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Sri Lanka and Bhutan: sovereignty, governance and identity
21 May, 2012 06:18:17
By Rohan Samarajiva
May 21, 2012 (LBO) - Hearing I was off to the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, a friend wrote 'come back and tell us what you learned.' This question was on my mind when I heard that Sri Lanka’s Minister of Power and Energy was in Bhutan at the same time.

What had we each learned from our separate visits, I wondered. Did our learnings differ?

Electric power

Bhutan is the only power-surplus country in South Asia. And it has so far only exploited six percent of its hydro potential (23,760 MW), with mega projects (just one will produce more than 1,000 MW) coming on stream soon. Bhutan has a small population the size of Colombo, 0.7 million people. It cannot consume all this electricity; it is for export.

Except in winter, when the flow lessens and the run-of-the-river plants cannot produce at full capacity, 80 percent of the electricity is exported to India under long-term contracts. Electricity is the highest export earner for Bhutan today, thanks to good and timely decisions by the government, something that cannot be said about the power sector in Sri Lanka.

Should one consider the Sri Lankan situation to befundamentally different since our hydro is almost tapped out? Or should one think about the lessons that could be applied to making Sri Lanka a regional energy hub?

Should one think about interconnecting Sri Lanka’s grid to the South Indian grid, so that power could flow back and forth, like it does between Bhutan and India? Bhutan does not only export to India; in the winter, when the turbines shut down for lack of water, power flows in the other direction in some areas.

But Bhutan has hydro to sell. What energy does Sri Lanka have to export? The promise of cheap coal-based base-load power in the near-term is fading, givenproblems with the 300 MW Chinese plant in Norochchalai and the glacial pace of building the 500 MW Indian plant in Sampur.

My thoughts went to nuclear?Could the objections raised to the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the Palk Strait have been worded differently? Would it have made more sense to seek Sri Lankan participation in safety monitoring, not only of Kudankulam but also of Kalpakkam, older, based on Indian expertise and a greater safety threat? That does not constitute an endorsement of Kudankulam. Kudankulamis designed by Russians, the people responsible for Chernobyl.

Was the Kudankulam controversy a missed opportunity? Could we have opened up discussions on a nuclear plant located in the sparsely populated North East Sri Lanka that could provide desperately needed energy to feedthe rapidly growing economies of Sri Lanka and South India? Today, we live with the possibility that an accident in Kalpakkam or Kudankulam will coat us in radioactive ash without enjoying any of the benefits of nuclear power.

Since we cannot realistically expect the removal of nuclear plants from across the Palk Strait, we might as well join India in ensuring the highest standards of safety and in gaining the benefits of cheap and carbon-neutral power. Internationalizingnuclear safety regulation may help the Government of India assuage the concerns of the reasonable core of the anti-nuclear protestors (and give discredited former CM Karunanidhi something to talk about other than the breaking up of Sri Lanka).


The Bhutan power sector holds many lessons for regional integration. Butsome may have concerns about Bhutan’seconomic relations compromising national sovereignty.

India finances the construction of most of Bhutan’s hydro power plants, supplies key professionals both during construction and operation, supplies the bulk of workers needed for construction, and then buys most of the electricity that is produced. The plants are handed over to the Bhutanese government when the construction loans are paid off.

This is little different from the model used by the government of Sri Lanka when it contracts Chinese firms to build its mega projects, except for the fact that Chinese mega projects like the Hambantota Harbordo not seem to generate revenue even years after their ceremonial inaugurations. Perhaps the Minister is not entirely happy with our current practicesand values sovereignty over edifice.

Over the years Bhutan has become increasingly dependent on hydro exports to India. Its people are living well thanks to earnings from hydro exports. But are the compromises to sovereignty implicit in current Bhutanese economic policies worth it?

For example, Bhutan is in the midst of a motor-vehicle boom. But every vehicle that is imported (they are all imported) creates demand for fuel and parts. All these imports must, over the long term, be balanced by exports. The country is dependent on those who buy its exports (India, predominantly) and those who supply its imports (India, followed by Korea, Japan, etc.).

Irrespective, the people seem happy to be able to get around in a sparsely populated and difficult terrain. The country is reported to have 93 vehicles per 1,000 people. Despite a considerable head start, Sri Lanka has only 66 per 1,000 people using the comparable, conventional definition of motor vehicle that excludes two- and three-wheelers. When those are included, Sri Lanka has 198 vehicles per 1,000 people.


The Elections Commission in Bhutan is very powerful, unlike our Elections Commissioner who can only complain of stress when his impotence is pointed out. The ruling party advantage is more or less nullified in Bhutan by the requirement that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have to relinquish power for the duration of the campaign. During that period the country is governed by an interim government headed by the Chief Justice. One can only wonder what a Sri Lankan politician in power thinks about such an arrangement.

The Constitution of Bhutan, like that of Sri Lanka, provides a special place for Buddhism. Article 3 states that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotesthe principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassionand tolerance.” It further states that “It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the countrywhile also ensuring that religion remains separate from politicsin Bhutan. Religious institutions and personalities shall remainabove politics.”

Bhutan’s Constitution has been interpreted as prohibiting not only the holding of political office by the Sangha, but also voting (but they can drive), indicating a different set of values.

National identity

Given our common problems of managing ethnicity and national identity, many would be curious about how the Royal Government dealt with its Nepali/Hindu minority in the 1990s. The Royal Government imposed language and dress codes for all citizens and penalized those who declined to follow the rules. Even today, no citizen can enter a government office if not attired in formal Bhutanese dress. Competence in the imposed national language of Dzongkha is mandatory for entry to the civil service.

The above national-identity-creating measures were accompanied by registration of citizens. Many in southern Bhutan could not provide documentation to establish the required length of residence and property ownership and had to return to Nepal. This resulted in refugee camps that held 107,000 people at the peak.

The parallels with our recent experience in resolving ethnic conflicts may cause one to ask how the Royal Government insulated itself from the criticismsnow faced by the Sri Lanka Government. Not only was Bhutan not the subject of human-rights resolutions, it managed to position itself as an exemplar of a new and caring model of governance, exemplified by the concept of Gross National Happiness. How did Bhutan pulloff this spectacular success of perception management, without a proper foreign service or a Unit of Strategy and Perception Management like we do?

A cynic may describe Bhutan’s achievement as one of the greatest feats of diplomatic legerdemain: presenting a boldly innovative and memorably branded concept to divert attention away from a tough but necessary nation-building effort. Why isour government incapable of such a strategy? Why is it stuck in reactive, defensive mode?

Secret of success?

Nepal, the other Himalayan state, also has enormous hydro potential. But it gives its people blackouts and brownouts instead of the benefits of export earnings. It is mired in political gridlock while Bhutan enjoys double-digit growth. Is Bhutan’ssecret of success its unique mix of good governance, strong national identity and judicious balancing of national sovereignty and regional economic integration?

The Land of the Thunder Dragon, as Bhutanis known by its people, has many lessons for Sri Lankaincluding on becoming a regional energy hub.

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5. Dawa Sherpa May 26
Please visit the Bhutanese refugee camps in Eastern Nepal,meet UNHCR,US and EU Embassy officials,Nepal -Bhutan Joint Verification Reports to find the truth. Your article about the Bhutanese refugees is a classic example of how a fairy tale writer puts a spell and a scholar of your height is so brilliantly hypnotised !! I suggest you go through the above offices' documents on Bhutanese refugees and write another article to undo the wrong you have done.A reflection might be helpful too.
4. fb May 23
There are no Bhutanese or Nepalese. There are human people, of flesh and blood and feelings, who evolved into the present form about 100,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago they diverged to Asia and Europe from Africa according to known science.

Your living on land that has its originated probably 14 billion years ago. Life was probably created in that land about 3.5 billion year ago.

Yourself and your former 'Nepalese' neighbour is the only sapient being to come out of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Give some value to that, not just to dress, language, religion or what people like to call 'culture'. Culture is just variety which is beautiful.

Nationalism is a terrible curse. Like racism, which is a nationalism based on skin colour (white skin, yellow skin and black skin) linguistic and religious nationalism is just as terrible or worse.

In Asia and elsewhere people have migrated for millenia and centuries. We are all a product of previous migrations.

To legislate and oppress on language is very silly. Very soon a lot or most of your people (like you) will start reading and writing in English. If Nepalese is spoken in the next country, it is good for your people to also a know a little of it, may be when you go there to visit.

People's dress also change. Here in Sri Lanka people used to go bare bodied at one time. Now they wear what is called 'western dress'. But some of that so-called 'western dress' is now not only produced and exported from our country, increasingly they are designed here, by graduates coming out of our design schools.

In the olden days before the advent of national assemblies that could legislate unjustly, allowed nationalists in Sri Lanka to pass dehumanizing laws against different people putting mere chauvinism to political action, our kings used to marry foreign wives.

The world changes. Your country will change. Unfortunately we also need to change to value humanity more and come out of our fog of fascist-nationalism.

3. HUMKARA May 23
In 1980s, the government had become acutely conscious about widespread illegal immigration of people of Nepali origin from Nepal into Bhutan. Most of the immigrants knew very little of the culture of Bhutan and most could not understand any one of the local languages including Dzongkha.

In the rural areas they remained so 'Nepalese' in their culture they were indistinguishable from the Nepalese in Nepal itself. For its part, government officials had long ignored the situation assuming that most of these people who were most often observed in non-Bhutanese clothes were in fact non-Bhutanese visitors or residents.

After their voluntarily return to their homeland ,the government of Nepal has deliberately aided in formation of so-called Bhutanese refugees favoring many locals which doubled the counts as though the region observed highest birth-rate in the century.

On the contrary Bhutanese people remained both culturally and historically unique when compared to these people from the time of beginning. Therefore we Bhutanese people cannot be fooled unless the world change our histories.

Therefore everybody needs to understand the history and its people before we get blinded by the trouble makers. It's glad to know that you have been to Bhutan and hope you have seen plenty of evidences and amiability of Bhutanese people. I hope you can visit again in near future too.

2. Palden May 23
"Drawn by red blood are these boundaries like enclosures in, every field Wherever you look, drawn are the lines Like the pigeons encaged Men are closed in these traps"
from above Nepalese quote translated in English clearly tells that Nepalese love migrating causing evil as it is rooted in their blood, as we see today.

No Nepalese appear to have even visited Bhutan during the reign of the lst Shabdrung. There is, however, evidence that since the temporal reign of the Deb Minjur Tenpa (1667-1680), Newari craftsmen who were renowned for their artistic skills in metal work were commissioned by Bhutan for execution of religious objects and casting of statues. The Tibetans too employed the Newaris for the same purpose and even minted their coins in Kathmandu long before the unification of Nepal. These artisans have no historical connection with the Nepali speaking people who toured to Bhutan.

The first sightings of Nepalese in the southern foothills(borders) are reported by Charles Bell in 1904 followed closely by John Claude White in 1905. This is corroborated by Eden's report which states that his Nepalese porters, "were unwilling to enter Bhutan, the inhabitants of which were not looked upon with favour ... there the coolies left in considerable numbers being afraid to cross the frontier" (Teesta Bridge). Arthur Foning, a Kalimpong Lepcha, writes that this bore testimony to how effectively the Bhutanese territorial interests were guarded.

The illegal migrants started in 1980s due to porous borders. Bhutan became destination for many tourists as it is now.


1. Sonam May 23
"The Royal Government imposed language and dress codes for all citizens"." I totally do not agree with the Royal Government mindset on imposing these restrictions.

Did you ever explore ? Those language and dress code were the heritage of the King, but not the people's. National dress code and language should not be enforced focusing on a single mass of population, but common ground need to be looked to participate a whole public masses. This is a single reason why people go against this policy.

I am a Bhutanese refugee, and I have all the documents to prove my identity as every Bhutanese inside Bhutan. This is me, and there are thousands of other, who would be happy to prove you their identity.

Now, Mr.Samarajiva, could you explore the hidden conspiracy of Royal Government of Bhutan, why we were made refugee? As you stated- I have had provided my required length of residence and property ownership, but still I was made refugee. So, how could your statements define the issue of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan?

Long story short, you should have explored and deep dived in this critical and touchy issues of Bhutanese refugee. Citing the authority and few individual whom you meet during your visit does not add credibility to your column.

Last but not least, please do not miss-represent the ethnic cleansing done by Fourth king (Jigme Singye Wangchuck). It was ethnic cleansing, and it should be defined as it is.

Finally, I would appreciate you and your effort, if you could research and explore- The ethnic cleansing done by the fourth monarch of our country. Otherwise, please do not miss-lead people to grand designed history of Bhutan. Thank you