by SONYAH FATAH | The Globe and Mail
August 11, 2007
THIMPHU, BHUTAN — Monarchies have inspired bloody revolutions, internal dissent and anti-royalist demonstrations. But not in the remote, Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Here, it’s the King who is trumpeting democracy and calling for a one-person, one-vote system.
So far, the citizens have resisted the call. The consensus among the Bhutanese is that democracy is a bad idea. Bhutan will become another India, people say, pointing to the host of internal conflicts in the neighbouring country. They also fear democracy might widen class differences and increase social conflict.
Under the benevolent eyes of the monarchy, peace has been Bhutan’s inheritance, they say.
Still, democracy is the King’s wish, and the reluctant Bhutanese are gearing up for their first general election.
Bhutan’s transition toward democracy was led by former king Jigme Singe Wangchuck as part of a plan to develop and modernize Bhutan. He stepped aside in December, making his eldest son, Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King.
It was the father who first determined that Bhutan would turn toward democracy, and speculation on the reasons for his decision includes the self-destruction of the Royal Family in nearby Nepal and the rise of a Maoist guerrilla movement there. Early in his reign, the Royal Family of neighbouring Sikkim was overthrown after India stirred up trouble among Sikkim’s Nepalese population. Bhutan’s Nepalese community, many of them living in refugee camps, has reason to resent the existing powers in Bhutan.
The country is also largely rural — the majority of its people are farmers — and although its development has been impressive over the past 40 years, with increased life expectancy, literacy and income, the country will have to face more complex challenges as time goes on.
Bhutan has been making baby steps away from absolute monarchy for years.
“Democracy is not a new concept,” said Lily Wangchuck, who heads the governance unit for the United Nations Development Program in Bhutan. “That’s a Western perception. There has been an unprecedented process of decentralization over the last four decades.”
Devolution of monarchial power began in earnest in 1981 for this country of fewer than 700,000 people. People elect their own village and town representatives, but those votes are cast on a one-household, one-vote basis. A council of ministers, appointed by the King and handpicked from Bhutan’s civil service, took over the handling of daily government affairs in 2001.
But this time out, in elections scheduled to be held in two rounds in February and March — academics from the University of Canberra and the Australian National University helped to set up the election process and the shape of the government that will follow — the individual right to vote will be embraced for the first time.
The idea isn’t appealing to most people — yet.
“We like only the monarchy,” said Kinley Chuki, 18, who is getting a diploma in education and helps run the family-owned general store on the main street in Paro. “If democracy comes, we will become like India.”
Bhutanese feel that the monarchy has been a force for stability and unity. They have awful tales to tell about the “former times,” a general reference to the turbulent period that predates 1907, the year the monarchy was born.
Ms. Chuki’s grandmother, Nimdem, 80, who spent most of her life picking apples in an orchard near Paro, says she fears democracy will create greater class cleavages.
“Under democracy, only upper-class people with backgrounds will be successful.”
Citizens have been slow in engaging in the nascent political process, even the creation of parties to vie for votes has been a struggle.
A former minister and the brother of Bhutan’s queens — four sisters who are married to the former king — lead the People’s Democratic Party. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuck and six cabinet ministers resigned to contest elections, a move widely seen to bring legitimacy to the election process, but one that has also brought dissatisfaction as would-be candidates, having given up their jobs, find they have been sidelined by political candidates.
This year the government held two rounds of mock elections to prepare voters for the real thing. Still, the Bhutanese are struggling to understand the process and its purpose.
“The King’s concern is to develop Bhutan, which is why he is asking for democracy,” said Pema Gyeltshen, 49, a junior high school teacher in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, who also sells prayer flags at a monastery. “But hardly 50 per cent of the people know what democracy is.”
Not everyone is afraid of a future in a democratic Bhutan. For students like Ugyen Tenzing, 24 and Tenzing Dorji, 25, graduates of Bhutan’s only degree college, political change is healthy.
“People haven’t recognized it yet but democracy is a good thing for people because they can participate in a democracy,” Mr. Tenzing said.
The country, romanticized by many as the “last Shangri-La” on Earth, also has its skeletons.
Many fear that democracy will result in accusations of human-rights violations against the country’s Nepalese population.
The Bhutanese-Nepalese, known as the Lhotshampa or southern Bhutanese, came and settled in the southern part of the country in the early 20th century.
In the 1980s, a new law required all Bhutanese to wear their national dress at public and official events, to school and at work. Nepali, which had been introduced as a language in schools around 1950, was cut from school curriculums.
Many Nepalese saw this as a direct threat to their inclusion in Bhutanese society.
An exodus of Bhutanese-Nepalese occurred between 1988 and 1993 after a series of brutal acts, including rape and murder, were committed against the southern Bhutanese, many of whom still live as stateless people in camps on the Nepal side of the border.
There are no human-rights groups in Bhutan at the moment but that, like many other things, is likely to change when the first Bhutanese-elected government comes to power next year.
For Dorji Wangmo, 24, and a graduate of Sherubtse College, reform in Bhutan is inevitable.
“There is no choice. Change had to happen. That is the future.”