THIMPU (Reuters) - When its big brother Tibet was invaded by China in 1950, the lesson was not lost on the rulers of the tiny hermit kingdom of Bhutan.
Isolation did not pay, and a gradual process of opening up and modernisation culminated on Monday with the first parliamentary elections in the history of the last independent Himalayan kingdom.
Sandwiched by giant neighbours India and China, Bhutan had always felt very vulnerable, said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-owned Kuensel newspaper.
“Our strategy was to hide up in the mountains,” he said. “That worked until 1960.”
It was then, just a year after the Dalai Lama fled into exile, that Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, opened the doors just a crack.
Shortly after the Chinese invasion, Wangchuck also began to gradually establish more democratic forms of governance.
Bhutan wanted to avoid what it saw as the mistake of Tibet — having few diplomatic friends and shouldered with a feudal society that gave China the excuse to “liberate” it from serfdom.
Modernisation was a process brought to fruition by Wangchuck’s son and grandson, who forced the people of Bhutan on Monday to let the royalty stand aside and democracy take its place.
To head off the Chinese threat, the third king also developed close and friendly ties with India, whose soldiers help defend Bhutan’s northern border and build its roads.
But modernisation has been a slow and tightly controlled process. When the first jeep arrived in the capital Thimpu in the 1960s, locals ran in fear of the fire-breathing dragon. Others brought it water and cattle feed.
In 1971, Bhutan did what Tibet had never done, joined the United Nations.
The next big trauma and lesson for Bhutan’s rulers came in 1975 when the Buddhist kings of Sikkim, Bhutan’s little sister and even smaller western neighbour, were deposed and their country swallowed up by India.
Ethnic Nepalis, mainly Hindus, had been settled in Sikkim by the British in the nineteenth century and soon outnumbered the Buddhists. Apparently encouraged by India they rose up in the 1970s, won democracy and ousted the monarchy.
Bhutan learned its own lesson, clamping down on its own ethnic Nepali minority.
After the government imposed compulsory national dress and closed down Nepali language schools, the Nepali minority protested and demanded democracy.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were then forced or fled into exile and languish still in refugee camps in Nepal.
“In Bhutan today the perceived threat is demographic,” said Dorji. “We are half a million people with two fifths of mankind all around. This population can disappear.
“That is why we have very strong immigration and citizenship rules, and this fear of being swamped by one ethnic group.”
To the west, the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh had also been swallowed up by Britain and then by India, settled by Muslims and invaded by backpacking tourists.
In those days the government talked about Bhutan as a “country besieged”. It is how many Bhutanese still feel.
“We had close ties with Sikkim, we have a close affinity with Ladakh, we have seen what happened to Tibet,” said one official, who declined to be named while talking about what are seen as sensitive issues of national security.
“It has left a deep scar on Bhutanese minds,” he said. “We have a minority complex. We feel we have to be careful.”
Bhutan’s conservative Buddhist majority share close religious, linguistic and racial ties with the people of Tibet.
A few thousand Tibetans fled into Bhutan in 1959, and most still live as refugees inside the country.
But ironically, Bhutan has been so reclusive most of its people were not aware of the Chinese invasion nearly sixty years ago, and today few seem to care about the protests taking place in their northern neighbour.
“This is one place where people don’t seem to know what is happening,” said Dorji. “Psychologically we are that cut off.”