The King of Bhutan recently announced that the country shall become a parliamentary democracy with constitutional monarchy come 2008.
Bhutan, which has been a monarchy since 1907, began its gradual progress towards democracy in 1953 when King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established a 130 member National Assembly. Over the years a Royal Advisory Council was set up followed by a cabinet in 1968. Finally in 1998 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced significant reforms and transferred most of his powers to the Prime Minister, along with provision for impeachment of the king. The draft of the new constitution for transition to democracy in 2008 will soon be put to referendum. However after a century of monarchy and ‘God-like’ status awarded to the King, the transition to democracy will not be a smooth ride. When the king made this announcement the people were “shocked” and “expressed a desire that the king continue to rule for many more years to come” according to a Bhutan Times article.
A quick look at Bhutan brings forth certain facts which make it difficult to believe that the transition would be easy.
1) For one Bhutan is made up various ethnic groups which are also a matter of intense political controversy. Examples like Afghanistan are sufficient to explain how this fact can pose a problem in setting up a peaceful democracy.
2) It has earlier been reprimanded for its alleged violation of human rights and torture of Nepali immigrants, who are prone to violent protests. A formal dress code was imposed for all residents of Bhutan, irrespective of their background, ethnicity, religious beliefs etc which further aggravated the problem.
3) Bhutan has only one legal newspaper, which is a biweekly - the Kuenset. Known as the fourth pillar of democracy, a free media is virtually absent in Bhutan. How then can one be assured that freedom of speech and expression would be ensured?
4) The Himalayan Kingdom was the last country in the world to introduce television in as late as 1999! Though the king introduced some form of cable television in the country, the increase in crime rate in the years thereafter has been attributed to the introduction of cable television.
5) Where tourism can prove to be a major economy booster what with its breathtaking scenic beauty, Bhutan is said to have a policy of restricted tourist access so as to keep the locals away from the tourists’ “influence”.
6) Its economy is one of the most underdeveloped ones and trading is limited to its few neighbors.
It is also important to understand that the people of Bhutan are hardly educated in a democratic way of life and it is extremely important that a massive awareness movement for the same is undertaken for the democracy to evolve healthily. It would be interesting to know that in Bhutan each family-unit and not each individual counts for a single vote. This should be remedied in the new electoral lists to be created.
Of course the present king cannot be discredited for bringing in whatever traces of reform one comes across in Bhutan today. Giving up power takes courage and the king should definitely be applauded for his efforts towards ushering in democracy. It is now up to the new constitution and government to make the best of this phase of reform and boost its economy and overall development. Without sticking to irrational and impractical acts like restricting tourists, it should exploit its potential for catapulting its economy. It should cash upon its new forward looking image and develop relations with countries even beyond its immediate neighbors. Till date India has been managing its communications with the outside world and Bhutan needs to grow up in this regard if it wishes to grow and prosper as a democracy. Though it will take a lot of hardwork and years of patience to actually create a place for itself and derive benefits, the present situation of ‘transition to democracy’ holds great potential.
This can also prove to be a good chance for India to prove it’s democratic and ‘important global player’ credentials. Assisting Bhutan in creating political awareness, electoral reforms etc. during this crucial period, can boost India’s image and it should take full advantage of the situation.
8 years ago