The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bhutan seeks to learn democracy 101 from RP

October 21, 2009 04:27:00, Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Philippine Daily Inquirer

PARO, BHUTAN—Ranked as one of the “happiest” countries in the world, this small, impoverished nation could pick up some serious lessons from the Philippines as it takes baby steps toward becoming a full democracy.

And those lessons include both the good and the bad, according to its leader.

“The Philippines, being an Asian country, has very interesting lessons to offer to Bhutan in terms of the good things that can happen to a democracy as well as some of the pitfalls of democracy,” Prime Minister Jigme Thinley told the Inquirer.

What is power?

If there is one thing Bhutan should avoid, Thinley said, it is the problem of “elected (officials) forgetting their responsibilities and not making themselves accountable to the people.”

“What is power?” Thinley asked in rhetoric. “Power is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. One doesn’t have power. One is given responsibility.”

Thinley addressed a conference organized here last week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which discussed how Bhutan could learn from the experience of other free societies.

Bordered by India and China, with a land area just about a third of Luzon, the country of less than a million people ended ages of monarchic rule when it conducted its first democratic elections in March 2008.

UNDP conference

Titled “Deepening and Sustaining Democracy in Asia,” the UNDP conference gathered some 70 international delegates, including this reporter, and some 100 officials, civic leaders and scholars from the host nation.

“Democracies fail not because of inherent flaws but because they fall in the wrong hands,” Thinley said in his speech.

In an Inquirer interview, the prime minister said his countrymen faced the challenge of replicating good models of governance practiced in other countries.

Gross national happiness’

The challenge also involves sustaining “the good times we had during the reign of our fourth king,” he said.

Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, initiated the kingdom’s shift to democracy and spent the last 30 years of his reign ensuring a smooth transition.

The delicate shift entailed reducing the powers of his son and successor, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who ascended the throne in 2006 at age 26.

Jigme Singye is also credited by international economists for advancing the concept of “gross national happiness (GNH)” as an alternative measure of growth and quality of life, a departure from traditional market-driven indicators like the gross national product (GNP).

For Thinley, Bhutan’s path toward democracy was peculiar for being peaceful, considering that many nations experienced violence when their citizens started demanding greater freedoms.

Bhutan’s shift to democracy, he said, arose from the decision of a respected king who “believed in the collective wisdom, the right and capability of the people to shape their own destiny.”

What it did right

In his speech at the UNDP forum, Thinley noted that unlike older but still-fragile democracies, Bhutan has “no broken pieces to mend and yawning divides to bridge. No festering wounds to heal and psychological barriers to confront.”

Ajay Chhiber, UNDP’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said Bhutan could actually end up becoming a “role model”—and not the catch-up learner—if it could sustain its current gains.

“What Bhutan did right is that it started by educating people on democracy. Leaders went out of their way to involve people,” Chhiber told the Inquirer.

The country launched education campaigns long before the elections were held, he recalled. Leaflets were distributed, posters were put up on the streets.

Chhimi Zangmo, 22, fondly recalled catching something on TV for the first time in her life—a debate among election candidates aired on the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the country’s only TV station.

Zangmo, who now works as a salesperson in a handicraft store, said she was glad to see such obvious novelties in the system. But a year after the elections, she said, nothing much had changed.

New system, new fears

Zangmo said she enjoyed exercising the right to choose local officials and members of the new parliament, but stressed that King Jigme Khesar remained in command.

A high school graduate earning just about $55 a month, the mother of one said she took part in her country’s historic elections “to help our country.”

By casting the ballot, she expressed her trust in the wisdom of the previous king, she said.

Still, Zangmo said she was apprehensive about the future: “I am afraid that after five or six years, these (elected) officials will be fighting among themselves, just like in other countries.”

She admitted somehow missing the old system, back when villagers like her never had to decide who should govern. “It was easier before,” Zangmo said. “Now we have to choose our leaders.”

Bhutan is now ruled by a parliament composed of the king, the National Council and the National Assembly.

Ceremonial king

The National Council is composed of five members nominated by the king and 20 members elected in each of Bhutan’s 20 political districts or Dzongkhags.

The National Assembly currently has 47 members representing clusters of towns or geogs. The prime minister is chosen among its members, who are elected to five-year terms. A member can serve as prime minister only for two terms.

The king is now left with mostly ceremonial duties. But according to Thinley, Jigme Khesar will continue to play a significant role in Bhutan’s everyday life.

“We’ve had great kings in the past and we have a great king now. I believe the king, in addition to his constitutional responsibilities, will always be a very important factor in Bhutanese democracy because of the moral and ethical force that he enjoys,” the prime minister said.

Bhutan’s Constitution is considered a “soelra (gift)” from the fourth king, who ordered the charter drafted as early as September 2001, or seven years before the elections.

‘Green’ Constitution

Scholars at last week’s UNDP conference praised the document for having specific provisions that protect the environment.

The Constitution, for example, requires the government to maintain 60 percent of Bhutan’s forest cover at all times “to conserve the country’s natural resources and to prevent degradation of the ecosystem.”

But while its political system may be charting new directions, Bhutan remains saddled with one old problem: What to do with the flood of refugees fleeing neighboring Nepal.


Bhutan refuses to bestow citizenship on the refugees, and many reports told of local officials forcibly driving them back, resulting in violent clashes.

Thinley said his country’s shift to democracy would not change its policy toward the refugees, but that he hoped that talks with politically unstable Nepal would resume.

“The reality is that the problem of the people in the refugee camps is a problem for which Nepal has an equal responsibility to find solutions,” he said.

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