Monday, August 12, 2013

Bhutan's First Formal Modern Style Trial By Jury

A friend of mine who was passionately involved in the recent elections is still in a state of listlessness. She tells me that she is still unable to regain her mind and is contemplating moving to a third country in an attempt to forget everything that happened in the past month. For the moment she tells me that she in reading up on the history of Bhutan - to try and uncover some clues as to why things happened the way they did.

Since history is where she seeks solace, I dedicate this piece of history to her. It is my belief that few in Bhutan would be aware of this bewildering event that transpired exactly half a century ago.


Two of the earliest Chillips to visit Bhutan were a couple of Portuguese Priests - Father Estevao Cacella and Father João Cabral. They visited Bhutan in the year 1627 and spent eight months in the country - before they crossed over into Tibet. During their long stay in the country, they met the Zhabdrung and sought and obtained his permission to convert any and all Bhutanese into the Christian faith. The audacity of the priests! - they even attempted to persuade the Zhabdrung to accept Jesus as his God and Savior. But the Zhabdrung declined politely - saying that conversion to a faith that did not belong to his ancestors would cause him to die on the spot. 

The two Portuguese Fathers did not succeed in converting any one in Tibet either - in fact one of them died there, still trying. On the other hand, my friend in Portugal wrote his Doctorial thesis on the two Fathers and their visit to Bhutan and Tibet - arguing that the Fathers’ intensions were not entirely ecclesial - but more war like.

Some three and a half centuries later, another intriguing Chillip becomes a little known, but an indelible part of Bhutan’s history. His name was Edward St. George - a barrister by vocation and a British by birth.

Edward St. George and third wife Lady Henrietta with His Majesty
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck during a revisit to Bhutan in 2002

It is not known when exactly he arrived Bhutan but a passage in the book “Hearts and Life and the Kingdom of Bhutan” by Dr. Aubrey Leatham tells us that he was in Bhutan during the autumn of 1963. However, it is not this visit that is of interest to us - but his subsequent visit - during April of 1964 that we are concerned with.

Edward St. George was a close friend of the late Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji and his younger brother late Dasho Lhendup Dorji (Lenny) whom he is supposed to have met while studying in Oxford, England. He passed away in Houston, Texas, USA on December 20, 2004, aged 76.

Edward St. George with Dasho Benji and late Dasho Rimp

Edward St. George’s second visit is linked to the assassination of the late Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji. Written records show that he rushed to Bhutan upon hearing news of the late Prime Minister's assassination. Since he was a friend, I am tempted to believe that he came to offer his condolences to the bereaved family. But that is pure conjecture because, subsequently, it transpires that he played a central role in the framing of charges and the prosecution of the case involving the assassination of the late Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji.

The late Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji was assassinated in Phuentsholing on the night of 5th April, 1964. Information available in the public domain tells us that an army corporal by the name of Jambey fired the bullet that killed the Prime Minister. He was arrested on 8th April, 1964. To everybody’s consternation, during the course of the interrogation, Jambey revealed that he committed the act under orders from Chabda Namgye Bahadur who was then the Chief of Army.

Interestingly, the person who tracked down and arrested Jambey on the night of 8th April, 1964 was one Pelpon (Sergeant) Nob Gyeltshen - father of our current Prime Minister, His Excellency Tshering Tobgay.

The Royal Enquiry Commission that was constituted to enquire into the circumstances of the assassination was headed by late Dasho Gyaldoen Thinley Dorji - father of Ex-Prime Minister His Excellency Jigme Yoezer Thinley.

During a time when a proper judicial system was virtually none-existent, Edward St. George conducted the Kingdom’s first formal modern style trial by jury of the assassin and the accomplices in the case of the assassination of the Prime Minister. In 1964 this must have been something absolutely mind boggling to the people of Bhutan. Even more strange, it is impossible to comprehend why an Englishman was charged with the responsibility to oversee the trial of one of Bhutan's most controversial cases of murder and intrigue.

The following is how the trail was described:

“The assassination of his close friend Prime Minister Jigme Dorji, by the Commander-in-Chief of the army, occasioned the kingdom’s first formal trial by jury. To local amazement, he convened a court of ‘oyer and terminer’ and insisted the accused was treated with dignity; shaved and properly attired. Despite having written it, he always said the ‘summing up’ was so moving that the King, the apologetic accused, the whole court and even he himself were in tears. The King then sent the crown prince (and present King), daughters and a nephew to England with Edward to be educated. This nephew Paljor Dorji, nicknamed ‘Benji’ became Bhutan’s first Chief Justice, despite studying ‘the Sporting Life’ newspaper more diligently than his tomes on jurisprudence.”

Zhabdrung unified Bhutan and administered the country through a dual system of governance - spiritual affairs being headed by the Je Khenpo and the temporal matters by the Druk Desi.


  1. Interesting and mind-boggling piece, I think there is a typo error, should have been 'trial' and not 'trail', cheers.

  2. You should write a series of such accounts, to give information on the country's history to this generation. I think unless we know our history, we cannot build context to understand the present events.

  3. Did St George's spirits possess ambassador Haran by any chance? How ironic, we have a modern judicial system headed by Bhutanese today, but the form assassinations take that can't be tried.

  4. Eclesiastic industry, one may say. :)CG

  5. Hi Carlos,

    Great to see you here hehe .... you see you feature in the Blog. How are you? Please write.

  6. Quite a fascinating piece of history, and the great deal of effort you made to share it with us is much appreciated.

  7. Hi Yeshey. Yeap I saw it, thanks. May one see your work here one of this days. All the best.

  8. Your good friend and you should be dispatch in express if you are not comfortable in this peaceful land. But distant lends enchantment to view. Bad losers like you will not find the other side comfortable too not too long. Sure atleast Bhutan will be better without people with vested interest and greed like two of you..(you dare?)

  9. Edward st. George was called in by His Late Majesty the Third King in order to have a fair trial as almost all the Bhutanese were involved somehow and tensions were at their height at the time and India's involvement in this highly sensitive case was not something Bhutan wanted.
    Edward St. George also advised on obtaining the best constitutional lawyers such as the esteemed Sir Humphrey Waldock, an international lawyer at the UNILC. Mr. Waldock helped Bhutan with the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty. If it weren't for their help, Bhutan would have had much difficultly in remaining a sovereign nation. They also assisted in developing Bhutan's court of law and initial legal systems.