Bhutan cannot lead democracy dialogue

I. P. Adhikari

A year and after Bhutan entered into party politics with a fabricated form of democratic system, it is holding a conference on democracy, talking whole sphere of Asia as the area of discussion. This is an irony that Bhutan hosts a debate to strengthen democracy in Asia when it itself has no democratic culture and practice. Can a suppresser and an absolute regime teaches others theories of democratic culture and values? It is a farce.

As Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley admitted during a meeting with two German scholars, who were in Thimphu recently, Bhutan has not encompassed a complete democratic structure even after transforming itself from absolute monarchy to parliamentary politics. The partial change in the form of government was the result of continued efforts being made from exile, with support and solidarity from international community, for the last two decades and more. Had there been no forces operating in exile (Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and India), Bhutan would not have budged an inch for democratization. This is a need, Bhutan correctly consolidates different views from various ethnic groups, being a multi-ethnic country, for the progress of democracy.

The lawless Bhutan has been gradually changing since 2008. The first elected parliament is making efforts to write new laws that drive Bhutan into ‘rule of law’. And hopes are high that all new laws are promulgated through intensive dialogue, involve people from all sections of the society and met the international standards.

Rule of law will not be availed in this country nor will it be able to promote the democratic culture unless Bhutan amends some of its undemocratic past policies. Before, making a march to new frontiers of liberal society, it is obligatory for Bhutan to mend past grievances as well.

1985 Citizenship Act
The question of Bhutanese refugees has been at the center of debate for international community for last two decades. One sixth of the national population lives as refugees in Nepal and India. While Nepal has recognized them as refugees, the bilateral agreement does not allow India to provide refugee status to Bhutanese. Bhutan, which evicted the Nepali-speaking people under its ethnic cleansing policy, denies taking the refugees back and the international community has put little, rather no, pressure on this tiny kingdom to correct its move. The biggest instrument used for evicting this large number of people is the Citizenship Act of 1985, which is still in operation.

Bhutan’s home ministry, the ministry of national records, was created in 1968, whereas Citizenship Act 1985 seeks southern Bhutanese to produce proof of their registration in this country in 1958 or before.  It is contradictory how the government proves whether the document produced by southern Bhutanese is that of 1958 or before without actually been able to compare with national records. This violates the rule of law and right to nationality of people born here.

Bhutan is party to Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by principle, international conventions and laws supersede national laws at times of disputes. The UDHR mentions that a person has the right to nationality to any country of his or her birth. Bhutan violated this fundamental rights not only denying citizenship to those born there but also confiscating citizenship of those who were given.

The provision that both the parents need to Bhutanese citizen to be eligible for a child for Bhutanese nationality also violates international laws. The provision of naturalized citizenship has been arbitrarily applied. While many of those taking asylum in Nepal have produced documents (during the 1988-90 census exclusively carried out in southern districts) giving proofs of residing in Bhutan for more than 15 years as provisioned by the act, it was never applied in their case. Interestingly, it would be a joke to mention that the act denied citizenship for those having record of imprisonment for criminal offences within the country or outside and have no record of having spoken or acted against the King, Country and People. In Bhutanese context, meaning of Country and People are not well defined and action against any individuals is taken at the whimsical decision of the local government officials. Further, the act denies citizenship to people who are mentally unsound. Unfortunately, all such provisions have been incorporated into the new constitution, thus making it a not a flawless constitution. International community and the experts have been mum on such discriminatory provisions. To be democratic, Bhutan is obliged by the international laws and it is mandatory for Bhutan to amend such provisions.

The Cultural Assimilation
The beauty of democracy lies in the existence of diversity with mutual respect. Through instruments like Marriage Act and One Nation One People policy, Bhutan forcefully suppressed other religions. The National Assembly that existed before Bhutan stepped into democracy had adopted many resolutions restricting other religions than Buddhism and Hinduism. Even after adopting democratic system, Bhutan has discouraged many other religions. Especially, Bhutan has zero tolerance towards Christianity.

Since mid-1980s, Bhutanese policies, without actually promulgating any laws, systematically forced Hindus to carry on their rituals through Buddhist monks. Other cultural patterns prevailing in southern Bhutan, the inhabitation of Hindus, have gone through systematic change to forced assimilation into that of the ruling class. It was hoped, Bhutan will nullify all such decisions after accepting democracy and multi party parliamentary politics. This has not been done so far and the new government and the parliament have shown no symptoms of doing so in near future.

In some instances, it has been reported that Bhutan cannot tolerate multi culture and multi ethnicity owing to its geographical location and size. Practically, that’s not true being a democratic country. Large numbers of ethnic groups and cultural and religious communities have co-existed peacefully in many countries smaller than Bhutan. The notion is to built tolerance and respect to culture, ethnicity and respect to other communities. The ‘one nation one people’ policy and ‘marriage act’ promulgated by the Bhutanese government in 1980s and 1990s need changes to fit the time.

Bhutan promotes Gross National Happiness whose fundamental principle is to maintain harmony and brotherhood in Bhutanese society. To integrate the idea of GNH with democratic principles and values, it is important that Bhutan not only allows fostering all ethnic groups, religions and cultures but ensure harmony, but not hatred and enmity. The sores created since last two decades need to be healed, as the people hoped in new form of government. This has been promised by the leaders during the election campaigns. The biggest expectation is that Bhutanese leaders would not give only assurances to people during election to keep mum throughout the other period, instead bring into practice what had been promised.

No Objection Certificate
From human rights perspective, it is a great injustice to deny education to children, public or private job to graduates or business license to individual citizens citing reasons such as acting king, country and people. The punishment for any unlawful activities has limitations. For instance, can Bhutan justify why thousands of children in southern Bhutan were denied to access to education for last two decades citing some political disturbances in those districts in early 1990s? Sadly, the government had presented a fake document at the United Nations past years where it mentioned that children in Bhutan have good access to education and schooling. Had Bhutan been committed to human rights protection of the citizens, all educational institutions should have been opened up soon after the mass eviction to ensure all those left behind get opportunities to annuities and other facilities that state provides irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

No objection certificate has been used as the bargaining instrument particularly for southern Bhutanese denying them to any state facilities though they are forced to pay taxes. The most vulnerable group to this scissors has become the relatives of Bhutanese refugees whom Bhutan government still regards as threat to the nation and the government. The relatives of the refugees who still live the country continue living terrorized lives as they have to live in the midst of the resettled and constant surveillance of people carrying arms.  These people can neither live in peace nor are they in a position to leave the country. Since most of the people are somehow or other related to the refugees living in exile, government has mandated schools, institutions, trade and commerce and all the welfare centers to extend service on the basis of producing Security Clearance Certificates (SCC) only. And most southern Bhutanese do not get this document. Failure of the parents obtaining the certificate means children are not entitled to education, service or any other state facilities.

Children who have been thrown out of schooling for last two decades now live without any good future. This is a lost not only for the concerned families but also to the nation in terms of intellectual property, dragging down the literacy rate of the national population. While Bhutan endorsed the millennium development goals which include education for all by 2015, reluctance on part of the government to open closed schools in southern districts and let children get admission into schools without any discrimination has added obstacle to meeting the goals.

State of Anarchy
Demands for human rights and democracy in early 1990 were termed acts of treason and slapped ‘anti-national’ tag to those supporting the idea. Two decades later, the government has accepted its mistake for not letting democracy flourish. Now, it is time that Bhutan shifts its mindset from terrorism to humanitarianism. Bhutan no more can remain incognito to its misrule era – thirty-eight years of membership in the United Nations, one hundred years of monarchy and thirty five years of dictatorial rule by fourth monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuk.  The Bhutanese people suffered from various categories of tyranny during the reign of the hereditary monarch.

The security forces and the bureaucracy was given absolute power to adopt any means to torture, discriminate, harass, threaten and mistreat with southern Bhutanese.
The imposed practice of the civil and army officers including those of the bureaucracy take the privilege offered by the village heads in accordance to the local imposed traditions prevailing in the country.

Justice in Democracy
The constitution unveiled by King last year has provisioned for a supreme court as the highest authority of appeal. The delay of the government and the palace to establishment of the court is intended to keep intact the power of the palace as the highest court of appeal.

The system of judiciary in Bhutan is unique. There are no private lawyers and individuals who have been charged of acting or speaking against King, Country and People do not find any lawyers willing to be their advocate. This is due to indirect fear that lawyers feel of prosecution upon supporting the case. Many prisoners today serving the sentences in Bhutanese jails failed to find any lawyers speak on their behalf.
Twenty-first century stands for democracy and human rights which could only provide freedom to the people. The judiciary must be given full authority to act independently, without direct or indirect influences from political circle or palace, to uphold democracy and human rights.

The procedures have been very difficult for those who do not understand Dzongkha language. Nepali and English are strictly prohibited. The court procedures must be simplified and those who do not understand Dzongkha must be provided with independent translators.

Driglam Namzha

This national etiquette policy unveiled through royal edict of January 6, 1989, where king stated that ‘all persons not following this directive will be answerable to the concerned Dzongdas (Chief District Officers) who have been vested with full authority to implement this policy’.

The decree though purports to provide for all the people of Bhutan a code of ethics, imposes code of ruling elite of the north upon the entire populace. It ordinates all section of people on matters such as how to eat, how to sit, how to speak, how to dress and how to bow down before authorities as per the culture of ruling class. The dress code which banned the wearing by men and women alike of all other dresses than that of northern Drukpas, Gho for men and Kira for women (robe like dresses) is being strictly enforced with penalties imposed on offenders. Gho and Kira are not at all suited to the warm climate of the southern foothills and residents of this region, the Nepali-speaking population, have their own traditional dresses. Failure to abide by the code is subjected to one week in prison or fine.

Under this policy, the teaching of Nepali language was lifted from the school curriculum while Dzonkha language was made a compulsory subject. The gravity of this policy went on to such a extent that failure in Dzonkha resulted in the denial of promotion to next higher grade in schools and even entry to Civil Service. The practice still prevails in the country.

Driglam Namzha undermines the existence of ethnic diversity and cultural variety in the country. Denial of cultural diversity and imposition of forced national integration policies can never align with democracy. Bhutan after accepting the democratic form of government and making commitments for human rights, diversity, equality and respect to all religions, cultures and ethnic groups must rewrite its national etiquette.

Bhutan is anticipated to understand the concern of the people and sort out the differences between the people and the regime through amicable and mutual understandings. The peace and harmony of the diverse and multi-cultural population should be upheld by timely consolidation of human rights and democracy. The consolidation becomes fruitful only when the new democratic government commits to annul the past laws or amend them to fit the changing needs of the country.

Holding a conference and talking of democracy does not adequately reflect how democratic is Bhutan, rather it is measured through how the principles explained by the veterans at the conference are translated into practice by the regime.

Read our publications at www.apfanews.com for further deliberations on democracy of Bhutan.