Over the last several months, away from the prying eyes of the world, Bhutan’s 41-year-old monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, has been walking and travelling on horseback and car across the southern and eastern borders of his country adjacent to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, delivering pep talks to his country’s Covid warriors and exhorting border personnel to stay both safe and vigilant against unvaccinated and infected intruders.
The King returned to Thimphu on 18 June after five days on the road from Merak to Jomotshangka in the east, traversing on foot villages located as high as 4,032 metres, battling blood-thirsty leeches as well as low visibility and sleeping in tents in the cold wind and rain.
Of course, he didn’t have to go. Jigme Khesar Wangchuk could just as easily have stayed home, in the warm confines of his palace, the incredibly beautiful Tashichhodzong in Thimphu, in the company of his Queen, Jetsun Pema, and their five-year-old and one-year-old sons. But this King has always been different.
No ordinary king
Jigme Khesar Wangchuk spent a full year at Delhi’s National Defence College in 2005, interacting with strategic thinkers from across the world. Only a few were aware of the fact that the young man in their midst was the future King of Bhutan. Back home, his far-seeing father soon abdicated the throne, paving way for his son as well as preparing Bhutan for democracy. This unusual country, Druk Yul, the Land of the Dragons, took to the ideas of liberty and equality with such enthusiasm that it has elected three different parties to power in the last three elections.
Old and young Bhutanese were soon opening a window to the world beyond Kolkata and Delhi, encountering new and fascinating ideas that were capable of turning their heads – safe in the knowledge that on the shoulders of their young monarch back home in Thimphu rested the centre of gravity. He was the linchpin that connected an idealised past to the roiling present.
So when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and Bhutan’s enormous neighbour in the south, India, seemed to have been caught up in it like a tornado, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk knew it was time to live up to the ‘Chayig Chenmo’ or code of law written for Bhutan and its leaders by the 16th century Tibetan scholar of statecraft, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
According to the code, the Bhutanese king was no ordinary king, he was also their Bodhisatva of compassion, whose primary responsibility was the well-being of his people. He was their Dharma Raja, healing from the front.
Over the first week of March, the young King travelled across the south, from Trongsa to Phuntsholing, a key gateway to India. Later in March, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk undertook a visit to the eastern front, encouraging his fellow citizens to get vaccinated. He was back in the south on 21 April, after a few Covid cases were discovered and Phuntsholing was locked down, reviewing the safe supply of essential goods, security of quarantine centres and possible points where transmissions may take place. He returned home after spending almost a month in the south.
In June, the King returned to the east, this time in the company of Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, trekking across high mountain passes and urging the people to take strong and preventive measures against Covid.
No exceptions on quarantine were made for the King or the PM when they returned to Thimphu, both isolating themselves according to Covid protocol for a week. (Tshering, in fact, had to undertake 21-day isolation when he returned from Dhaka in March, where he had gone to celebrate Bangladesh’s 50thanniversary of independence, because he was returning from abroad).
The unusual attention to the pandemic has meant that just one person has died from Covid in Bhutan so far.
Between two giants
Sitting in Delhi, you could be forgiven for wondering why the Bhutanese are so lucky – perhaps it’s the hundreds of years of good karma that the dragon kingdom has collectively accumulated.
But the young King’s credit-worthy leadership of this crisis is also unusual because it has been reported in the Bhutanese press and posted on the King’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. The Bhutanese media has traditionally fought shy of reporting on the monarchy not just because the King continues to take a keen interest in national security matters, but because the tiny kingdom is sandwiched between India and China, two Asian giants that came eyeball-to-eyeball on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau as recently as 2017.
Bhutan is, of course, India’s closest ally. Indian troops have been present in Bhutan since the two countries signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship in 1949; the updated version in 2007 committed both nations to not allowing “the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi has underlined the importance of the decades by visiting Bhutan twice, soon after he came to power in 2014 and 2019, pointing out, “Who will not want a friend and neighbour like Bhutan?”
In sharp contrast is the continued absence of diplomatic ties between Bhutan and China – it is the only South Asian nation, apart from India, that has refused to sign up for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So when the Chinese laid claim to Bhutan’s Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in its eastern district of Trashigang – one of the districts across which the King travelled these past Covid weeks – at a Global Environment Facility meeting in June 2020, the deeply shocked Bhutanese issued a demarche.
The sanctuary, Bhutan said, was “integral and sovereign territory” and at no point in the 24 rounds of border discussions with the Chinese did it feature as a disputed area. Bhutanese political observers speculated that China was “punishing” it for allying with India, especially after Doklam.
In October 2020, US satellite imagery provider Maxar Technologies confirmed that China had constructed three villages, 66 miles of linking roads and “at least five military or police outposts on land understood for centuries to be within Bhutan”, followed up by another plan to build another village in Bhutan’s north. It was a clear violation of the Bhutan-China boundary agreement of 1998. China denied the claims.
Clearly, China is pushing Bhutan to either pick sides or provoke India into showing its hand. It wants Bhutan to agree to exchange territory in the north, said to be part of the King’s grazing lands, which China claims, with territory on its western borders around the Doklam plateau. This is close to the tri-junction in the Chumbi valley that overlooks India’s “chicken’s neck” area in Assam, which Indian troops fought to safeguard in 2017.
So far the Bhutanese have studiously refused to react, with the King focussed on leading the war against the pandemic. As for India, it’s now planning to make up for lost ground in the neighbourhood by restarting the supply of Covid vaccines under the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, without hurting its own vaccination plan, thereby consolidating its special tie with Bhutan — all this as it remains focussed on its conflict with China in Ladakh.
For the moment, it seems, Beijing’s “wolf warriors” have bitten off more than they can chew by opening up so many fronts. Perhaps the Chinese should go back to reading their intrepid philosopher Lao Tzu: Making friends, he famously said, is a far better way of expanding influence than riling them up.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)