Bhutan's Middle Way: Frontier, Borderland and Bordered Land

By Long, Kelly | East-West Connections, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Bhutan's Middle Way: Frontier, Borderland and Bordered Land


Long, Kelly, East-West Connections


In its Himalayan perch between Asian giants India and China, Bhutan has become a sort of "it" place of the 21st century. The rugged natural beauty and former isolation have placed Bhutan on the must-see list of adventure travelers, nature lovers, religious seekers, and moneyed elite. Recent articles in National Geographic, television programs such as 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and Where in the World Is Matt Lauer herald the splendors to be found in that country. (1) In addition, in 2008, Bhutan made an historic change as it evolved into one of the world's newest and smallest democracies, a significant step for a nation long regarded as one of the most isolated and remote in the world. That transition, along with the autumn 2008 centenary celebration of Bhutan's monarchy and formal inaugural of its new king, highlights continuing and historical challenges that confront the small nation.

Nearly a century ago, the resilience of the newly established monastic Kingdom of Bhutan (1907) was in question. In 1912, Alexander Rose, British consul to Burma, addressed a meeting of Britain's Geographical Society during which he envisioned a healthy partnering of Asian nations in solving area "problems." These included portions of Bhutan: "India and China must meet along some thousands of miles of frontier and meet as neighbours willing to work hand in hand towards the solution of those difficult border problems which beset them both" (Rose, in Kirk 165). That challenge remains unmet in the early decades of the 21st century. Other predictions cast at that meeting have similarly not come to pass. The President of the Geographical Society predicted the certain disappearance of minute "border regions" such as Bhutan and its surrounds when he professed that "the most remarkable politico-geographical fact of the modern world is the degree to which, in Asia ... frontiers are growing together, and parts of the world which have hitherto been remote and regarded as unapproachable, are falling under the influence of this or that great Power." His assertion that "Boundaries which a few years ago were fluctuating, or traditional, in some cases nonexistent, are becoming fixed, regular, and defined" presumed a continuing dominance and eventual prevailing of Western European imperialist powers (Younghusband 219).

That areas of the Himalayan region, Bhutan in particular, continue to elude such permanent "fixing" calls for an exploration of its history, as does the continuing contest for regional hegemony between the 21st century "Powers," India and China. Historically viewed as the "periphery" by larger powers, Bhutan and its role in its geographical region invite exploration of a challenge set by international borderlands specialists Michiel Baud and Willem van Schendel: to ask not only how competing states dealt with it, but to contemplate how Bhutan dealt with those states as well (Baud and van Schendel 235). Bhutan's official embrace of a unique Buddhist tradition as an informing principle in its national development, foreign relations, and emphasis on ecological integrity are areas being addressed in recent scholarship. This exploratory historical examination focuses on a series of events and perspectives that have situated Bhutan in its present unusual position as a middle ground between two giant powers.

An investigation of events and contexts that complicated Bhutan's historic process casts our gaze back to the turn of the twentieth century and thereafter, toward a not too distant Cold War past when, during the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War, "two rivals met in open battle" in locales near Bhutan (Yardley and Sengupta). Unresolved issues in that conflict "including natural resources such as forests, water distribution and flow of the Brahmaputra River, trade, and the unsettled Himalayan borders of China and Bhutan" are lingering questions of importance not only to competing powers India and China, but to Bhutan and other observer nations as well (Yardley and Sengupta). …

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