Bhutan’s future in democracy

By I. P. Adhikari, Vidhyapati Mishra

Democracy and Bhutan
A year after Bhutan entered into party politics with a fabricated form of democratic system, it has organized the first conference talking democracy in Asia sphere.

For decades, Bhutan resisted democracy in the name of preserving culture and religious unity. In many instances, Bhutan said it cannot tolerate religious and cultural diversity, which is fundamentally an opposed idea to the basic theory and principles of democracy.

Recent debate on democracy is an irony in itself that Bhutan talks of strengthening democracy in Asia when it itself has no democratic culture and practice. But in other corner, it is a symbolic positivism for Bhutan to strengthen its democratic culture that is taking root very recently and is immature enough.

Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley in a meeting with two German scholars in Thimphu recently admitted that Bhutan has not encompassed a complete democratic structure even after transforming from absolute monarchy to parliamentary politics. The partial change in the form of government was a result of the 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 from exile (Bhutanese taking asylum in Nepal and India), Bhutan would not have budged an inch for democratization. And thus is the need Bhutan  correctly consolidates different views from various ethnic groups, being a multi-ethnic country, for the progress of democracy.

Bhutan has a history of crushing democratic voices. The calls for freedom and democratic system in early 1950s and early 1990s were mercilessly subdued yet this country has finally lost its battle to resisting establishment of democratic government and allowing multi party politics. The widening scope of democracy after the fall of Berlin wall and end of communist USSR was sure to invade this tiny kingdom as well. Had Bhutan taken its step to promote people’s participation in governance earlier, it would have benefited better.

Demands for human rights and democracy in early 1990s were termed acts of treason and those supporting the idea were tagged ‘anti nationals’. Two decades later, the government has realized its mistake for not letting democracy flourish on time but haven’t corrected them. Now, it is time that Bhutan shifts its mindset from terrorism to humanitarianism. Bhutan no more can remain incognito to its misrule era.
The security forces and the bureaucracy was given absolute power to adapt any means to torture, discriminate, harass, threaten and mistreat 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.

Today, Bhutan has changed its politics and the world is looking at it closely. At par with this, Bhutan needs to change its policies to fit democracy. The bureaucracy and security along with political leadership require intensive intuition on democratic values and human rights.

Cultural dynamics and freedom
Bhutan is a multi-ethnic, multi cultural and multi religious nation. For centuries, this small Himalayan kingdom lived peacefully with all cultural and ethnic groups respecting each other. The harmony of Bhutan went disastrous with the unveiling of some racist policies during the tenure of the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk. We all are aware that these racist policies were aimed at converting all other cultural groups and followers from other religions to Drukpa culture and tantric Buddhism. The policies resulted into prosecuting people following other religions and destroying their shrines. The policies not only discriminated other religions but also their brotherly cult – the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism predominantly followed in the eastern districts. Many Nyingmapa religious leaders are facing sentences on charges of speaking against the king, country and people while their religious leader Shabdrung, who was taking asylum in India, was kidnapped and subsequently killed. Nyingmapa monasteries were converted to those of Drukpa sect. India, protector of world’s famous Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, failed to protect her own Buddhist disciple Shabdrung taking shelter in Sikkim.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religions. However, except Buddhism other religions are not only purposely discouraged, but the followers are even prosecuted. Though the environment has changed a little since last year, Bhutan is yet to incorporate tolerance to other cultures. Many Hindu temples demolished during the 1990 suppression and drukpanization process are yet to be restored while Christians are not entitled to form community groups or erect a church.

To strengthen democracy, Bhutan must develop tolerance to multi-culture, multi ethnicity and create environment whereby all cultural and religious groups can coexist. To adhere by the principles and values of the democracy, Bhutan has the obligation to uphold democratic values in real terms. Parliamentary politics and formation of government through electoral franchise is not adequate to measure the level of freedom that Bhutan is providing to its citizens in a new democratic set up.

Security and future challenges
Bhutan’s security challenges are immense, owing to its geographical size and strategic location. Bhutan’s security threats are those of India as well. For years, Bhutan had been the operating base for Indian insurgents. And despite claims that militant bases in eastern Bhutan were destroyed in 2003 military crackdown, reports still pour in about resurgence of Indian militants into Bhutanese soil to make this kingdom their ultimate destination for shelter and training.

This year, Bhutan saw increasing instances of explosions and looting. The national security apparatus have failed to identify real hand behind the attacks. Latest attack in an army bunker in the southern district of Sarbhang has sent a clear message that Bhutan’s security threats are not yet vanished. Bhutan’s target group to clamp allegations for all these attacks and explosions are Nepal-based communist groups. However, even after split in that party and many of its prominent leaders already in western countries as part of the ongoing third country resettlement program, thus weakening the strength of the underground outfit, insurgencies in Bhutan are unlikely to diminish. This has to be read from other side, if there are any other similar groups operating inside the country.

Present challenges for Bhutan are suspecting neighbors, the Indian insurgents, Maoists and an expanded Bhutanese refugee Diaspora. The growth of Bhutan’s communist movement and the issue of repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees are intricately inter-woven. Looking at them last year, we can say that they are not only improving strategically, but definitely growing; indicating that in the coming days, Bhutan may be poised to confront these home grown militants on its own soil, writes R. P. Subba.

India has stationed over 100,000 army personnel in Bhutan. This is primarily meant for territorial integrity of Bhutan, precisely to protect the northern border. Chinese incursions are repeated news in Indian media and the country has practically become smaller – down from 46,000 sq km to 39,000 sq km. India has failed to carry on its duty in Bhutanese case. Chinese steps in Bhutan, being culturally close society in northern part, is more a threat to India, not for Bhutan in fact.

Bhutan-India relations are historically been maintained by two major ethnic groups – Sarchops in east having origin in Arunchal Pradesh and Lhotsampas having origin in Sikkim and West Bengal. Threat to these two groups in Bhutan is certainly a threat to cultural connection between the Bhutan and India. In reality, only the Sarchops and Lhotsampas can protect Indian interest in Bhutan and strengthen bilateral cultural connections.

The security problems Bhutan is facing are not simple ones, they are huge and real. If not managed properly, these problems could very well unsettle Bhutan’s ‘core national security values’. These issues, because of their sensitive nature, can catalyse into bigger problems and new threats can emerge from anywhere, anytime. One year into democracy, Bhutan’s national security situation looks no brighter than what it was years ago.

GNH and its practicability
Bhutan’s happiness index has dropped sharply from eighth in 2005 to eighteenth in 2009 in the top happiness list of world database. As the country opens up gradually, things are coming to be clear whether Bhutan’s own happiness principles have been practically implemented in its soil.

Happiness does not germinate in a closed and uni-culture society. The diversity adds to happiness in people. Liberal society, able leadership, good governance, infrastructures, access to adequate food and shelter and good living standard are primary components to measure happiness. Bhutan merely has these features. The country has achieved a tremendous economic growth, which the GNH propagators ignored as not good measure of happiness.

In the last few years, suicide rate has increased astonishingly, adding suspicion whether Bhutanese citizens are as happy as it has been claimed by the GNH preachers.

Even the leading advocates say, GNH has not been practical in Bhutanese society. The biggest challenge that Bhutan faces for practicability of the GNH theory is the country’s unwillingness to become liberal and democratic.

The Bhutanese regime destabilized the society in late 1980s to such a critical condition that consolidating happiness again would take a long walk. Harmony and unity flourished in Bhutanese society until the late 1970s have now almost knocked off balance that building similar society under multiculturalism requires another few decades. Unless, the racist policies and legal instruments formulated in the mean time are declared void, campaign for happiness around the world by Bhutanese politicians will bring little or hardly any cheers to nationals.
Easterners and southerners still feel suppressed while ruling class continue to see them with suspicion. Without filling up this gap, building confidence for harmonious living and inculcate trust, formation of happy Bhutanese society will be a distant dream.

The seminars and conferences so far Bhutan organized have been successful on building theoretical foundation for GNH. What it really makes to general people if practicable approaches are not brought out that bring happiness and cheers to grim faces in distant villages.

With no systematic approach to operationalize the concept of GNH and a significant portion of population still under poverty or in a state of unhappiness in refugee camps in Nepal, it’s clear who it (GNH) really makes happy: the regime.

Refugees and future prospects
Our friends in India are well aware of Bhutan-Nepal bilateral talks in their failed efforts to resolve this long sore of South Asia. In none of these efforts, India extended any support – not even felicitating roles while physical participation was expected, as an obligatory role that India must play.

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 grant refugee status to Bhutanese. Bhutan, which evicted the Nepali-speaking people under its ethnic cleansing policy and crushed the easterners who yearn for democratic changes in the country, 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.

Large part of the refugee population is being resettled in western countries under humanitarian ground. While expectations are high that Bhutan would take back the remaining population, it is also expected that Bhutan will recognize this resettled population as Bhutanese Diaspora. To quote former Indian foreign minister, the newly created Bhutanese Diaspora will not create demographic imbalance but provide better economic opportunities for Bhutan in longer run.

Laws and legislations
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 necessary for Bhutan to mend past grievances as well.

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 regretted that Bhutan has not yet resolved this contradiction. This law violates the rule of law and right to nationality of people born here.

The provision that both the parents must be Bhutanese citizens 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 had 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, the act denied citizenship to those having records of imprisonment for criminal offences within the country or outside and spoken or acted against the King, Country and People. In Bhutanese context, meanings of Country and People are not well defined and action against any individual depends on 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 to meet international standards.
The beauty of democracy lies in the existence of diversity with mutual respect. Bhutan’s One Nation One People policy is against this principle. The former National Assembly had adopted many resolutions and laws restricting other religions than Buddhism and Hinduism. Even after adopting democracy, Bhutan has discouraged many other religions. 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. This has not been done so far and the new government and the parliament have shown no symptoms of doing so in near future.

Bhutan says, it cannot tolerate multi culture and multi ethnicity owing to its geographical location and size. Practically, that’s not true being a democratic country. Many countries smaller than Bhutan have maintained harmony despite presence of large numbers of ethnic groups and cultural and religious communities. The notion is to built tolerance and respect to culture, ethnicity and respect to other communities. The ‘one nation one people’ policy promulgated by the Bhutanese government in 1980s and 1990s needs changes to fit in the time that Bhutan is living today.

Bhutan promotes Gross National Happiness (GNH) whose fundamental principle is to maintain harmony and brotherhood. To integrate the idea of GNH with democratic principles and values, it is important that Bhutan allows fostering all ethnic groups, religions and cultures and ensure harmony, rather than hatred and enmity. The sores created since last two decades need to be healed, as the people hoped from new 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.

Human Rights
The primary issue that Bhutan needs to answer is its commitments to uphold and promote human rights. There are number of laws that bar citizens from enjoying their fundamental rights. Many laws promulgated contradict with principles laid down in constitution.

Bhutan lacks human rights mechanism. Above all, the government has not created any institutions to promote democracy and neither are the international human rights bodies allowed to station representatives nor are individual citizens encouraged to establish such civil society organizations (put only one societies or organizations civil society organization is a legal term meaning independent and non-political entity) to monitor human rights situations in the country.

The constitution and the laws lack vision on provision for a national level human rights watch dog. The security personnel, bureaucracy and private institutions lack intuition on democracy and human rights.
For democratic Bhutan, it is mandatory to formulate a mechanism such as national human rights monitoring body. Additionally, it has the larger obligation to allow individuals and collective groups to work with international human rights organizations or form a national and local human rights group to see fact in the fields. The international community had to this date consumed the government version of human rights situation. In democracy, as its principles say, people has greater role in monitoring human rights and alert government over its abuses.

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 earlier.
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 against king, country and people. The punishment for any unlawful activities has limitations. For instance, Bhutan cannot justify why thousands of children in southern Bhutan were denied access to education for last two decades citing some political disturbances in those districts in early 1990s.

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.  These people can neither live in peace nor are they in a position to leave the country. 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 with dark future. This is a loss not only to 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 included education for all by 2015, reluctance on part of the government to open the closed schools in southern districts and let children get admission into schools without any discrimination has added obstacle in meeting the goals.

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 establish 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 to speak on their behalf.

Twenty-first century stands for democracy and human rights which can 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.

Under this policy, the teaching of Nepali language was proscribed from the school curriculum. The gravity of this policy went on to such an extent that failure in Dzongkha resulted in the denial of promotion to next higher grade in schools and even entry to Civil Services. 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.

Role of India in shaping Bhutanese democracy
India is the guiding force for democracy in Bhutan. Bhutan also relies heavily on Indian market for daily consumable goods. Of late India has also influenced Bhutan on cultures and in entertainment industries.
As the largest donor, nearest neighbor and country maintaining longest history of diplomatic relations, India must seriously look into the dynamics of Bhutan’s political upheavals. Bhutanese struggling for democracy and human rights from exile and their supporters working secretly in Bhutan were disheartened to hear statement from Indian foreign minister that repatriation of Bhutanese refugees would create demographic imbalance in Bhutan. We in exile are also very sorry to learn that Indian friends supporting Bhutanese democrtic struggles were stopped from meeting refugee demonstrators in Mechi bridge in early last year who had been demanding their right to return.

As the largest democracy in the world, India has larger obligations in resolving the crisis. Bhutanese refugee issue one of the many instances to pinpoint India’s failure to play a brotherly and leadership role in shaping a prosperous and peaceful South Asia.

When democracies are taking roots into South Asian countries, India taking ?? lead must ensure people to people relations and not just government-government relations. Democracy is for harmony in society, harmonious relationship among people, not of governments. We are talking at haste in delivering rights to people at grass root level and empowering people in our effort to strengthen democracy – the latest version of democratic theory.

We are much happy that Indo-Bhutan Friendship Society has taken praiseworthy steps in bridging people to people gap. The gap is cleared only when events turn favorable in healing grievances and to tighten their relations.

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.

The most influential agent to Bhutanese politics – the Indians – need to be more pragmatic in studying the political scenario of Bhutan. This does not mean interference into internal matter, however, as the biggest donor and nearest neighbor, India has greater role in resolving the political hotch potch in Bhutan to turn situation favorable to all ethnic groups to live in harmony and for the progress of democracy. As the leader of democracy in South Asia, India has important place in Bhutan for democracy to flourish. Not only the civil society but even the government of India must be very active for advancement and progress of Bhutanese democracy.

Voices from exile are not for creating a demographic imbalance but legitimate calls for restoration of rights as guaranteed by the international laws, to which India has obligations to uphold. As we appreciate the activism by Indian civil society towards the cause of Bhutanese refugees and other Bhutanese talking asylum in Nepal and India, we expect similar support and solidarity towards this humanitarian cause – the least reported sore of South Asia, from Indian government as well.

(Presented at the one day conference ‘Bhutan Today – Challenges of Participatory Democracy” organized by Indo-Bhutan Friendship Society (IBFS) in New Delhi on October 23, 2009)