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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Making Sense of Bhutanese Reforms

Does King Jigme Singye’s abdication signal genuine democracy? HEMLAL TIMSINA, now in exile in Canada, tries to make sense of the royal reforms in his native country.



Bhutan made international news again last month when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The new 25-year-old king has replaced the old one who ruled the country for 33 years. This power shift in Bhutan’s royalty was long planned and well-rehearsed. In fact, it came one year ahead of the planned abdication.

Some commentators in the West appear euphoric about the new developments in Thimphu, but it is important to note that the royal succession alone does not guarantee genuine reforms in the eastern Himalayan Kingdom.

Many suspect as well as I do that the latest forward-looking gesture of the monarch is only an eyewash to the international community. The royal regime is trying to prove that the monarch stands for his people. However, it is rare for us to see such a thing as democracy anywhere in the world given by a king to his subjects.

Hopefully, for the people, once they get the taste of unfolding mixed democracy—a weird combination of royal decrees and an evolving parliamentary form of government— they might fight for the real one. This happened in neighboring Nepal, where King Birendra’s concessions in the 1980s gradually led to pluralism and democracy, however chaotic the country became at the end.

But little is known about the new king of Bhutan. Not much can be said how he is or could be different from the old one. But I think we are soon about to see the difference. Still, the ultimate power, though informally, remains with the ex-King, unless the maternal side of his family takes over the whole institution. This is possible because the maternal side dominates the country’s bureaucracy, businesses and other important sectors. This powerful family maintains the status quo, serving as a cushion against any political or social change in the Dragon Kingdom.

Although seemingly pro-democratic, the reforms in actuality are cosmetic. The former King Jigme Singye knew well that the currents of history are against feudal and autocratic regimes. He wouldn’t ignore the lessons that he could learn from the anti-monarchical hysteria in neighboring Nepal. His is a strategic move to safeguard his position. His new posture has, interestingly, brought about some kind of hope of democratic reforms in the country and possibly some incremental changes in the political sphere

But the fundamental of democracy is not that a king grants it to his subjects but that citizens own it as they wish through free, fair and inclusive elections. They must be free and able to define collectively what democracy means to them. However benevolent he is or he may be, at least in principle, it is becoming increasingly illegitimate for a monarch to define democracy for his subjects. In reality, Bhutan’s new constitution does not even provide for an inclusive election. It has disowned over 100,000 citizens, who live in refugee camps in Nepal. Also, we hear about a hilarious proposition of allowing only graduates to contest the elections.

It will take much more courage on the part of the royal regime to help a true democracy take roots in Bhutan. And there are hurdles to democracy as there are to human rights and peace. Though modernization is beginning to show some mark, Bhutan is still a feudal society. For a democracy to succeed, citizens (not subjects) must be able and willing to exercise their responsibilities and their rights. Are Bhutanese prepared for those roles?

The people of Bhutan have regarded the king and the royal family as the ultimate power, and even if the king genuinely allows them to embrace the democratic reforms, they will still continue to deify royalty. They will continue to offer special place for the royal family to get involved in the political system. That can be seen as a positive element in boosting the national unity, identity or prestige. But genuine democracy is a far cry in the absence of genuine individual liberties, say, contesting elections, freedom of speech and movement.

That is the internal political reality. The external political forces are rather ineffective or almost absent. The world community, including the USA, India, EU and others may influence events and outcomes in other world capitals, but apparently not much in Thimphu. What purpose does Bhutan serve to other countries? Whose national interests are at stake because of the Bhutanese problems? So far I have not seen any kind of pressure applied to the Bhutanese regime by any country in particular, including India. Nepal is the only country that continues to engage directly largely because of the refugee issue. But I believe that as the problem protracts, and as Bhutanese refugees seek asylum all over the globe, Western powers such as the USA and EU will have to do more than just pay red carpet visits to Thimphu.

Such red carpets aside, Bhutan also has been generally able to charm the Western media. Hence a more positive image of the country despite shimmering democratic dissents and the protracted refugee problem. The fact is that Bhutan is perceived to be an exotic Buddhist kingdom. The Western media reflect that popular perception and tend to be more generous to Buddhism and its philosophy. In deed, if you travel to Thimphu it’s a perfect Shangri-la and a peaceful dragon kingdom. But if you go (and this applies to media as well) into the hinterlands (provided you are able to do so), you soon begin to see that reality is different from mediated images.

But slowly that myth of a Shangri-La is getting dispelled. The continued news about the plight of many southern Bhutanese, and in recent years about the persecution of Christians in Bhutan, has shown the ugly side of Shangri-La. This might have prompted the royal house to try to highlight the reforms. Hence, the biggest challenge before Bhutan and its ruling class is to convince the West their “so called” reforms are genuine. Another is the refugee issue. Yet another problem, once resolved but gradually resurrecting again, is the infiltrations by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Bodo militants.

True, reforms are not possible without resolving the prolonged refugee crisis. Unfortunately, nobody seems truly interested in solving this problem. Nepal seems to be incapable of tackling the problem with Bhutan. Bhutan, in turn, adheres to the guidance by big brother India that appears in favor of Thimpu’s policies toward the refugees. Unless India steps on to the table, I don’t see Bhutan taking back any refugees.

Recently, the refugee issue has seen a new twist. In October, 2006, the United States offered to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees from the UNHCR-administered camps. While some of my countrymen in exile think the offer is detrimental to the refugees’ right to return home, I think, in essence, we should look at the offer in a positive way. I have little doubt that Bhutan will always come up with some excuses against taking the refugees back and it has already been 16 painful years in exile. The refugees should accept the US offer. We can still bring democracy and human rights in Bhutan even while living outside Bhutan. In fact, we will have better chances to lobby for genuine reforms back home.

But the USA, or for that matter, some European countries that have made the offer, will not resettle all the refugees. Hence, there is much work to be done to resolve the matter for all for good. Bhutan and Nepal must still continue to talk. Yes, they have held 15 rounds of talks already with little results, and a vague categorization of refugees. But we must not lose faith in hope. They must get India involved in the issue. Nepal and Bhutan should be more serious in solving the problem, whatever the outcome, finally.

Unfortunately, Bhutanese government does not seem to want to grasp the reality as regards the refugee situation. They should realize that the refugee crisis can end up being a major regional issue in an already volatile region. Working together is the only legitimate way out of the problem. I think the government has to work along with Refugee leaders, Nepali government, UNHCR and India towards an amicable solution.

All Bhutanese inside and outside the country need to work together to establish a just, open, democratic, peaceful and prosperous nation. We now have a slim Bhutanese diaspora in different parts of the world. Even though in exile, we must engage with issues back home, organize in whatever countries we reside and lobby the respective governments. We must continue to convene and attend different forums, seminars, conventions and assemblies related to Bhutan and its member countries. We must make efforts to help eliminate some of the financial problems in the refugee camps in Nepal and support in the health and education sectors etc.

Our efforts may not amount to much, but they will serve a way to keep the spirit of democracy and justice alive for the many who have suffered so much and who have lost their homes and families in Bhutan, the country they called home for generations.

To truly democratize and modernize the country, the government must not resort to eyewash, for sooner or later genuine democracy is a historical necessity everywhere. The government in Bhutan must ensure genuine electoral process, press freedom, freedom of speech, and improve human rights conditions as well as solve the refugee issue. Instead of keeping the problems in the dark, the ruling class and the soon-to-be elected parliamentarians must open the window, look at the outside world and learn.

Mr. Hemlal Timsina grew up in Lamidara, Chirang of Bhutan and worked in various capacities in Public Works Department, Government of Bhutan for more than a decade. Currently, he lives in Manitoba, Canada.


Posted by Editor on January 9, 2007 12:06 AM