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Making Sense of Bhutanese Reforms

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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.


A clumsy attempt at sounding even handed while bashing Bhutan.

With proper research you will find that UNHCR made a mess of the whole refugee issue. From the start they did not confirm the origins of the people comming into the camps.

If anybody needs to answer to this, the UNHCR needs to admit its mistake. Bhutan cannot accept all the poor who took advantage of the refugee camps for free food, education, housing etc.

Bhutan and Drukpa culture is the height of feudalism in the 21st century. Come on wake up and live like humans not like salves of serfs in the 17 the century....raise your head and look eye to eye to your king....if you are brave enough. the culture was created by the feudal lords to supress and opress the public. Wake up and discard your age old yoke and stand up to your rights. With regard to the king's abdication it is nothing but Jigme Singyye wants to rule from the background without having to be accountable or responsible for any of the negative backfire. He wants to fire shots from the shoulders of hiis son...what a DAAAD... haa..haaa... That is a Royal intrigue...I must say..Smart move all think..!!!! Think again.

Bhutan: Land of the peaceful dragon; whats most important today in this modern world? We Bhutanese are very happy with what our great leaders had accomplished so far and we are ready to support our govt anytime to make Bhutan a peaceful country to live in. Our father's had passed down this great country into our hands safely and peacefully, its our duty to protect and pass down the same to our young childrens'. We love our country and we love our Kings.

You guys seem to be carried away by your egos. Talk facts, not your biases. Hem's article is not always even critical of the fourth or the fifht king. He clearly argues it is good step, but not enough as long as injustice and discrimination continues. There are some good things happening and there some bad things happening in Bhutan. Don't try to paint a rosy picture. The world is not blind. Read this report and shut up:

The Drukpa community itself is based on "origin discrimination" and there are a lot of such people living in the easternmost and the northernmost parts of the country where people even do not know the importance of acquiring education.

It is a Drama of Democracy which was staged by distributing copies of a biased constitution, which was promulgated without the consent of the majority of the population, who are still illiterate and cannot even read.

Propagandists of the Thimpu Government are trying to convince the Western world that Druck Gyalkhap (the dragon kingdom) is an example of Democracy in the world. What actually we see in the latest drama of abdication of the throne by the fourth monarch to his son is that the country is still trying to give continuity to "clanocracy" of the Wangchuck Clan, which itself descended from a Tibetan clan and claims itself to be the real rulers of Bhutan.

To those friends who are still inside Bhutan, I would like to let them know that the cry for democracy is the need of the time in Bhutan and no one can stop that.

So far as the TRUTH is concerned, the Lotshampas are the people who had been taken by the Wanchuck Kings to prevent the threat from the southern borders and they had been legally taken for the protection of the country centuries back and they have all the records to prove the citizenship of the country.

It is not only the Nepali speaking people who have been exiled but the monarchy has also evicted those who are the real aborigines of the country from the easternmost part of Bhutan.

May I request the commentators to first grasp a comprehensive knowledge of the real history of the country before branding the people who have been forcefully evicted as "SO CALLED REFUGEES"

The article is praiseworthy and it is based on the author’s real and practical experience as a REFUGEE.

Don't want to post my last comments. I guess all in all the TRUTH does hurt. High time that you all stop publishing articles that are biased and not true.

Whoever Timsina is, his article is yet another outcry trying to convince that whatever Bhutan is doing is just for an eye wash. The reality is that Bhutan is going strong with democractic changes. The sad part for Timsina like is that whether they make noise or not, the western part have understood the truth and other side of the story.

Comparingly, we have one of the best and most modern constitution in the world-never adopted before like distributing copies to each individual household, to the general public, to the international organisations, holding public discussion nationwide by our fourth and fith kings and even posting in the Internet soliciting views on the future constitution.

Unfortunately, Timsina like propaganda war have not favour their political game. The history has testified that the truth shall prevail and we hope and pray that the humanitarian solution provided by the western countries in providing permanent solution to the problem finds a place without the intervention of selfish ambitions of Rizals, Adhikaris and Bhim Subhas.

Bhutanese friends,
I think it pointless trying to knock sense into the so called refugee craniums. "Seeing is believing". Let the International community judge Bhutan by themselves. Last year Bhutan was named as the No.1 destination for travellers. If the country was in such a turmoil as some biased commentators have said...then why the increase.

India does not want to interfere as they are having their share of problems with Nepalese immigrants settling in North Eastern India. Sikkim is one good example of what so called Nepalese refugees can do to a sovereign nation.

Do I need to say more. One last thing. Democracy means equality also, doesn't it, as long as the caste system exists in Nepalese community I think they should be the last to talk about Democracy. In Buddhist Bhutan it does not exist.

The article is well written and contains detailed facts regarding the problems faced by the exiled ethnic community - Nepali speaking people (Lotshampa) of Bhutan. The government in Thimpu has been staging many dramas of democratisation and liberalisation, and now it has come up with a new and unpractical development concept (utopian and populist) as Gross National Happiness (GNH), which mocks all the aspects of contemporary (modern) living style.

The youth is not interested in the old ways of life and they would not want to accept conservative policies. The youths are taught to follow the hypothetical ways of living styles by the government. It is necessary for the new King to understand the problem of Southern Bhutanese and solve the problem as soon as possoble.

Yeah Mr Hemlal, it's Tsirang and not Chirang and what ever u said doesn't make sense. Who said that we dont know much about the 5th Druk Gyalpo u r wrong!!!

HE is just as capable as his Father the 4th Druk Gyalpo.
U know what its people like u who created this problem in the first place so don't go on blaming Bhutan about it!!!!

I can see everyone's passion on the issue. So is there no hope or any thought given to a Chinese intervention on the issue? I'm well aware India does not want this per its recent distaste for Chinese tourist development along the Indian Ocean and India's growing need to be viewed as a regional power. I'm glad that the US offered LPR's, but wouldn't refugees or 'the people in the camps' be more enabled to work toward reconciliation by finding placement in other SAARC observers, like Japan? Perhaps spent laminations about democracy in Bhutan and the characters who can influence the Crown are nothing more than tactful arguments charging affluent countries to use their wealth and barter for refugee and ethnic groups' liberties and privileges. Yeah, I don't know about that. But it sure would feel nice to call a country Burma instead of Myanmar.

There is a fundamental difference between how the Nepalese and the refugees think and percieve things and how the Bhutanese think and percieve things. Democracy initiated in Bhutan may not be the same as that is in Nepal, India and the rest of the world but it definitely is not an attempt to eyewash the international community as the author has pointed out. We just don't import the whole western concept of anything but try and adapt to our needs in the best way possible. Bhutan is not Nepal. The two nations cannot be comapred except on geographical level. Bhutan is an enlightened nation which has come up with its own development concept. So, if our democracy is different may be we are writing our own definition of democracy. The monarchy is wanted by the people to play a central role in governance not for any reason but because monarchy provides enlightened leadership. The fourth king is loved by the people because he has been a good king to the people. He is also lauded by the international community because he is a great leader. What Bhutan is today is the result of his sound leadership. Today, Bhutan is rated among the top developed nations of the earth in happiness, corruption-free, press freedom, and other indexes. Bhutan is a leader in environment protection. It is also lauded for ban of smoking- so many countries are following Bhutan's step. And it has become the No.1 tourist destination for many people. Assess Bhutan within a broader framework and you will find out that it is one of the most progressive nations in the world.

I could go in great detail about the ambivalency of the issue, or about how the author of this article is heavily biased in his statement and presentation of his claims; however the truth is, cold hard numbers are the most convincing:

Less than 10,000 ethnic Nepalelse left Bhutan, and less than a year after the UNHCR started to provide aid, their number ballooned exponentially to 100,000. When you can come up with a explanation of that, THEN we will start to really listen.

As Palden Drukpa stated before me, Comparing Bhutan and Nepal is like comparing apples and oranges. We refuse to aknowledge them with the term refugees, they are the "people in the camps."

The article seems to be very analytical and well-written, but that is a perpsective from the outside-a refugee's percepective. Democracy, I think, means the same the world over. If the one in Bhutan is any different, it is beacsue it came as a gift from the throne- unasked. Not long before, democracy in Bhutan will be envied by the world and emulated.

The refugee problem, as the author has presented, is only the one side of the coin. The other side needs to be known. Ad the international community very well knows that. The article by and large, is an 'eyewash' and a propaganda!

Hail Timsinha, don't compare Bhutan to any other countries. Bhutanese like Bhutan the way it is.

A well-written article but trying to compare Nepal to Bhutan, take a break. The writer an ethnic Nepali may have lived in Bhutan and is one of the so-called refugees living comfortably in the west trying to play the refugee card. Many Nepalese have used the so called refugee card to help themselves. Look at Nepal, no stable government, Maoist, it is just a bread basket in South Asia. They have nothing better but to badmouth Bhutan. Almost 90 percent of Bhutan is now electrified and telecomunications has reached almost all corners of Bhutan. Education and Agriculture has leaped in bounds and I don't think the International community is foolish enough not to know what is going on in Bhutan.

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