Bhutan’s honeymoon with democracy

Published on Feb 11 2009 // News Analysis
By Govinda Rizal

111closingThe rural peoples’ hope to see electric bulb glow in their homes, to send agricultural and handicraft products to market, to ply in vehicles to and from market, to greet tourists in their courtyard, to admit the children to schools, to see the graduates get jobs, to receive loans for cottage industries, to get government support to cover the roofs, to have a square meal and a decent living, are still sweet dreams and even to hear them again from their elected representatives they will have to wait for the next election. 

The winter session or the second sitting of the National Assembly of Bhutan (NAB) concluded after hectic three week long deliberations. After the experience from two sessions, MPs encumbered with ministers from the preceding autocratic nurture, could evaluate their dreams and election promises as disgrace in the throne gifted democratic environment. 

The first session, which was a formal house warming of the renovated assembly halls, accustomed fresh members to walk and sit the right way. A lot of changes were made in the physical aspects, the hall, the seat arrangement, facilities and benefits. Everybody concentrated on using the word “democracy”. Indian prime minister graced the joint session of the first democratic parliament, as if, its protectorate. The rest of the sessions concerted on chalking out ways to thank the monarchy for letting them use the word democracy. As return gifts, grand plans for the coronation of the fifth monarch and celebration of 100 years of rule by the Wangchuck dynasty were formulated. Various commissions and committees were formed to flaunt the monarchs. The draft of constitution, according to which the members were elected, was discussed. The discussion ended exposing the dearth of vision in the members or the omnipotence of the drafter; change was not necessary and the constitution was adopted without any reservation. 

Most of the time of the new government was spent in organizing the monarch gratifying activities. Thereafter, there were lots of festivities but nothing to celebrate. Besides the two grand carousing consisting of a couple of month long banquet at the cost of state coffer, the activity of government was limited to close door paper works. 

The second session saw getting down to work. The introduction of issues and discussion of the bills continued in a top to down approach, as in the pre-democratic era. Metamorphosis of the assembly hall was a visible sign of change but the modus operandi remained unaltered if not more authoritative.  The NAB amended the Cooperative Act of Bhutan 2001 as Cooperative (Amendment) Act of Bhutan 2009 and Livestock Act of Bhutan 2001 as Livestock (Amendment) Act of Bhutan 2009; endorsed Prison Bill 2009, and Royal Bhutan Police Bill 2009; passed “pay revision” with controversies; discussed on reserve management and balance of payments, the security protection for the MPs reopening of schools and the plea from the people of the southern districts. The welfare to the people and development of the state was nowhere in their discussion. An easy answer was “the next five year plan”; the content of which can be assumed from the fact that it was planned by the erstwhile government.

The Druk Phensum Tshogpa (DPT) government surprised the civil servants, most of whom were instrumental in mobilizing the rural votes in its favor, with a 35 percent pay rise; the MPs get 20 percent rise. The salary of the local leaders, with whom the DPT wants to retain intimacy, is increased by 45 percent. The most vulnerable section, the non-civil servants or the non-regular employees of the government falling under elementary service category, who in future are prone to support any pro-poor advocating political party than DPT, are assured the highest gain of 61 percent.

The ban on meat during first and fourth month of Buddhist calendar has been lifted. Earlier NAB had strong and respectful representation of monk body, under whose influence, to reduce the number of animal butchered, the slaughter of animal and sale of meat were banned. The present NAB lacks the representation of monk bodies, whose member counts 10,000 plus adults, who are also forbidden to participate in the election. While the ban was imposed to reduce the number of animal slaughter, it was lifted to reduce the unhygienic practice of hording the meat prior to the banned dates.

Many MPs proved whimsical and short of vision. Soon after the victory in election they resorted to expensive and attractive dresses. On the first working day of the 2009, the NA members rushed to journalists to urge them write that they denied bag gifts from Druk Holdings and Investment (DHI) group, on the reason that it cost more than Euro 30. As a measure to eradicate corruption from the upper rung, gifts worth Nu 1000 (Euro-16) or more are not exchanged. The NC members who accepted the gift were ridiculed. After 20 days, these members were avoiding the journalists; because each of them had a gift, a book, worth Euro-45 in their pouch. 

The apolitical National Council (NC), with 20 percent members deputed by monarch, has been an effective check and balance to the almost single party NA.  Unlike the members of NA, the NC members encompass diversity of views. The NC objected to the constituency development grant, according to which the NA members were to get a certain lump-sum amount to use in the development of the constituency, where the national plan has not reached. They were against rescuing the political parties drowned in election incurred debt. But many NC members showed a distinct crave for more benefits and more money. 

Minister Minjur and the bomb blast in Sarbang

Home Minister Minjur

Home Minister Minjur

When the parliament was ready to discuss on the difficulties faced by people due to security clearance certificate, its rules and modalities, and need to stop state sponsored terrorism on the people since the democratic movement in the 1990s, the government was scratching ways to silence the voice of those MPs who were expected to charge the government. At this time a group of unidentified gunmen attacked off- the- duty foresters and killed them in cold blood. No culprit is apprehended. What so ever, the cost was high and the loss irreparable.

The MPs from the southern district forwarded the people’s plea. They were supported by the MPs from the east where the situation is similar; even the MP from Gasa, one of the most remote districts of the nation expressed his concern, making it clear that the entire population is aware of the governments step motherly treatment on the people of southern and eastern districts following the discontentment in the late 1980s and 1990s. Minister Minjur, on the shoes of Dago Tshering- the designer of the 1990s crackdown and subsequent eviction, down-regulated the entire discussion. The minister used the case of foresters’ murder as a weapon to retaliate against the MPs and to sew their lips. The result: the NOC system shall continue to bar the people from gaining access to schools, jobs, business, travel and an honorable living. Some schools will be reopened in the south but only for the soldiers’ and the resettled people’s children, and not for the children of those Bhumiputra, the original son of the land. The evidences so far pinpoint those in power responsible for sponsoring the bomb blasts, first for an answer and second for the power.

What so ever, the current government must be prepared to welcome burst of anger from those people who are denied rights and freedom, accused of false allegations and treated as enemies, who are suppressed under the boot and bayonet for decades. 

Democracy is not dead

Preceding paragraphs may show an end of the democracy. It is not. There is no dearth of democratically wise and diplomatically able people in Bhutan. To name a few, the police Chief Col Kipchu Namgyel, the MP from Gasa Damcho Dorji come to the top of the list. Police chief put a full stop to the system of making new recruits serve as officers’ domestics- a system prevalent since ages. He extended balm of extra allowance to panicking officers who lost the state paid domestics. He built strong rapports with the MPs and fought to keep the police force independent from the home ministry. He also clarified that the police system cannot guarantee the human rights of prisoners and convicts and suggested to form different body to look after such cases. He must be the first man in uniform, in the world to speak the reality with commendable modesty. While other MPs talked of their constituencies or themselves, MP from Gasa Damcho Dorji could visualize the problem of people in other regions. In the presence of limited number of such people, the democracy will take snail pace toward the brighter side. Bhutan needs more people with values and vision, brain and heart in the forefront to lead the nation to a vibrant democracy.

As long as NA remains a prayer hall to pray to the monarchs and their ancestors; as long as the people’s representatives fear to express their people’s concern and those who do get punishment; as long as the ministers and yes-men of the old regime continue to hold authority to decide the fate of the people; the throne gifted democracy is not going to fulfill people’s aspirations and needs.