Bhutan-Bangladesh Relations: Shared Aspirations and Enduring Bonds

Bhutan-Bangladesh Relations: Shared Aspirations and Enduring Bonds

The early 1970s marked a tumultuous period for the inhabitants of what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh). In November 1970, the region was devastated by Cyclone Bhola, a catastrophic natural disaster that remains one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history. The cyclone, accompanied by a storm surge, wreaked havoc across East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and parts of India’s West Bengal, claiming the lives of at least 300,000 people, with estimates suggesting the toll may have reached as high as 500,000.

Amidst the aftermath of this tragedy, the people of then West Pakistan found themselves embroiled in a civil war with their eastern counterparts. The Bangladesh Liberation War, culminating in the birth of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, exacted a heavy toll in human lives and suffering. Against this backdrop of turmoil and strife, neighboring Bhutan, a nation just beginning its journey of planned development, extended a hand of friendship and support.

Nearby, a country ten years into planned development called Bhutan, watched the brutalities of natural and mamade disasters. It was the second country, after India to recognize Bangladesh as an independent country.

As a poor country that had just begun development, Bhutan did not have much to support the cyclone and war ravaged country. However, the gesture mattered. Bhutan’s visionary Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was personally involved in the generation of support to provide funds to the affected people. On the eve of a cultural program organized to raise funds, His Majesty stated, “Bhutan is a close neighbor of Bangladesh. As Buddhists, we should help our friends in trouble and pain. I wish to donate Ngultrum 5 lakhs on behalf of our government and people for the cause of those victims through Indian Government.”

Bhutan had found a new friend, just as Bangladesh did. Led by the visionary Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck,it was a heartfelt gesture of solidarity with the cyclone and war-ravaged Bangladesh. Despite its own economic constraints, Bhutan rallied to provide assistance to its distressed neighbor. It was a  poignant display of compassion and empathy.

This act of generosity forged a bond of friendship between Bhutan and Bangladesh, transcending geographical boundaries and cultural differences. Although the Third King’s tenure was cut short by his untimely demise in 1972, the torch of goodwill passed to his successor, His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

In June 1974, Bhutan celebrated the coronation of its new monarch, an occasion marked by the presence of President and Mrs. Muhammadullah of Bangladesh, symbolizing the strengthening ties between the two nations.

The establishment of formal diplomatic relations in April 1973 laid the foundation for deeper engagement and cooperation between Bhutan and Bangladesh. The first Ambassador of Bhutan to Bangladesh presented his credentials to the President of Bangladesh on 29 April 1973. Bangladesh accredited its High Commissioner in New Delhi concurrently to Thimphu, who presented his credentials to the Bhutanese King as the first Ambassador of Bangladesh to Bhutan on 19 May 1973. Bangladesh and Bhutan opened resident Missions at Ambassadorial level in each other’s capitals in January 1980.

However, a milestone in the relation was seen in December 1974, when His Majesty Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck visited Bangladesh for the first time.

During the visit His Majesty said.  “I am confident that the strong bonds of friendship and understanding which developed between our two peoples in those critical 4 days will grow ever stronger with the passage of time. Bangladesh and Bhutan are close neighbours in South Asia. Traditionally, there have been ties of trade between the two countries. It is the sincere wish of my Government and people to develop and strengthen cooperation in economic and other fields between our two countries in the years to come.”

His Majesty the King also met Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of Bangladesh, and discussed matters of common interest and ways and means of further improving bilateral relations between the two countries. The meeting, which was held in a friend!y and cordial atmosphere in Ganobhaban, lasted more than an hour.

Tragedy struck Bangladesh when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a group of disgruntled army officials on August 15, 1975 along with most of his family members except his two daughters who had been staying abroad at that time.

Over the years, bilateral relations have flourished, guided by a shared commitment to mutual respect, cooperation, and development. Both nations became founding members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1980, further solidifying their partnership in the regional context.

In 2011, the President of Bangladesh invited His Majesty the King to visit Bangladesh as a guest during the 40th anniversary celebrations of Independence and National Day on 26 March 2011. It was His Majesty the Fifth King’s first visit to Bangladesh since taking over as the Fifth Dragon King. Another visit followed in 2013.

His Majesty The King granted an audience to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina in Tashichhodzong on 18th April, 2017. Sheikh Hasina was on a 3-day visit to Bhutan, from 18th to 20th April. She was welcomed in a traditional chipdrel ceremony and presented a Guard of Honour at Tashichhodzong, prior to receiving the audience. His Majesty and Her Majesty also hosted a private dinner for Sheikh Hasina in Lingkhana on 19th April.

His Majesty graced the ceremony where Sheikh Hasina unveiled the foundation stone for the new Bangladesh Embassy. Bhutan gifted a plot of land measuring 1.5 acres to Bangladesh for construction of its Embassy at the diplomatic enclave at Hejo, Thimphu. Her Majesty graced the inauguration of the International Conference on Autism and Neuro-developmental Disorders, along with the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Prior to the recent visit of His Majesty to Bangladesh, Prime Minister of Bangladesh H.E. Sheikh Hasina and His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck had a meeting on 6 May 2023 in London where diverse bilateral issues including trade promotion, investment in special economic zone, connectivity and others were discussed. Both the leaders agreed that a special economic zone will be established by Bhutan in Kurigram district of Bangladesh.

As the decades passed, the relationship between Bhutan and Bangladesh blossomed, manifesting in diverse fields such as trade, human resource development, and cultural exchange. Recent years have witnessed significant milestones in bilateral cooperation, marked by the signing of various agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) aimed at enhancing connectivity, trade facilitation, and economic collaboration. The preferential trade agreement signed in December 2020 and subsequent agreements on transportation and inland waterways underscore the commitment of both nations to expand their economic partnership.

Against this backdrop of shared history and common aspirations, His Majesty the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s recent visit to Bangladesh reaffirms the enduring bond between the two countries. As Bhutan and Bangladesh stand poised to harness the economic opportunities unfolding in the subcontinent and beyond, the spirit of cooperation and friendship embodied in their relationship promises a brighter future for both nations.

By Ugyen Tenzin, Thimphu