Birth of a Democracy

2293698_00a7a4b06a.jpgBhutan, a tiny state, has had a new birth. It is now the world’s newest democratic country. Until recently, it was an absolute monarchy. The country’s gradual transformation from a monarchy to a democracy started in 2006.

In December 2006, the then King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne at the age of 51. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck.

Bhutan’s absolute monarchy dates back to 1907, when Jigme Singye’s great grandfather, Ugyen Wangchuk was formally anointed as the first king of Bhutan with British support and patronage. Jigme Singye was educated in India and Britain, and was enthroned in 1972.

Unusually for this part of the world, Bhutan is an exceedingly orderly place, where traffic rules are closely obeyed and the color of a shawl denotes social rank. Native dress is mandatory at work and at school.

Jigme pioneered the introduction of ‘Gross National Happiness’ in place of the conventional and universal Gross Domestic Product. It was his idea that Bhutan should not purse outright economic progress. This ideology was in line with Buddhist teachings where true happiness, individual or national, is much more than mere economic wealth.
Industrialization is strictly limited and forests are assiduously safeguarded. According to him, gross national happiness can be achieved by sustained development, environmental protection and preservation of the Bhutanese culture.

His views were supported by the people and they were content. The youth were the exception. Since they were being exposed to the television which was introduced 9 years ago, they have been struck by the luxuries and development their counter-parts enjoy across the globe.

The Bhutanese were reluctant to embrace democracy since they had full faith in the King. They were confused as they could not understand why the idea of democracy was being mooted by the king. But again, they were convinced that the king knew what was best for them.

Keshar Wangchuck decided that the time was ripe to institutionalize democracy as the century turned up for the Bhutan monarchy. The tumultuous state of affairs in the adjoining country of Nepal, where the monarchy now stands humiliated and powerless, may have had an influence. He would have preferred a transition in a stable environment.

The elections were contested by the DPT, Druk Phuensum Tshongpa (Bhutan peace and prosperity party) and the Peoples Democratic Party. The DPT has won the election as it is perceived to be more loyal to the King. The new government under Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley has stated that it would only continue in the footsteps of the previous ‘dragon’ Kings. Dragon or Druk in Bhutanese is the national symbol.

Under the new constitution, the King will have wide influence but not absolute power.

Being a nation of 700,000, a democratic rule is viable. But there is dissent among the minority ethnic Nepalese as they have no one to represent them. 100,000 ethnic Nepalese fled in 1990 after a royal crackdown on their agitation for democratic rights and who have since languished in refugee camps across the border in Nepal. The government forced them out as they were seen as a threat to the small Bhutan population.

The Bhutanese have faith in the King, and it is going to be worthwhile to watch how the country fares on basis of the ‘Gross National Happiness’ in this age ruled by greedy economic growth and opportunism.

Nanda Kishore

[image courtesy:]