Bhutan: Is Democracy A Reality? – Analysis


By Kunkhen Dorji

According to the government of Bhutan, the first historical election on 24 March 2008 was a huge success, and democracy is on the right track in the Himalayan kingdom. But many are critical of such analyses and assert that it is a controlled democracy and the monarchy still calls the shots.

Why is Bhutan still under scrutiny with respect to monarchy, democracy, and the much celebrated free and fair elections? The rulers have always maintained that the country is free and the government enjoys legitimacy. But calls for scrutiny emerge from the fact that there are still reports of human rights abuses, along with the question of political prisoners and refugee issues that have not yet been resolved under the democratic government.

Genuine or Farce?

Mathew Joseph C, the author of the book, Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan, argued that the King’s “democratization project” is intended at “silencing the demand for real democracy that the democratic movement of Bhutanese people who were expelled from the country had raised”. He further stated that elections were “to hoodwink the international community” into accepting that Bhutan was a democracy.

The upcoming second general elections and the positive publicity around democracy in Bhutan do look attractive to many in the international community because of the success of the peaceful transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy. The process has gathered its own momentum so to speak. It could be argued that there is a PR strategy at work.

Bhutan, as a country, has somehow always been romanticised by the media. Most of the news coverage talk about the extremely benevolent Monarch with his unique economic policy called Gross National Happiness (GNH). In Bhutan, democracy is understood as a “gift” given to its citizen by the King.

With the establishment of democracy, the Election Commission and two party system was established (both pro-monarchy), but the exiled parties were banned from contesting the general elections, and a constitution was promulgated. It gives absolute power to the King.

Constitution: Tool of the Palace?

The Constitution of Bhutan grants enormous powers to the monarchy. The King has been vested with absolute power to sack the elected Prime Minister or his Cabinet. He has enormous legislative powers such as to convene extraordinary sessions, to nominate eminent persons that constitute 20% of the Upper House, and has the right to block Bills that are unanimously passed by both legislatures.

In addition to the powers given to the Monarch, Article 2 of the Constitution prohibits the Parliament from amending any of his constitutional powers. Some critics believe that the Constitution, in fact, has given legitimacy to the King’s absolute power and that violates the very essence of the Constitution.

Under the National Security Act of 1992, it is treason to speak against the King, people, and the country. Many people who were involved in criticising the King and the government were jailed and eventually convicted under this Act. There are reports that over hundred such political prisoners are languishing in Bhutanese jails, even after the establishment of democracy and human rights.

Is it Inclusive in the True Sense?

More than 20% of the total population of Bhutan are of Nepali origin. The Election Commission has been accused of discriminating against the minority, especially towards the 1,000,000 refugees languishing in the camps of Jhapa, in Nepal. These refugees were not included in voters’ list and hence not allowed to participate in the elections. Even the political parties in exile were not allowed to register; hence, a big question mark on the independence of the Election Commission comes to the fore. Many believe that it was a clear message sent to the people of Bhutan and outside, that the refugees have no stake in the politics of Bhutan.

There are also reports of discrimination against the different sects of Buddhism and other religions in Bhutan. Many critics believe that in reality, nothing has changed in Bhutan in spite of having established democracy and the success of the first ever general elections. Many critics believe that the only beneficiaries of the changes in Bhutan are the small elite class, who have been able to manipulate the democratic institutions for their whims and fancies.

Finally, Bhutan still has a lot of problems to resolve; not only internal issues, but also beyond the borders. The large chunk of its southern and eastern Bhutanese population, who were sent into exile during the pro-democratic movement in the early 1990s are still banned from entering the country. Bhutan has to recognise and address its ethnic conflicts that exist today, before it is too late. There is an urgent need for reconciliation with the democratic forces in exile and make the democracy truly participatory in nature.

 Kunkhen Dorji
Intern, IReS, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

One thought on “Bhutan: Is Democracy A Reality? – Analysis”

  1. The tragedy of the so-called Bhutanese refugee crisis seems to be repeating itself. Those who have failed to understand the true nature of the tragedy now have another chance. Hopefully they won’t miss the irony either.

    Against a tide of international criticism in the 1990s the government of Bhutan maintained that the mass exodus of Nepalese from southern Bhutan was not a result of government or military pressure on citizens, but was a result of the refugees’ own secret little plan. Leaving Bhutan in droves was Stage I of the Plan. Coming back to Bhutan in force of numbers and on their terms was supposed to be Stage II.

    (It may be noted that Stage I and II kicked off only after the failure of Stage Zero. Stage Zero in effect began on 29 September 1990 with the coordinated ‘peaceful’ demonstration in 4 different southern dzongkhags at the same time which resulted in government officials being stripped off their gho’s and burnt with the national flag and being made to chant anti-government slogans. This ‘frontal assault’ at subversion died a quick death once the Royal Bhutan Army was alerted and caused changes in strategy that led to Stage I and II.)

    Many of the refugees-to-be wholeheartedly supported this plan. The concept of a Greater Nepal featured prominently in the delusions of the Nepalese diaspora those days, encouraged no doubt by the successes of the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Many of them relished the idea of Bhutan going the Sikkim way. Kanak M. Dixit, a prominent editor from Nepal even wrote a cover page article on Bhutan revealingly titled “House of Cards” that seemed to foresee imminent collapse in Bhutan (Kanak Mani Dixit: House of cards: fearing for Bhutan. Himal Vol.7 No 4, July/August 1994.). Such sentiments had to be carefully hidden however and not surprisingly were heatedly denounced as some RGOB bogey.

    Not all refugees were so excited by this delusion and many had to be coerced through threats and intimidation to cooperate. There was a militant wing among the refugees that offered to shorten by 6 inches anybody who did not cooperate. Translated bluntly, this was an offer of a beheading. Since the refugees were shrewdly trying to craft a picture of a persecuted minority, this fact too had to be denied. The refugee leaders cleverly deflected the blame for the exodus on a ‘despotic kingdom’ dabbling in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a ‘peaceful minority’. Now which self-respecting headline reader could resist buzzwords as catchy as these?

    Having successfully created the critical mass of refugees and successfully set up their camps in Nepal (which incidentally was made possible only after a Long March and a standoff with the Nepalese police over the Mechi bridge), the plan began to stumble. The refugee leaders had never reckoned with Bhutanese bureaucratic obduracy and for 16 years Stage II has been in limbo. They’ve had to struggle to keep people focused on why they left Bhutan and what the next step was. Sadly for them, international sympathy for their humanitarian situation did not translate into international belief that the refugees were all Bhutanese citizens.

    Finding lessons for Bhutan from the happenings in India and Nepal has been a habit among the Nepalese leaders in Bhutan. Their agitations in Bhutan in 1952 and 1990 following the successes of the uprisings against the British in India and against the monarchy in Nepal respectively bear this out. So it was no surprise that in the successes of the Maoists of Nepal the refugee leaders found inspiration and they promptly created their very own Maoist group. Unfortunately in their excitement they forgot about the US’ penchant for overreacting to anything communist or even the colour red. Not surprisingly the US became unduly alarmed by this and decided enough was enough and offered to clear the camps with a sweeping offer of resettlement in the USA.* Most of the refugees jumped at the offer as they saw it for what it was – an opportunity of a life time.

    In this happy solution however the refugee leaders have found despair. Who will they lead is the main question. What will become of them as leaders? These hard questions have triggered the return of their hidden true nature and despite the risk of losing their hard earned image of peaceful refugees, they have once again resumed their old role of ‘guiding’ the people. According to them, the US offer is simply no good. No doubt being six inches shorter has something to do with it. Reports from Nepal describe a rapidly worsening situation as the Bhutan Communist Party and the Bhutan Tigers’ Front intensified their ‘campaign’ against third-country resettlement.

    Such is the level of fear and intimidation that has gripped the refugee camps that dozens of families have fled the camps for their safety. Many refugees now find safety in the surrounding villages.

    If there is one thing that is worse than becoming a refugee, it is for a refugee to have to seek refuge FROM a refugee camp. Abraham Abraham, the Country Representative of the UNHCR camps in Nepal must answer up to this incredible failure.

    And it is high time that he and the UNHCR organization acknowledge the sinister role played by the refugee leaders in the creation of the refugee tragedy.

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