Bhutan’s democratic puzzle
30 - 6 - 2006
The exotic, benign image of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan cannot conceal the battle between authoritarian politics and democratic dissent that is shaping its future, says Dharma Adhikari.
These are truly extraordinary times for democracy in the Himalayas. A mass movement in Nepal effectively stripped King Gyanendra of his absolute powers in April 2006. In Bhutan, the eastern Himalayan kingdom, King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk declared in December 2005 that he would abdicate the throne and adopt a parliamentary system of government by 2008.
The 50-year-old king's announcement that he would step down in favour of his son Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk came as a shock to many. In combination with the trend of events in neighbouring Nepal, it seems evidence that both kingdoms are democratising. But there is an important difference between Nepal's grassroots approach and the Bhutanese king's top-down devolution of power.
In Bhutan – a country more than double the size of Israel, and flanked by India and China – politics is not always what it is purported to be. Its tortuous history and its exclusionary politics defy the popular notions of democratic progress propagated in recent years by the palace and circulated by an international media always seeking "exotic" new locations and stories.
Indeed, reclusive, scenic Bhutan has frequently earned positive media spin for its efforts in preservation and modernisation: a culture untainted by modernity, the "land of the thunder dragon", a Buddhist Shangri-La that champions the royal philosophy of "gross national happiness" rather than gross national product, the only country to ban smoking, a country with almost two-thirds of its land under forest cover … not even openDemocracy is immune to the charming spin (see the article by Bhutan's foreign minister, Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, "Globalisation – the view from Bhutan" [25 October 2001]).
True, there are some genuinely "positive" stories coming out of Bhutan. The kingdom's economic indicators are relatively impressive in the developing world; the proposed adoption of a formal, written constitution and the holding of the first general elections are moves in the direction of parliamentary democracy; and King Wangchuk's relatively progressive image can appear a refreshing contrast to absolute monarchs from Brunei to Saudi Arabia to Swaziland), and perhaps even a reminder to the Burmese (Myanmar) junta that Buddhism is conducive to democracy.
Behind the smiles, however, is a more complex truth.
An adolescent monarchy
Bhutan, like Jordan, is a colonial monarchy. Established in 1907 by the British, it is one of the world's youngest monarchies. The exuberance that comes with an adolescent institution can be captivating, but unrestrained youthfulness can also lead to bravado, self-love and unnecessary squabbles.
Traditionally, political and social struggles in Bhutan were between Buddhist sub-sects and feudal warlords. The clash between the Mangol and Tibetan Buddhist sub-sects characterised the polity until 1616, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Lama of Kagyupa school of Buddhism, founded modern Bhutan on the basis of a dual system of governance (spiritual and administrative order). The Buddhist theocracy, which partly inspired the utopian idea of Shangri-La, ended with Shabdrung's death in 1652; this unleashed a civil war between various sects that was to last two centuries. In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuk, a provincial governor of the Drukpa Kargyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism and the present king's great-grandfather, consolidated power over the country. As a reward for his loyalty, the British – then rulers of neighbouring India – designated Ugyen king.
But neither Ugyen Wangchuk (1907-1926) nor his son Jigme Wangchuk (1926-1952) nor his grandson Dorji Wangchuk (1952-1972) enjoyed absolute powers. In fact, to appease a decentralised and increasingly restless spiritual order, Dorji Wangchuk decreed in 1968 that the king would abdicate in favour of his oldest son if the tshogdu (national assembly) passed a vote of no confidence by a two-thirds majority against him. He also introduced the elections of national-assembly members via secret ballots.
The present king Singhe Wangchuk took the reigns of power in 1972. Soon after, he abolished the abdication system, handpicked national-assembly members, and began the process of centralising power. For the first time in Bhutan's history, a ruler was able to create an elaborate royal family and a system of patronage and cronyism. The close-knit members of the extended royal family (Wangchuk has four wives, all of whom are sisters) dominate government and commerce.
The king also nurtured favouritism towards the ruling Ngalongs (westerners), at the expense of minorities such as Sarchops (easterners), Lhotshampas (Nepali-speaking southerners), and Doyas and Brokpas (scattered minorities). His racist motives became all the more apparent when in 1989 he issued a cultural decree called driglam namzha that promotes "one nation, one people". This anomalous edict makes it mandatory to everyone, irrespective of ethnicity and culture, to eat, sit, speak and dress the way the ruling Drukpas do. He introduced Dzongkha, a Tibetan dialect as a national language, and banned the teaching of other languages in schools, including the related Nepali language.
When the Lhotshampas refused to wear gho or kira (robe-like dresses) and protested against the discriminatory move, hundreds were tortured and jailed. They included Tek Nath Rizal a royal advisor, and now Bhutan's foremost pro-democracy leader. In 1990, more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, comprising almost one-thirds of the country's (disputed) population of nearly half a million, were forcefully evicted from the country on the pretext that they were illegal immigrants, or ngolops (anti-nationals).
In fact, Nepalis have lived in Bhutan since 1624. Many more were lured by the Bhutanese government in large numbers as labourers and construction workers during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.
King Wangchuk justified forceful depopulation on the grounds that a Nepali majority in Bhutan meant that the dragon kingdom would become another Sikkim, where the Nepali majority of the independent nation voted in 1975 to join the Indian republic.
The rebellion of the early 1990s also extended to the Sarchop, the second largest ethnic group and the original inhabitants of Bhutan. The Sarchop are of Indo-Burmese origin and speak non-Tibetan dialects, such as Tshangla. Many Sarchop fled the country to escape persecution, including Rongthong Kuenley Dorji, the exiled leader of the banned Druk National Congress (DNC) party. The persecution also extends to suppressing religious groups such as Christians and Hindus.
There have been fifteen rounds of bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal on the issue of the repatriation of the refugees living in the camps in Nepal. The last was in 2003, and little progress has been made.
Today, the refugees expelled by Bhutan – who include several of my Bhutanese extended family – languish in United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)-managed camps in eastern Nepal. The "ethnic cleansing" of these now stateless people has been extensively documented by human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as independent scholars like Michael Hutt, Michael Aris, and Leo Rose.
An exclusionary politics
The exclusionary politics of King Wangchuk also became evident in his suppression of the popular Shabdrung legacy and his persecution of the Shabdrung reincarnations. DNC's Dorji, formerly close to the present king, recalls that Wangchuk once asked him not to explain the history of the Shabdrungs to the public. The last reincarnation Shabdrung Jigme Ngawang Namgyal Rinpoche – equivalent to the Dalai Lama lineage of Tibet and highly revered by Bhutanese – was an avid critic of the autocratic king. The Rimpoche lived in exile in India until his mysterious death on 5 April 2003.
Wangchuk's modernisation project, based on the post-colonial ethos of nation-building, did gain some momentum. Investment in quality tourism and modern infrastructure over the last few decades has brought the kingdom some world visibility and material progress. The United Nations human-development reports portray the country as a good performer among the least-developed countries (LDCs). However, the king's devotion to a narcissist view of culture and identity, and the king's feudal mindset, has caused much damage to regional peace, justice, human rights and democracy.
Today, the power-struggle has reached an inevitable point – it is directly between the monarchy and the people. It extends beyond the traditional elite. Already, there are many opposition parties in exile in Nepal and India, and the Bhutanese diaspora is abuzz with democratic discourse.
The king insists that democracy is an evolutionary process and that he will grant democracy to his subjects on a piecemeal basis, but he has also indicated that the impetus for his change of position is "contextual", not "consequential". Referring to developments in Nepal, where the Maoist insurgency has brought them close to power, he has asked: why wait for a revolution?
Bhutan's own history of long internal wars makes that a legitimate fear.
Indeed, the drafting of a constitution with provisions for democratic institutions and civil liberties is a monumental shift in a Bhutanese polity governed for so long by archaic decrees. However, there are doubts about the king's sincerity. Critics argue that just like during the guided Panchayat reign in Nepal (1960-90), the king hopes to use the constitution to circumvent a simmering upheaval and delay a truly representative democracy.
The constitution was drafted without representation from the dissident groups and remains vague about the monarch's prerogative powers. It also lacks a provision for an independent judiciary and fails to properly acknowledge religious, linguistic and cultural freedoms (among others). At best, it envisages a two-party oligarchy based on the Drukpa vision of a homogenous nationhood.
The first-ever democratic elections in Bhutan will be held only if the draft constitution is passed in a national referendum. This delaying tactic is already evident in the fact that on the recommendations of royal astrologers (who believe that the omens are not good for democracy at this time) the elections have been postponed until 2008.
The fundamentals of democracy – limited government and civil liberties – are essential in any form of democracy, even in the context of the cultural nuances of popular rule. Bhutan fails on both accounts. The launch of two private daily newspapers in the capital, Thimpu, does signal a first advance in press freedom. But Bhutan's government is in no mood to share power with the opposition (now mostly in exile), and it continues to deny basic rights to a large section of its population, particularly those living in refugee camps in Nepal and India. There cannot be a genuine democracy when more than a third of the entire population is displaced and disenfranchised.
The implication of this assessment is that unless the international community gets more involved and the refugee problem is resolved, genuine democracy in Bhutan is still a remote prospect.
An international responsibility
Under the terms of a 1949 treaty, India manages the defence and foreign affairs of Bhutan, as well as being Bhutan's largest foreign donor. But India has dismissed the refugee problem as a "bilateral" issue, despite calls by the UNHCR and the European Union for its active involvement in mediating the issue.
India continues to appease the Thimpu regime in return for the latter's contribution to sustaining New Delhi's sphere of influence; it has been rewarded for its help in flushing out separatist Indian groups operating from their bases in southern Bhutan. Bhutan may have established diplomatic relations with twenty-two countries, and its educated elite may increasingly realise that the treaty of 1949 is discriminatory – but Bhutan has not been able to escape from India's shadow and act independently. The dragon kingdom has broken ranks with India only rarely in its votes at the United Nations, where it was admitted in 1971 thanks to New Delhi's influence. It does not have diplomatic relations with China, another regional power and India's rival.
In the early 2000s, Nepal's civil society and government have at least been able to draw international attention to the protracted problem of the refugees expelled from Bhutan. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly called for an inclusive and transparent refugee-verification process, international monitoring and the involvement of third parties such as the UNHCR and refugees' representatives. The European Union passed a resolution on 18 July 2003 that called on both parties to actively support a just resolution of the problem. The resumption of EU aid to Nepal in June 2006 after its democratic revolution is welcome; $2.5 million in food aid is designated for Bhutanese refugees.
Meanwhile, the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Bhutan, but it does have diplomatic obligations. America's stated polices towards south Asia – expanding freedom and promoting economic prosperity and peace – supply the rationale for a more progressive approach. The US is aware of the problem but it could do more.
In 2000, towards the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, the US authorised part of a $22 million Balkan aid-package to Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal. At that time, the US government hoped to "work with both countries for the just resolution of the humanitarian problem." That may not be much, but American concerns helped spurt a series of bilateral talks between the two countries and the initiation of a verification process (aborted later as the political climate deteriorated). In May 2005, the US ambassador to Nepal, James F Moriarty, toured the refugee camps and assured people there that he would try to find a solution by holding talks with Nepal, India and Bhutan – "if possible."
The civil war in Nepal that has claimed 13,000 lives since 1996 pushed the once highly visible refugee issue on the backburner. This stalemate has led to hopelessness and frustration among the refugees. Tek Nath Rizal, released under international pressure in 1999 after a ten-year imprisonment and now living in exile in Nepal, told me recently that the young refugees in the camps are fed up with their life in limbo. Sit-ins, peace marches to Bhutan (Indian police routinely arrest refugees who make the trek) and hunger-strikes have become routine forms of refugee protest.
The lack of economic freedom and of any semblance of progress in the bilateral talks makes it not unlikely that some refugees may make common cause with the Maoists in Nepal. Already, a Bhutanese Maoist outfit has become active. Rizal blames the international community for its inaction. "They have abandoned us", he said, and added: "How can Bhutan, that does not abide by international laws, continue to be a UN member?"
International inaction could lead to another Palestine, Kosovo, or Darfur, in an already volatile south Asia where the Nepali crisis may have eased but where Maoists in India (Naxalites) control a wide swathe of territory and the situation in Bangladesh remains highly volatile. All concerned parties – India, Nepal, Bhutan, the UNHCR, aid agencies and refugee representatives – must come together to deliberate how a workable, durable solution can be reached.
The refugee issue may be at the heart of Bhutan's problem at the moment, but it is only part of its democratisation puzzle. Bhutan's "gross national happiness" lies not in King Wangchuk's divisive politics, but ultimately requires a just and inclusive polity in which the royal regime respects diversity and listens to opposition leaders, parties and the international community. The king's abdication announcement may be alluring, but (as Tek Nath Rizal puts it) it does not mean he will begin to live the life of a hermit. In fact, the king himself has said that he will continue to be active in an advisory role after he surrenders formal power.
In the end, the key to Bhutan's future lies with New Delhi, but three other powers – the European Union, the United States and the United Nations – must also put pressure on India to initiate a genuine democratic process in Bhutan. The western democracies should be able to persuade India, the world's largest democracy, to side with freedom and dignity – not injustice and suppression – in the dragon kingdom.
Dharma Adhikari teaches journalism and international media systems at Georgia Southern University in the United States. He is the founder and editor of www.Newslook.org. He grew up in India and Nepal, and became a Fulbright Scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Missouri, where he also received his doctorate in journalism. His homepage is here Also by Dharma Adhikari in openDemocracy: Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)