The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The question remains


During the 14th SAARC Summit in Delhi in 2007, the then prime minister of Bhutan, Khandu Wangchuck defended the institution of the monarchy as if the king had come down from a heavenly abode. For commoners, SAARC is a platform to commit and demonstrate national and collective development goals. Lauding the monarch beyond limits reflects a farcical democratic transition. The leaders either have lost their conscientiousness or are overtly colluding with the king to defeat the legitimate aspirants of democratic change. Organizations that are working for democratic transition and banned by Bhutan have accepted the king as ceremonial head. There is no reason to feel insecure if one truly believes in democracy.
Bhutan has always downplayed the demand for human rights and democratic change. History will never excuse the monarch for embracing an ethno-centric policy in order to survive. They claim to have granted equal rights to all the people, but they have actually excluded all those of other ethnicities. The essence of multiculturalism, which is a democratic aspiration and value, is absolutely absent in Bhutan.

The 15th SAARC summit provided little hope to the people in the region. Greater connectivity between people, relaxation of customs duties and trade barriers, food security, global terrorism, climate change, South Asian University, SAARC Development Fund and good governance are some of the pertinent issues that the people wanted their governments to take up during the Colombo Summit held from July 17-20, 2008.

The Charter of People's Assembly must be incorporated by the state machinery to make pro-people policies. Democracy can nurture the value of mankind and institutions that safeguard the rights of the people. South Asia has the potential for growth. The growth rate was 8 percent in the region. But the growth is uneven. The vast revenues generated are still used for the military while we continue to host half of the world's poor. The energy crisis is another issue of immediate concern. In this context, Pakistan and Afghanistan can contribute significantly by relaxing duties and expanding transit facilities to connect with central Asia. And in order for this happen, the nuclear states must continue their dialogue.

As far as Bhutan is concerned, Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley made some positive remarks in Colombo. He has acknowledged the existence of terrorist activity in Bhutan. This acknowledgement proves that there is political unrest there. Bhutan has witnessed a series of low intensity bomb blasts in recent months. The United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB) has claimed responsibility for a number of them. The violence is a reflection of sheer frustration. More than 108,000 refugees have been languishing in exile in eastern Nepal for the last 18 years.

Bhutan continues to deny its multiethnic reality. No country can stamp out the cultural identity of any ethnic group in the name of a "one people policy". Bhutan has forcefully imposed the dress of the ruling elite as the national dress at the expense of other ethnic groups like the Lhotshampas.

A regional initiative for countering criminal activities has come up at the SAARC Summit – mutual assistance in criminal activities. But it is highly probable, as has been the tradition in Bhutan, that it might misuse this legal corpus to extradite dissident political activists. Bhutan entered into an extradition treaty with India in 1997 targeting persons whom they perceived as a threat. But the move proved futile because of the prompt response by social activists all over the world.

The present government must resolve the prolonged refugee fiasco. They must stop propagating "by the grace of the king… democracy has been handed over to people". Is democracy the king's private property? Democracy must develop from within and from the bottom up. The publicity that King Jigme Singye Wangchuck retired at the age of 51 to live in a log cabin is a sham.

This is a political gimmick. No one knows the truth about how he is embroiled in a power struggle with his four wives, 10 princes and princesses and an equal number of sisters and cousins. His abdication is mere eyewash. Both kings have shown their true colors with regard to racial discrimination when they used their prerogative (Article 2 of the Constitution) to nominate five members to the National Council. Not one was nominated from the Lhotshampa community.

Some of the remarks made by the Bhutanese prime minister at the SAARC Summit were both inspiring and discouraging. Bhutan does not possess the infrastructure to host a SAARC Summit, but the prime minister proposed to locate the secretariat of the SAARC Development Fund in the kingdom. There are many reasons behind this move. Bhutan is facing a severe foreign exchange crisis and needs Indian currency badly. A couple of months ago, it borrowed 200 crores from the State Bank of India, Hasimara, West Bengal by using US dollars as security against the loan. On July 17, Indian Prime Minster Dr Manmohan Singh assured 400 crores as assistance to keep the market stable.

Given the stringent visa regulations between India and Pakistan and the high levy on tourists in Bhutan, the best venue for the SAARC Development Fund is Nepal – a free state with an evolving history. Democracy must also be made a precondition for all member states and international communities before they enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements.

Despite all efforts to raise the refugee issue, it remains isolated in the minds of the South Asian heads of state. This has led Western countries to resettle them on their own soil on humanitarian grounds. Many refugees have left voluntarily for resettlement, and a large number of them are in the process of doing so. The question still remains: "Will resettlement bring ultimate justice to the refugees and lasting peace in the region?"

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