Bhutan King’s visit to Bangladesh: Cementing Bilateral Partnership

Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Thursday, February 14th, 2013

King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck with his queen Jetsun Pema. Picture: AP

Bhutan, a country of 700,000 people, lies to the north of Bangladesh and is separated by 30 km of India’s territory. Bhutan was the first country to recognise Bangladesh on 7th December, 1971 after India’s recognition on 6th December 1971.


His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became the Fifth King on December 14, 2006 and was crowned on November 6, 2008 at a public coronation ceremony in an auspicious year that marked 100 years of Monarchy in Bhutan.


He has been one of the world’s youngest heads of state. He graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford, where he completed the Foreign Service Programme and International Relations. In October 2011, the King, who was 31, married a commoner 21-year-old student Jetsun Pema.


The Fifth King of Bhutan Khesar Wangchuck and the Queen Jetsun Pema arrived in Bangladesh on 14th February for a five-day visit. The people of Bangladesh heartily welcome their visit.


It is not the King’s first visit to the country. The King recalled that he had visited Bangladesh only once as a young boy. The King visited the country from March 24 to 29th, 2011 and he was the Guest of Honour at the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence Day.  His presence was a fitting tribute and recognition of the contribution of the Third King and people of Bhutan to the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.


The young King began his reign overseeing the democratization of his country In March 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy and the King relinquished his absolute powers. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan was adopted on 18 July 2008, by the first elected parliament.  . He signed a new treaty of friendship with India in February 2007, replacing the treaty of 1949.


As early as April, 1972, both countries expressed desires to establish close relations. The first official commercial contact between Bhutan and Bangladesh began in late 70s and in 1978 Bangladesh trade delegation paid a visit to discuss the prospect of bilateral trade between the two countries (A Trade Agreement was concluded in September, 1980).


In early 1973, formal diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Bhutan were established.


Bangladesh opened its diplomatic mission in January, 1980 headed by a resident Ambassador. Likewise Bhutan reciprocated the diplomatic gesture by appointing an Ambassador in Bangladesh in the same year.


It is noted that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Bhutan in November 2009 and it was her first to any SAARC country after her assumption of office as the head of the government on 6th January 2009, reflecting the importance Bangladesh has always attached relations to Bhutan.


The four-day visit to Bangladesh of Bhutan’s elected Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigme Yoser Thinley in December 2011 is significant in many ways. During the Bhutan’s Prime Minister’s visit, two agreements were signed—an agreement on cultural exchange and Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation on health sector.


Prime Minister Thinley assured that his country would extend cooperation to meet the power deficit of Bangladesh (Bhutan has the potential to produce economically viable hydro-power of 23,000MW and it has initiated to develop its potential).


He thanked Bangladesh government for the offer to use Chittagong and Mongla ports. The use of the ports would yield huge savings for Bhutan and it is reported that India in principle agreed to allow its territory for transit to Bangladesh.


On trade the two countries have enormous opportunities and the bilateral trade could be raised to $100 million from the current figure of $30 million.


Bangladesh imports from Bhutan mainly boulders, dolomite, gypsum, dust coal, slate, graphite, timber and fruit products (jelly and jam) and exports to Bhutan include consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, jute products, newsprint, chemicals, detergents, light machinery.


Bhutan’s Seed Corporation signed an agreement in February 2000 with a non-government organisation (BRAC) in Bangladesh to supply onion and radish seeds.


Bhutan airlines operate between the two countries and people- to- people contact has increased considerably.


Since 1971, Bhutan has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH). Based on Buddhist principles, the Bhutanese version of GNH emphasises a set of social and economic interventions that evaluate social change in terms of the collective happiness of people.


The GNH concept is now firmly entrenched into Bhutan’s national policies with four main objectives: investing in people; living in harmony with tradition and nature; effective and good governance; and developing a dynamic economy as the foundations for a vibrant democracy.


Last year the UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development, a move endorsed by 68 countries. A UN panel is now considering ways that Bhutan’s GNH model can be replicated across the globe.


Both nations are members of SAARC and are keen to develop the regional forum into a dynamic and vibrant one.  Bhutan held the SAARC Summit in 2010. Both countries are Least-Developed Countries and have common approach to economic related policies in the multi-national forums.  Both joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1973. Both are parties to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


The visit of Bhutan’s King and Queen will further infuse dynamism to the bilateral relations and raised the relationship to a higher trajectory in all sectors.


Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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