Bhutan’s wary path to people power

Election marks latest step in gradual plan to modernise ancient kingdom.

Bhutan’s elections will bring an end to a century of absolute monarchy [AFP]

With a minister for happiness and a political party called Peace and Harmony, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan seems to be adding very different ingredients to the world of democracy.


A landlocked country, isolated from the outside world for hundreds of years, Bhutan is now the world’s newest democratic country.


More than 300,000 Bhutanese are eligible to vote in Monday’s landmark election, bringing an end to a century of absolute monarchy, and replacing it with two party politics.


But many Bhutanese are asking two questions: why democracy and why now?


Unlike in nearby Nepal, the Bhutanese never took to the streets in a popular uprising against the monarchy.


Far from it. The kings who have led the country since 1907 have been revered, deeply respected and followed without question.


Bhutanese are taking a cautious approach
to their new democracy [AFP]

As one educated man told Al Jazeera: “This democracy thing was a surprise to us. We believe that if it isn’t broken then don’t fix it. And all of us believe that our system didn’t need fixing, we would have been happy if the king carried on.”

Nonetheless, possibly because of what happened in Nepal, King Jigmi Singye Wangchuck took the nation by surprise last year and announced his abdication.


It also reflects the huge progress the country, once known as the Hermit Kingdom, has made. Most of Bhutan‘s 650,000 population live in the mountains, some still in places where accessibility is a problem. But the country is developing fast.


Improved education, health, finance and general living conditions have made Bhutan one of the better off nations in Asia. Life expectancy has gone from 43 to 66 years and the country has a growth rate of seven per cent a year.


In the last 25 years the number of tarmac roads has more than doubled; television and the internet have been introduced; as have the country’s first elevators.


The first set of traffic lights were introduced in 1999, only to be removed two weeks later when it was realised they weren’t really necessary after all.


The King abdicated last year handing over the crown to his Oxford educated son Jigmi Khesa Wangchuck to become the fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King. His coronation will be in April.


There are only two parties contesting the election, the DPT, (Peace and Harmony) and the People’s democratic party. A third party was refused registration because it was said to lack experience.


Both contesting parties have similar manifestos aimed at improving life. But part of the battle has been to educate the people, most of whom live in rural areas, what democracy is.


Measuring happiness


Bhutan has been largely cut off from
the outside world for centuries [AFP]

“The king has done a lot for this,” Palden Tshering, spokesman for the DPT party, told Al Jazeera. “He has toured the country explaining what democracy means and why should they vote.”


There have been some suggestions in the local media that the parties were using dirty tactics to tarnish the other. Both parties deny this.


If true, Bhutan‘s happiness minister would not be pleased. This is the only country in the world to have such a minister.


The Bhutanese measure happiness in gross national happiness – a gauge based of a combination of factors such as environmental protection, cultural preservation, sustainable development and good governance.


Together they amount to the Bhutanese recipe for a happy life.


And, while most Bhutanese do seem generally happy, some are apprehensive that this experiment with democracy might bring with it some of the negative aspects of other democracies – such as corruption, drug and alcohol abuse and materialism.


“We are already having problems with drugs and alcohol,” says Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan’s leading daily newspaper, Kuensel.


“They are small and we hope that they will not increase. But we know that as we open ourselves up to the outside world the dangers become closer.”


Certainly not everyone is enjoying the new spirit of democracy.


Eighteen years ago Bhutan expelled more than a hundred thousand people of Nepalese and Indian origin. Many claimed they had been born in Bhutan and were therefore Bhutanese.


The authorities disagreed, classifying them as illegal immigrants. The tens of thousands of Indians and Nepalese who remain have been refused the right to vote.


Rights ‘denied’


More than 100,000 refugees say they have
been stripped of their birth rights [AFP]

Some, like 86-year-old Bombahadur Pradham, say they were stripped of their citizenship. He was born in Bhutan, he says, as were his six children and 12 grandchildren.


“I am Bhutanese,” he told me. “My parents came from India but I was born here. I pay my land taxes but I am denied my rights.”


Although they are allowed to remain in the country, they are not allowed free health treatment, higher education or the chance to work in government jobs.


Similar complaints are heard from more than 100,000 Nepalese who have had to leave Bhutan and are now living in refugee camps in Nepal and India.


Most are slowly giving up hope of being allowed to return to Bhutan.


The government rejects allegations of discrimination, saying many people of Nepalese origin and pointing to the fact that 15 candidates from the Nepalese community are standing in Monday’s elections.


“It’s not discrimination,” argues Kinley Dorji, editor of Kuensel newspaper. “It’s a case of survival. We cannot have more than a 100,000 Nepalese getting citizenship. We would be swamped and soon the Bhutanese culture and identity would be taken over.”


The issue though remains a sensitive one – and handling it will be one of the most pressing tasks facing the new government.


In recent years there have been a series of bomb blasts which have been linked to Maoist groups in Nepal, apparently in retaliation for the treatment of Nepalese.


They have caused little damage and so far no loss of life. But they could easily get worse.


The new King, when he is crowned in April, will rule as a constitutional monarch with the power to call a referendum should he feel the government is failing the people.


As a result, some voters feel Bhutan tentative first steps into the world of democracy are not a make or break experience.


As one voter told me: “If it all fails then the King can step back in and take control. Everyone would be happy with that.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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