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Bhutan’s cautious tryst with democracy

October 29, 2011

Bhutan’s shift to plural politics remains carefully calibrated, but the emergence of a relatively free press and democratic institutions are important achievements. An account from Thimpu

Political changes in Bhutan over the past five years — the introduction of a ‘democratic constitution,’ the retreat by the fourth King and the coronation of his son, elections to Parliament which now has both a ruling and an opposition party, and governance being the prerogative of the elected government — have triggered two opposite reactions generally. One school has hailed the vision of the Bhutanese monarchy and its act of ‘renunciation,’ and has declared the ‘democracy story’ to be a success. Many others dismiss the transition as being a ‘farce,’ claiming that the King still calls the shots and that Bhutan remains a tight autocracy.

The truth probably lies in the middle — of a society undergoing complex, multi-dimensional changes, but in a careful and calibrated manner. Observers agree upon there being two fundamental changes: the opening up of the media space, and the emergence of constitutional institutions.

MEDIA SPACE

Tashi Dorji is the editor of Business Bhutan, the country’s only financial weekly. Sitting in his office opposite the Taj, on the capital’s main street, he explains how there has been a proliferation of private papers (there are 10 now), and the way the media are now pushing the envelope.

Sometime ago, his paper exposed a land-scam in eastern Bhutan that had taken place a decade ago. “Despite there being a royal decree that the local district administrator cannot give the land away, many influential people, including the present Prime Minister, got land through unfair means in the town of Gyelphozhing.” The paper ‘named and shamed’ all the figures; there was a public outcry; the Opposition took up the issue; and a constitutional body, the Anti-Corruption Commission, was asked to investigate the matter.

Would he have been able to do such a story earlier? “I will not say I could not have done it, but I think I would not have done it.” Mr. Dorji adds that despite the critical coverage, there has been no backlash from the government, the source of 80 per cent of media advertising.

There are some clear, but unstated, red-lines, say with regard to reportage on the monarchy, which the media respects. But journalists claim they do so because there is no reason to write critically of the King, since his conduct has been ‘impeccable’ and that there is deep ‘faith, reverence, and respect’ for the institution.

THE FIRST CONSTITUTIONAL CASE

The Business Bhutan broke another story in 2010. It revealed that the cabinet had decided to raise indirect taxes on several commodities, including automobiles. The Opposition party claimed that this was ‘unconstitutional,’ as the sole right to raise taxes rested with the legislature, and not the executive, and took the government to court. A high court, and subsequently the Supreme Court, upheld the Opposition’s stance and said that the government had not complied with the legislative process. This was Bhutan’s first constitutional case.

Highlighting the verdict’s implications, Leader of the Opposition Tshering Tobgay told The Hindu, “It showed that the judiciary is independent and would safeguard the provisions of the Constitution. The government has a 96 per cent majority in the house, yet this reiterated the principle that it is bound by constitutional provisions.”

Observers cite two other examples to show how institutions are asserting themselves, which would have been unthinkable only four years ago when decision making powers were concentrated. The government was very keen to pass a law on the civil service. The National Assembly, where it has an outright majority, passed it, but the National Council, which consists of non-political elected representatives and the King’s nominees, rejected it. The government could not get a two-thirds majority in a joint session. And only after lengthy deliberations over two years did they succeed in passing the bill.

The second instance was a clash between the government and the Election Commission (EC) over local body elections. The EC wanted to complete the classification of towns before holding polls, while the government wanted it immediately. After a tense standoff, the EC finally relented.

A diplomat based in Thimphu said, “Institutions are trying to find the right balance. In some of these cases, the King is understood to have passed on quiet messages to the key actors to harmonise their differences.” Mr. Tobgay added, “The monarch is a very important part of Bhutanese democracy. He is not merely a ceremonial head.”

DEALING WITH DIVERSITY

Bhutanese society has three major communities — the Sharchops in the east, the dominant Ngalops of the west, and the Nepali speakers, called Lhotshampas, in the south.

In the late 1980s, there was confrontation between sections of the Lhotshampa population and the regime. The Lhotshampas claim that using discriminatory linguistic policies, citizenship clauses and brutal operations, 100,000 Nepali-speakers Bhutanese citizens were pushed out of the country. They moved to refugee camps in south Nepal. Bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed, and many of the refugees are now being resettled in third countries.

Bhutan’s narrative is different — that these were illegal immigrants and not citizens; that a lack of border control and weak immigration had enabled it; that they had caused a law and order problem; and that the camps include many Nepali speakers who had never been in Bhutan.

Emphasising that diversity was always respected, Karma Ura of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, said, “Public services are evenly distributed. The King just visited the earthquake affected regions in the south. Many scholarships have been granted to southerners, and they are a part of the bureaucracy at the highest levels. Two out of the 10 ministers are Nepali-speakers.” Claiming that this extended to the cultural sphere, Mr. Ura pointed out that a foundation stone for a Hindu temple, for the Nepali speaking population, had just been laid.

Mr. Tobgay mentioned that the Constitution allows the freedom of religious practice and seeks to promote a culturally vibrant country, besides granting the right to free speech.

The treatment of minorities remains a fairly sensitive topic, and outsiders are advised to avoid it. One Nepali speaking citizen said that the refugee crisis was a result of the ‘mistakes’ of the Lhotshampas themselves. Another blamed Bhutan’s government for creating the ‘1990 refugee problem’ and said they were not treated as equal citizens. Both however emphasised that a change was underway, and more opportunities had opened up for all communities. A Christian citizen said that the religion was not accepted in Bhutan, adding, “There is no church, and we usually pray at the private home of the pastor.”

CRITICAL PERIOD

It is still early days for Bhutanese democracy, and it operates with certain limits. But as a politician said, “This is a critical period since the foundations of democracy are being laid. The space for democratic debate has grown, but at a pace that is not destructive and that the society can tolerate.” How Bhutan will deal with challenges of multiculturalism, dissent and devolution of power within this nascent democratic set-up will determine its future.

(This article by me on a recent visit to Thimpu first appeared in The Hindu.)

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