The King of Bhutan is Guided by India
by Richard S. Ehrlich
THIMPU, Bhutan (UPI) -- A young monarch and his red-robed Buddhist lamas are trying to assert Bhutan's independence without endangering India's stranglehold on this Himalayan kingdom.
Wedged between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet, the relatively unknown, lightly populated medieval kingdom is one of the poorest nation on earth, Bhutanese officials say.
Gigantic 16th century Buddhist fortresses dot the pine forested mountains while villagers, often barefoot, trundle past turbulent rivers toward houses of rough stone.
Bhutan has no choice but to maintain friendly relations with India to gain aid, trade and expertise needed for development.
"We are in a strategic situation and it is in India's interest that Bhutan remains close neighbors to India, so she would not face any threat from Bhutan," Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck told United Press International in a rare, 90-minute interview.
"And for Bhutan too, we need trade with India, aid from India," the 27-year-old king said while sitting on a leopard-skin sofa in his throne room.
"We trust the government in power in India and know their thinking. We would not do anything which would endanger our relationship," King Wangchuck said.
Land-locked Bhutan has no heavy industry. It imports almost every daily and essential item from India including gasoline, oil, electricity, medicine and appliances.
Though largely self-sufficient in food, Bhutan also depends on India's military to aid the kingdom in times of peace and tension.
Bhutan depends on Indian teachers, engineers and advisers.
Goods and people are transported across the few mountain roads, mostly on Indian vehicles.
Such total dependence on India by Bhutan has raised concern that New Delhi could one day take over the kingdom, which is populated by only 1.2 million people.
Bhutanese officials, however, publicly insist they trust India has good intentions for their nation.
The most frequent phrase used by Bhutanese when describing their fledgling kingdom is "sovereign and independent."
Maintaining good relations with New Delhi, however, means shunning China -- which beat India during a brief border war in 1962.
Thimpu's refusal to engage in relations with Beijing has destroyed Bhutan's traditional ties with Tibet.
For centuries, Bhutan's Drukpa sect of Buddhism, culture, ornate art and much of its heritage came down the snowy mountain passes from Tibet.
Bhutan's known history began in the seventh century when Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built two monasteries in Bhutan.
"Bhutan's past was always with the north, with Tibet," one historian said in an interview.
"Then, after the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s and the 1962 India-China war, Bhutan turned almost 100 percent to the south, to India. This is a new phase of Bhutan's history."
One Bhutanese government official said in an interview, "If we were not bordering China, India probably would not be so concerned about aiding us."
The only Chinese-made goods in Bhutan -- such as clothing, utensils, and cosmetics -- are illegally smuggled in, though sold freely in many shops.
The king asked Beijing in 1981 for a bilateral meeting to demarcate their glacier-covered border, 110 miles south of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Though Bhutan says China does not occupy any of its territory and the demarcation would be to establish sophisticated markers, Beijing never responded, King Wangchuck said.
Asked if relations with China would improve after the proposed demarcation, the king replied: "We don't have any strategy or idea to have changes in the status quo. We are friendly with the Chinese and the government of India."
Bhutan has few troops and no air force.
India has a few thousand soldiers stationed in Bhutan, mostly building and maintaining roads while training Bhutan's small army.
Within minutes, however, Indian warplanes could fly over the 8,000-foot high Bhutanese capital of Thimpu from air force bases at Hashimara and Bagdogra in India's West Bengal state, which borders southern Bhutan.
Indian personnel stationed inside Bhutan also serve as New Delhi's eyes and ears on Bhutanese affairs.
Of vital concern to India is the so-called "Chinese knife" -- especially its Chumbi valley at the tip of a dagger-shaped region controlled by China and separating Bhutan from India's Sikkim state.
If Chinese forces charge southwest down the Himalayas across India, they could reach Bangladesh after crossing only 45 miles of Indian territory.
The Chinese could then cut off India's road and rail links to seven northwest states, including Assam which produces 30 percent of New Delhi's petroleum.
Bhutan's only major airport -- built and operated by Indians at Paro town near Thimpu in western Bhutan -- is 25 miles from China's Chumbi valley.
Bhutan, meanwhile, also has no lawyers, large universities or opposition political parties which could disrupt the monarchy, so the king enjoys a relatively stable position to develop his nation.
In a still-valid 1949 Bhutan-India treaty, "Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice" of India in foreign relations.
The clause is seen by many outsiders as permission for New Delhi to manipulate the kingdom.
Cautiously, however, Bhutan is trying to develop a mind of its own.
King Wangchuck, dressed in a yellow scarf and traditional autumn-colored robe and knee-socks, insisted, "The interpretation was, if the government of India wants to express its views. But if we want to take the advice, it is up to the royal government of Bhutan.
"Even in foreign affairs, the government of India does not interfere with Bhutan," the king added.
Any interpretation may be academic if relations between India and Bhutan sour because New Delhi could merely cut off supplies to Bhutan and strangle Thimpu until the Bhutanese obey.
Bhutan, meanwhile, is slowly opening to the outside world with India's help.
The kingdom is a member of several international organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank and the Non-Aligned Nations movement.
Each new organization Bhutan joins increases its international image as an independent nation and enables it to gain support, Bhutanese officials say.
The king's main objective in developing and decentralizing his mountainous country is to create exports.
"The lifeline for us in the future is trade. We have no internal market for the goods we produce, so we have to export," the king said.
Products include industrial minerals, timber and agricultural items.
Bhutan is preparing for the May meeting in Geneva of the ALDC -- Asian Least Developed Countries -- which also includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Western Samoa, Maldives, Nepal and Laos.
Asked about direct aid from Washington, Moscow or Beijing, Deputy Development Minister Lam Penjor said in an interview: "We have left the three superpowers out. They are all too big for us.
"We have just come of age, and we have to learn world politics. We have to learn to play the game," Penjor said.
The scenic "land of the dragon" will not, however, open to mass tourism to earn money.
Only 2,125 tourists will be allowed in next year, Tourism Commercial Organization General Manager Jigme Tshultim said in an interview.
"Maybe in five years we will allow 5,000 tourists in a year," Tshultim said.
Each tourist must come in a government-controlled group and pay either 75 US dollars or 130 US dollars a day, depending on the style of the tour, Tshultim added.
The government limits the influx of tourists because it fears spoiling Bhutan's traditions and losing antiques, he said.
Bhutan is also strengthening relations with nearby Bangladesh, mostly to export items south to Dhaka.
Only India and Bangladesh have embassies in Bhutan, but the establishment of diplomatic ties with nearby Nepal was being discussed in the National Assembly, King Wangchuck said.
Bhutan established honorary consuls in Hong Kong and Singapore in 1982, mainly for trade contacts in Southeast Asia, and hopes to eventually also export products to the Middle East.
The serious Wangchuck is the fourth king in a monarchy established with the help of the British Empire in 1907.
If the king dies before marrying and giving birth to an heir, the throne would pass to his eldest sister, Finance Minister Sonam Chhoden, born in 1953.
Bhutan's 153-member National Assembly includes 10 Buddhist monks as representatives, plus 100 "peoples representatives" elected throughout the nation.
All text and photos © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich
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Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.
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