British powers over the
control of Central Asia. Bhutan too was then a political power
to be reckoned with. While mighty Himalaya barred Bhutan's
northern expansion, its southern regions provided incentives,
thus leading to interference in affairs of Cooch Behar and
Sikkim, and the final invasions.
The Duars was a single most important part of Bhutanese
territory, fiscally and economically.11 The British annexation
of Assam Duars in 1841 resulted to the Duar War of 1864-65.
Its direct result was a humiliating Treaty of Sinchula, 1865
which annexed all Bengal Duars and extended borders to
foothills, in return for a monetary compensation. The British
took over Bhutan's role in Sikkim and Cooch Behar12 in
return for non-interference in its internal matters.13 This
treaty institutionalized the relation between the two countries
11 Karma Ura, ibid
12 Bhutan exercised its force in Sikkim, Cooch Behar kingdom and
principality of Vijapur, and this factor brought Bhutan in direct
contact with the British interests.
13 The Article 2 "agreed that the whole of the tract known as the
Eighteen Doars ... is ceded by the Bhootan Government to the
British Government forever," and Article 4 provides that "In
consideration of the cession by the Bhootan Government of the
territories specified in Article 2 of this Treaty...the British
Government agreed to make an annual allowance to the Government
of Bhootan of a sum not exceeding fifty-thousand rupees..."
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
for the first time, and provided basis for future relation. The
terms of the treaty curtailed Bhutan's expansion in the south
and west - the areas British contested.
Manchu Claim and the Treaty of Punakha, 1910
45 years later the Treaty of Punakha, 1910 was signed in
response to geopolitical changes in the north. There was a
strong China's presence in Tibet and the British became
concerned with the China's forward policy in Tibet and other
Himalayan states. China had also claimed all Himalayan
states as its suzerains and the British wanted to stop the
Chinese expansion by keeping Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and
Sikkim as buffer states.
The new treaty's provisions increased annual compensation
for the forced occupation of Bhutanese territory, and
guaranteed non-interference in Bhutan's internal affairs in
return for the British guidance on its external matters.
Bhutan was an independent country, and thus it only became
a kind of loose British dependency for practical and political
purpose. It was a balanced treaty despite enhancing the
British role from arbitrator to an advisor on external
However, China suzerainty claim on Bhutan intensified in
1949 when the People's Republic of China (PRC) was born,
and an acrimonious relation with the new China began.
Sino-Bhutan Relation
Bhutan is the only China's neighbour with whom it does not
have a diplomatic relation despite sharing a common border.
Incursion by People Liberation Army (PLA) into undefined
border areas has been a threat to its territorial integrity and
national security during the last few decades. Bhutan is
under increasing pressure to start a diplomatic relation with
China,    and   diplomatic   relation   was   made    an   indirect
Tashi and Dorji, ibid
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
precondition for a resolving border dispute. What implications
will this bilateral relation have on Bhutan-India relation and
the two countries' national security? Historically, Bhutan was
closer to Tibet than India, but geo-political and historical
factors have frozen the relation in 1960. China's claim on
Bhutan tilted the balance completely.
What interest did old China have in Bhutan? As most
historians point out, it was no more than bringing Bhutan
under its area of influence and stopping the British
expansion. One big but vague tool China used, as elsewhere,
was its concept of 'middle kingdom' suzerainty. But it
backfired, especially in Bhutan's case. There is no historical
record of two countries having any contact until the Ching
dynasty maintained its residents in Lhasa around 1720s.15
China made concerted efforts to exercise Tiistoric' rights over
Bhutan between 1865 when the Treaty of Sinchula was
signed and the signing of the Treaty of Punakha in 1910. The
new Republic of China slowly let the claim die down, only to
surface later.
China watched Bhutan become an Indian area of influence
after signing the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949. As
far as 1930, Chairman Mao "declared that the correct
boundaries of China would include Burma, Bhutan,
Nepal..."16 But later editions deleted the claim after PRC
began to form a 'Himalayan federation" comprising of Tibet,
Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North-East Frontier
Agency (NEFA) of India to extend its influence in southern
Himalayas. Later PRC used its suzerainty tool much
aggressively. In 1954 PRC published A Brief History of China
where a considerable portion of Bhutan was included as a
15 Chinese claim was based on the work of Chinese historian Tieh-
tsung where he wrote that China assumed suzerainty over Bhutan
beginning 1731, after the Tibet's ruler Polhanas misinformed the
Tibet's overlord of Ching dynasty that Bhutan was under him.
16 In the original version of The Chinese Revolution and the
Communist Party openly
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
pre-historical realm of China.17 In 1958, another map claimed
a large tract of Bhutanese lands, and later occupied about
300 square miles of Bhutanese territory in the north and
north-eastern Bhutan. The Chinese claim surfaced again in
1960 when it openly declared that Bhutanese, Sikkimese and
Ladakhis form a united family in Tibet, that they have always
been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China,
and that they must once again be united and taught the
communist doctrine.
Bhutan's Southward Policy
For centuries Tibet has been a spiritual heartland of
Mahayana Buddhist in Himalayan regions, and the loss of its
neighbour had a great security implication for Bhutan.
Tensions following Tibet's integration subsided after the Sino-
Tibetan Treaty of 1951 promised Tibet's autonomy, and the
1952 Agreement with India allowed New Delhi to maintain a
consul-general in Lhasa. The five principles of peaceful coexistence (panchshila) of 1954 demonstrated a benign
Chinese attitude to its neighbours. Bhutan's mission in Lhasa
functioned as before, and the trade continued. But the
relation worsened after the brutal crushing of anti-Chinese
revolts, first in eastern Tibet (1954-1955) and later in central
Tibet (1958). The Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama's
flight to India, and reports of Chinese troops along the ill-
defined frontier posed a security threat.
After Tibet's integration, China resorted to carrots and sticks
policy - carrots in form of economic assistance and assurance
of independence, and sticks in the form of continuous claims.
In   1959   the   PLA   occupied   eight   Bhutanese   enclaves   in
17 The other countries included were Soviet Asian Republics of
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Nepal, Sikkim, Assam,
Burma, Malaya, Thailand, North and South Vietnam, Laos,
Cambodia, Sulu Island of Indonesia, Taiwan, Korea and a large part
of the Soviet Far east
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
western Tibet,18 and that same year, Chinese Premier Chou
En-Lai expressed China's desire for a direct bilateral border
talk with Bhutan. Bhutan was forced to close its northern
border and withdrew its representatives in Lhasa and officers
in western Tibet in 1960, thus putting an end to a thousand
year old relations with Tibet. With its traditional northern
trade route closed, Bhutan turned south.
Beginning of Border Problem
Sino-Bhutan border dispute is not so much a contest over
territory as it is of China's desire to punish Bhutan for allying
with its regional rival India. Territorial conflict is only a tip of
an iceberg.
A 470-kilometer long un-demarcated Bhutan-Tibet border did
not trouble the peoples of both countries until the Chinese
takeover of Tibet. China has warned that that boundary
dispute was a source of conflicts in the world, and it would
take just a small incident to conflagrate the situation into a
difficult diplomatic or a military confrontation. Tibetan
herders, even PLA, stray into what Bhutan considers as its
territory, while Bhutanese herders too stray into what China
considers as theirs. The herdsmen of both countries have
been exercising their rights to traditional pasturelands, thus
leading to claims and counterclaims in un-demarcated
The border problem posed a serious security threat after
September 1979 incursion into Bhutanese territory. When
Bhutan protested, China expressed its desire to solve the
problem bilaterally. That same year, the National Assembly
deliberated on normalizing relation with China and initiating
18 The eight enclaves, Khangri, Tarcheng, Checkar, Jangtong, Tussu,
Janghi, Dirafoo, Chakop and Kachan were given to Bhutan by a
Ladakhi king Singye Namgyal in the 17th century. Bhutan exercised
administrative jurisdiction and they were never subject to Tibetan
law, nor did they pay any Tibetan taxes.
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
a direct talk to resolve the problem. The subsequent events
led to a direct China-Bhutan border talk. Until then Bhutan's
border issues has been incorporated with the Sino-Indian
border discussion.
While the preliminary talks began in 1981, the first formal
meeting took place in Beijing in 1984. The talks began to be
held every year alternatively in Thimphu and Beijing since
then. China has always maintained that Indo-Bhutan Treaty
of 1949 is an 'unequal' treaty - a symbol of India's hegemony
in the region, and Chinese Premier in his message on the
1984 National Day of Bhutan conveyed that China attached
great importance to developing friendly and neighbourly
relations with Bhutan.
The progress has been slow because of the political and
technical nature of the problem. However, a lot of differences
were narrowed, and agreement was reached on basic guiding
principle on boundary settlement.
Swapping Border Resolution for Diplomatic Relation
It became evident from the very first that China was more
interested in developing direct relation with Bhutan than
resolving border issues. During the second round in 1985,
China talked of expanding contact, saying that it has
diplomatic relations with all SAARC states, but not with
In 1996, Bhutan discovered the Chinese logging and road
construction activities in the disputed territory, and when the
issue was brought up in the 11th round, China proposed for
the signing of an interim agreement for maintenance of peace
and tranquility along the borders. This agreement was signed
on 8 December 1998 in the 12th round. This interim
agreement is very significant because it is the first legal
document that has been signed by the two countries, and
until that time there was no evidence of China recognizing
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Bhutan's sovereignty, except that it has claimed Bhutan as a
part of China.
Chinese approach in resolving the border as in Nepal was
through a 'package deal' rather than a 'sector-by-sector'
settlement. During the 11th round held in Beijing, China
proposed to exchange 495 square kilometers area19 with an
area of 269 square kilometers in the north-west Bhutan.20
Sinchulumba shares border with Sikkim and is very close to
Chumbi valley, and this particular territorial swapping would
seriously undermine India's security by shifting the Bhutan-
China border to the south. However, both sides agreed to
discuss at technical level, and then decide on the Chinese
and Bhutanese territories on maps. The 18th round was held
in Thimphu in 2004.
Are Two Countries Heading for a Diplomatic Relation?
Besides yearly border consultations, contacts at various levels
have increased in recent decades, beginning the 1974
Coronation. The sports, religious and cultural visits have
been followed by participation in regional and international
meetings on security, hydropower development, tourism and
health. Bhutan has always maintained one-China policy by
voting for restoring China's United Nations' seat in 1971, and
as 55th UN General Assembly's Vice-chairman, Bhutan
rejected Taiwan's participation motions in UN and WHO.
Bhutan also opposed Taiwan's bid to host 2002 Asian Games.
The Chinese ambassador to India has been visiting Bhutan
on regular basis since 1994, and Bhutanese ambassador
visited China in 2000. These visits have opened up new
channels of interaction and contacts for exchanging opinions
on different issues, besides boundary talks
Unresolved northern border is a serious concern for Bhutan's
national security and territorial sovereignty and it has to be
19 Pasamlung and Jarkarlung valleys in the northern borders
20 Sinchulumba, Dramana and Shakhtoe
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
solved soon. But if diplomatic relation is a precondition for
resolving border problem, how will it affect Indo-Bhutan
Indo-Bhutan Relation: A Relation Stronger than ever before
Bhutan and India is bound together by a 'special relation'.
This special relation has slowly evolved from a donor-recipient
to equal partner relationship, the best example being
development of Bhutan's water resource for hydropower
generation. While India is helping Bhutan harness the water
resource through aid, grant, and loan, energy-deficient India
could benefit from energy import from Bhutan. In 2001 about
94.1 % of Bhutan's export went to India, while imports from
India constitute 77.7%.21
The friendship is deeply rooted in religion, culture, history
and economic ties, encompassing a wide range of areas and
issues of common interests like security, politics, trade and
economy. It proved that a small state with a stable
government and right leadership could be an equal partner of
a giant state with asymmetric economic, political, military,
demographic and geographic powers. But will it ever remain
the same? Some new developments in regional and
international relations, and the process of globalization are
testing the validity and relevance of both the treaty and the
'special' relation.
As old order changed, yielding place to the new after the
British withdrawal from India, Bhutan felt the need to
negotiate a new relation with India. The Treaty of Punakha
1910 did not define Bhutan's status, technically or legally
since it was only designed to stop any Chinese threat to
British India's northern frontier. The British did not realize
the necessity for Bhutan's external relation as long as the
country remained isolated and inward-looking.
21 Does this figure translate into economic vulnerability? Or putting
all eggs into one basket?
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949
While negotiating a fresh treaty, both countries were clear in
their objectives - Bhutan to get the new India's recognition of
its independence like the British and to get back 32 square
kilometers Dewangiri (now Dewathang) ceded by the Treaty of
Sinchula, 1865; and India to restore Dewathang, so as to
remove any fear of India's alleged imperialistic design, and
prevent Bhutan from looking north.
The Article 2 of the treaty reads, "The Government of India
undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal
administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of
Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government
of India in regard to its external relations." Does this treaty
reduce Bhutan - one of Asia's oldest and un-colonized nations
into a mere Indian protectorate?
There were discrepancies between English and Bhutanese
(Dzongkha) texts of the treaty, and the treaty did not specify
which version was authoritative. New Delhi insisted Bhutan
was obligated to be guided by India's advice while Bhutan
maintained it will merely seek and consider India's advice.
Decades of disagreement led to New Delhi's acceptance of
Thimphu's version and interpretation in mid-1980s.22 A new
interpretation of the article came up in 1974 following the
Bhutanese foreign minister's comment that India's advice and
guidance on foreign policy matters was optional.
Agreement or disagreement over its interpretation is not
important here; what is important is the true existing reality,
for the treaty has never stood in way of Bhutan conducting its
international affairs. The leaders of both countries believed
that the continuity and sanctity of the 1949 treaty depends
ultimately   on   the   faith   and   trust   which   the   signatories
22 John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the
Twentieth Century, (2001, University of Washington Press, Seattle
and London) p. 176
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
reposed in each other. Almost half a century on, the treaty is
vibrant and dynamic as both countries co-operate for
common interest. Bhutan has always stood by India, for "a
strong India means a strong friend of Bhutan." The Indo-
Bhutan friendship qualifies as a good example of bilateral
relation in the region, not only because of the relations
between the two countries and governments, but equally
because of the individuals and organizations in both the
countries, which have fostered closeness and
interdependence on their own.
Asked whether it is time to renew the treaty of 1949 given the
excellent Indo-Bhutan relations and the global changes in
international relations, Bhutan's foreign minister Jigmi Y
Thinley had said the treaty has never been a constraint in
conducting Bhutan's foreign relations, establishing diplomatic
relations, engaging in various international forums, and in
pursuing the paths with respect to its aspiration.23 In the
words of former Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, the
letters of the treaty do not really prevail in terms of
determining the relations between Bhutan and India, but
rather it is more of spirit of goodwill and understanding and
friendship that prevails in conducting their separate relations
with other countries. The relation demonstrates how the
tremendous goodwill and friendships between the two
countries can transcend legal instruments, and the words
printed on paper.
Integration of Tibet, PLA's incursion into delimitated border, a
vague Chinese claim and other events shattered Bhutan's
isolation policy since isolation was detrimental to sovereignty,
and Tibet was a good example. The country was forced to reevaluate its traditional isolation policy, and the need to
develop its lines of communications with India became an
urgent necessity. It was in this respect that Prime Minister
Jawaharlal    Nehru    visited    Bhutan    on    a   horseback    in
23 Transcription of talk given to the students of Sherubtse College,
Kanglung, on 24 February 1999
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
September 1958 to convince Bhutan end its isolation policy
and accept India's economic assistance. India feared that any
direct foreign contact would pull Bhutan into big power
politics and might seriously affect its social and economic
stability, which could in fact destabilize a strip of land
connecting north-east to the rest of India.
Bhutan: the Most Vulnerable Sector in the Indian Security System
From India's perspective, Bhutan is one of the most
vulnerable sectors in the Indian security system, as it "stood
out as a wide vacuum on a frontier of vital strategic
importance." Stability in entire Himalayan neighborhood
became important for India's security. Thus, India
unilaterally included Bhutan within India's northern security
system. India inherited the British doctrine of preventing the
areas within India's strategic interest from falling under the
foreign powers, and India is always sensitive about keeping
an exclusive influence in the southern Himalaya. For India, a
weak Bhutan means weak buffer state or "extended frontier"
with China, and it is only in this connection that India has
played a major role in brining an end of Bhutan's isolation
policy, started socio-economic development and promoted
Bhutan's international stature through UN membership and
other multilateral organizations. India's assistance is
indirectly tied to Bhutan's refusal of China's assistance.
Problem in Southern Borders
No country has threatened Bhutan's territorial integrity
militarily since the Duar War of 1864-65. Bhutan's greatest
threat came from its northern borders - be it suzerainty
claims, cartographic invasion, territorial intrusion, enclaves
occupation etc. While its limited security forces were guarding
northern borders, all was quiet on its southern front because
an excellent Indo-Bhutan friendship was thought to have
guaranteed it. There was not a single security post along the
southern border.
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
It turned out to be ironic that the major security threat in
recent years came from its unguarded southern border. India
may be a good friend and neighbour, but its northeast
insurgents are not. These non-state actors from Assam and
West Bengal who were fighting for independence from Indian
Federation have the potential to undermine the friendship not
only between two countries, but also between peoples of both
countries living along the borders. The insurgents had been
using Bhutanese soil as hideouts and training ground to
carry out hit and run activities against vital infrastructure
and security forces of India. The presence of these militants,
United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National
Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamtapur
Liberation Army (KLA) have been a great concern to Bhutan
for nearly a decade until they were flushed out in December
India's northeastern corner and the neighbouring countries
embody some of the major demographic and environmental
time bombs in the subcontinent.24 There are insurgent
movements from about 50 groups rooted in history, language
and ethnicity, tribal rivalry, migration, local resource control,
drugs, centre and state government negligence and foreign
powers involvement. Bhutan's proximity to the region makes
it very susceptible to any ethnic tensions in the northeast.
The presence of militants in Bhutan was known only in 1996.
Bhutan understood the potential danger, and beginning 1997
the issue dominated the National Assembly discussions.
Bhutan was caught up in a situation whereby it has a little or
no human and materials to finance military operation, and
acquiescing to India's unilateral operation would have been a
violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan.
Moreover, any military action would incite the local Assamese
population against the Bhutanese population. Bhutan uses
Indian highways to travel from west to east and vice versa,
24 Mandavi Mehta, "India's Turbulent Northeast," The South Asia
Monitor, Number 35, July 5, 2001
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
putting Bhutanese travelers at risk, should there be any
military action. The militants were adamant on staying on in
the country until they get independence from India, thus
justifying their long-term presence.
For the first time in its modern history, Bhutan is considering
creation of a large militia or reserve force to defend national
borders, which was largely prompted by these non-state
actors. The idea to train students completing universities or
high schools for guarding the borders permanently have been
directly prompted by security threat posed by militants.
Located between two military giants, Bhutan has never
militarized itself, and its standing army numbering a couple
of thousands were used to guard the northern frontier. Today,
the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA), Royal Body Guard (RBG), and
Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) together employ 14,209
personnel,25 and this increase was promoted by the recent
crisis with the militants. The security of its southern border is
being strengthened through regular patrolling and
surveillance of high-risk areas. Now military camps have been
established and troops deployed along the entire border areas
between Sibsoo and Daifam (farthest eastern and western
border towns).26
It would be absurd to try to stop the wind of globalization
sweeping the world, but if navigated skillfully, steering a
steady course and avoid reef, can reach you to haven safe and
sound.27 There is no denying the fact that technological
progress of recent years has transformed our lives, especially
in field of communications and access to knowledge. The
drastic changes witnessed in the last few years have widened
25 "Strengthening national security" at July
25, 2004
26 "Need to strengthen Indo-Bhutan border security" at
www, kuenselonline. com. July 25, 2004
27 Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to
Belong; Barbara Bray (Trans.) (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000)
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
the gap across many generations in many aspects of life.
Bhutan is aware that globalization is irreversible and
inevitable, that in the end the benefits will outweigh the cost,
and that it is a necessity, not a choice.28 Amin Maalouf argues
that the present mass media revolution -'the multiplication of
the means of expression and the diversification of opinion' - is
also leading to intellectual impoverishment since outpouring
of ideas on global scale leads to conformism which is the
lowest form of intellectual denominator' - that is reading
same book, listening to same music, watching same films,
and swallowing same sound, images and beliefs. TV give
access to an infinite variety of opinions, the powerful media
mogul only amplify the prevailing opinions, rejecting others
point of view, and a flood of words and images discourages
Cultural Identity to Fight Cultural Homogenization
As remote, cocooned and isolated Bhutan may be until recent
years, the process of globalization is transforming structures
of society, economy and polity. While there are many
advantages of globalization, its negative impacts are not few.
Wedged between two billion Chinese and Indians, Bhutan
(population 700,000) has long pursued the preservation and
promotion of its unique culture as its national identity. The
country has neither military nor economic might, and its age-
old culture and tradition have been promoted to fight off the
global cultural homogenization. Much time and resources
have been committed to prevent its culture from going to
museum. Globalization is changing the both mental and
physical contours of Bhutan where 85% of the population are
farmers. How can Bhutan overcome dark side of
globalization? Until early 1960s Bhutan was a mediaeval
country in strict western sense of the term, but the recent
28 Tashi Wangyel, "Rhetoric and Reality: An Assessment of the
Impact of WTO on Bhutan" in Spider an the Piglet - proceedings of
the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies, Thimphu: The
Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2004
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
changes are dramatically transforming its economics, politics,
and society as never before.
Beginning of an Aerial Invasion
Bhutan became the last nation in the world to introduce
television in 1999, and a few years later a crime waves of
murder, homicide, shop-lifting, burglary, theft, fraud, drunk
driving followed, together with students indiscipline,
substance abuse, disrespect for values, mental problem.
Marihuana growing wild along the road was once used as
feeds for pigs, and now children are beginning to smoke it.
These social ills are mostly attributed to TV.
The onslaught of satellite TV and information technology is
eroding the badge of national identity and sovereignty, which
Bhutan has priced and prided upon. Cable TV may have
opened people's eyes to outside world, but it is blurring its
inner eyes to see oneself. It is fast homogenizing the tradition
to modernity, and adaptation is impossible given the speed,
rapidity, volume and glamour of the TV culture. At no time in
history is the country going through a rapid social and
cultural transformation. At the end of the day, we will have a
weakened social solidarity, diluted culture, weak family
values, a sterile spiritual plane, and not god-fearing, but god-
fighting men and women.
The logic for opening up to TV and Internet was an
assumption that Bhutanese are educated enough to sieve the
good from the worst, a belief that a culture as rich and
vibrant as Bhutanese could prevail over trash TV culture, and
the people are capable of selecting good from rubbish; but a
few year experiences is proving the opposite. TV is striking at
the heart of what Bhutan has been trying to promote and
preserve as its national identity. "(T)his is a country that has
reached modernity at such breakneck speed that the god of
wisdom Jambayang is finding it virtually impossible to
compete with the new icons," and TV is "persuading a nation
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
of novice Buddhist consumers to become preoccupied with
themselves, rather than searching for their self"29
WTO: Economic Entanglement or Enlightenment?
Bhutan's commitment to open itself to the globalization can
be better understood from its application to World Trade
Organization (WTO) membership. It is a signatory regional
free trade regimes such as SAARC Free Trade Agreement
(SAFTA), and Bay of Bengal Trade and Economic Cooperation
(BB-TEC). Bhutan is not tempted to accept or reject
globalization but chose to take a path at its own strength and
speed. But membership follows liberalization, economic
reforms, re-legislation, new institutions and harmonization of
national laws, regulations and procedures to conform to the
WTO agreements. Can Bhutan fulfill and afford these
changes? Is Bhutan prepared to compete and benefit from
enhanced market access? The dilemma here is Bhutan's
ability to reconcile incongruity between perceived benefits and
its limited capacity to reap benefits in the level playing
field'.30 Bhutan faces lots of disadvantage from its poor
natural resources, lack of labour, capital and technology,
problems related to size, structural and geographic location.31
Sino-Bhutan relation has been growing since the beginning of
the first annual border talk in 1984. From 1959 to the
present day, China's consistent goals has been to draw
Bhutan away from its special relations with India, and it used
various tools to this end - refusal to discuss about Bhutan
29 Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark "Fast forward into trouble", The
Guardian, Saturday, June 14, 2003
30 Tashi Wangyal, ibid
31 Land transportation in a landlocked countries whose products
need to cross borders is costly. The median landlocked country pays
up to 50 percent more in transportation costs than the median
coastal nation (see Ricardo Hausmann, "Prisoner of Geography -
landlocked countries economies" Foreign Policy, January 2001)
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
during Sino-Indian border talks, providing incentives to
Bhutan for having a direct relation with Beijing and linking
Sino-Bhutan relation as a condition for softening Sino-Indian
rapprochement. China has still refuse to accept what it calls
as 'unequal' Indo-Bhutan relation. While Chinese allegation
that the 1949 treaty was an 'unequal treaty' symbolizing
India's expansionism and hegemony appeals to Bhutanese
nationalism, China has negotiated in early 1980s to recognize
Bhutan as an Indian protectorate in return for India's ban on
Tibetan refugees' anti-China activities from Indian soil.32
Among other factors, history still haunts Bhutan - series of
claims China made on Bhutan - despite the interim
agreement signed between the two countries recognizing each
other's independence. Is the interim agreement a ploy - a
Chinese Trojan Horse - to deceive Bhutan into believing
China's good, neighbourly and benign intentions and to woe
Bhutan, only to be a monster later?
China has been pressing for establishing a diplomatic relation
before signing final border agreement. If that is the rigid
Chinese criterion, then it will not be solved at all until there is
thaw in Sino-Bhutan relation. India has played a big role in
Bhutan's development. India's assistance was tied to
Bhutan's support on India's security need - meaning no third
power presence in Bhutanese soil. India has showed a
tremendous good will by enhancing Bhutan's independence
by supporting Bhutan's United Nations membership, and
acceptance of Thimphu's interpretation of Article 2 of the
1949 Treaty.
Unlike Nepal and Sikkim (before merger), Bhutan has never
played its China card against India. Bhutan saw what India
could do to Nepal during 1988-89 embargo and integration of
Sikkim to India in 1974, if it is provoked or if its neighbours
are insensitive to its security concerns. Bhutan has always
felt comfortable with the existing bilateral relation, and chose
to be a pragmatic. India holds the same geographic trump
32 John W. Garver, ibid
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
card it has with Nepal, and any disruption of communication
through Indian territory will cripple the Bhutan's economy.
During the 1988 embargo on Nepal, Bhutan saw China's
inability to become India's substitute. Bhutan's economy is
strongly depended upon India. Hydro-power project built
through Indian grant is the main revenue earner, and the
coming mega-hydro projects dependent on Indian energy
market is going to the backbone of Bhutan's economy. There
is a great risk in any change in relation with India.
Any improvement in Sino-India relation has been
accompanied by diminished Chinese interests in Bhutan33
and until such times when Sino-India relation has improved,
there is no possibility for any resolution of border problem,
nor diplomatic relation with China. So Sino-Bhutan border
dispute will continue to be a serious security threat to
The northeast insurgents have been flushed out now, but it is
not a permanent solution as long as the problems continue in
India. There is no adequate infrastructure and manpower to
guard 266 kilometer Bhutan-Assam border. The 2003
military actions against the militants have incensed the local
population, and the Bhutanese travelers will continue to be a
target of future retaliations. Bhutan has to be on guard as
long as the insurgency problem is not solved in India, and the
present situation depicts gloom pictures. India's
determination to crush any insurgency for independence, and
the insurgents' will to fight for independence are the two ends
of spectrum.
Socio-economic development plans are fast transforming
Bhutan into a modern state. Various development indicators
are above the regional average. But development has come at
a cost - cost of environment despite 73% forest coverage,
erosion of culture and tradition,  dilution of people's faith,
33 J, Mohan Malik, "South Asia in China's Foreign ", Pacifica Review,
Volume 13, Number 1, February 2001
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
weakened communal and social solidarity and widening gap
between the rich and poor. The opening of this Arcadian
country to the forces of globalization, which comes in various
sizes and forms, is increasing the country's vulnerabilities in
aspects of economy, society, environment, culture, religion
and polity. All these changes have lots of bearing on the
country's security since the security paradigm has changed
from its traditional (military) concept to include non-
traditional aspects. But this is not to suggest that Bhutan
has to close its eyes to globalization. As Amin Maalouf argues,
globalization, if navigated carefully, will reach the country to
a safe shore of prosperity and security.
John W. Garver (2001). Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in
the Twentieth Century, Seattle: University of Washington
Karma Ura, "Perception of Security," in South Asian Security:
Future, Dipankar Banerjee (eds.) (Colombo: Regional
Centre for Strategic Studies)
Mohan Malik, "South Asia in China's Foreign ", Pacifica Review -
Peace, Security and Global Change - The Interplay of
Economics and Security in China's External Relation, Vol
13, Number 1, February 2001
Tashi Choden 8s Dorji Penjore (2004). Economic and Political
Relation Between Bhutan and Neighbouring Countries,
Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies
Tashi Wangyel, "Rhetoric and Reality: An Assessment of the
Impact of WTO on Bhutan" in The Spider and The Piglet.
Proceedings of the First International Seminar on
Bhutanese Studies (Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan
Studies, 2004)
Thierry Mathou, "Bhutan-China Relations: Towards a New Step
in Himalayan Politics", in The Spider and The Piglet:
Proceedings ofthe First International Seminar on
Bhutanese Studies (Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan
Studies, 2004)
 Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants
Ricardo Hausmann, "Prisoner of Geography - landlocked
countries economies" in Foreign Policy, January 2001
Sreeradha Datta, "Security of India's Northeast: External
Linkages," at nov00das01.html, November
Swaran Singh, "Sino-South Asian Ties: Problems 8s Prospects," at apr00sis01.html, April 2000


Citation Scheme:


Citations by CSL (citeproc-js)

Usage Statistics



Customize your widget with the following options, then copy and paste the code below into the HTML of your page to embed this item in your website.
                            <div id="ubcOpenCollectionsWidgetDisplay">
                            <script id="ubcOpenCollectionsWidget"
                            async >
IIIF logo Our image viewer uses the IIIF 2.0 standard. To load this item in other compatible viewers, use this url:


Related Items