Democracy in Bhutan: A Critical Assessment

Democracy in Bhutan: A Critical Assessment

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan adopted democracy quite late. The country, after 100 years of absolute monarchy, was finally declared a constitutional monarchy with its first ever general election held in 2008. In the case of Bhutan democracy came from above. The fourth King is said to have willingly abdicated the throne in favor of the crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and country was declared a Constitutional Monarchy.

The country until then lacked a written constitution and the monarch had been the supreme authority. The first general election saw only two political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Sangay Negdrup and the Druk Phuntshum Tshogpa (DPT) led by Jigme Y. Thinley, both of whom had served as Prime Ministers under the monarch. The first democratically elected government was formed by the DPT in July 2008 after its landslide victory with forty-five out of forty seven seats in the parliament.

The country felt quite optimistic when Jigme Y. Thinley became its first democratic prime minister as he is considered an experienced man who had served the country in various capacities, including as foreign minister, home minister and prime minister under the absolute monarchy that preceded the election. Under the new government, the country saw numerous changes and developments but the government was not free from errors.

Tax Revision 

The government’s decision to revise tax on vehicles almost unilaterally in June 2010 became the first constitutional case when the opposition party dragged the ruling government to court for their unconstitutional increase of the tax. The opposition leader argued that its opposition was not relating to the authority of the government to impose tax, but related to the non-compliance of procedure in raising and implementing the altered vehicle tax. The government had failed to table the issue in the parliament.

The government argued that the tax hike was in compliance with the Sales Tax and Custom and Excise Act 2000, which gives authority to the government for fixing rate of sales tax. The finance minister said the objective of the tax hike was to strengthen the government’s revenue base and ease pressure on existing infrastructure from high imports of cars.

The opposition party in August 2010 lodged the case against the government with the high court which favored the opposition. The government, unwilling to accept the verdict, appealed to the Supreme Court, but to its dismay the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s verdict. The government later had to refund all taxes collected on vehicle imports.

Tobacco Law

Bhutan is among the few countries of the world that have the strictest law on tobacco. Sale and production of tobacco and its product is completely banned. The Tobacco Control Act of 2010 made chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes a non-bailable offense. Any person in possession of tobacco and its products can be imprisoned for a minimum of three years if s/he is unable to produce a receipt declaring payment of import duties. Sonam Tshering, a Buddhist monk, was the first person to be caught with illegal possession of 180 grams of chewing tobacco worth 120 Ngultrum (about $2.25) and was imprisoned for 3 years.

Following him, many were caught for possessing tobacco. The topic became a heated public debate and the people openly expressed their protest on social media. Perhaps this was the first show of dissent in the country which had never entertained criticism against its rulers. Demonstration and rallies are considered inappropriate and alien, so the only tool left was the virtual medium. Such acts of dissent from the public showed that the people had now become more vocal and open.

Opposition leader Tshering Tobgay had always opposed the Tobacco Act. He had argued that the law has always allowed some people such as travelers and those living around international borders to easily import tobacco for consumption, so why can’t it be for others as well. He claimed the tobacco control bill to be” draconian” and “dangerous” and had also called for monk Sonam Tshering to be freed.

Officials have maintained that tobacco is injurious to health and Bhutan would set an example for the rest of the world by banning tobacco. As expected the country made headlines and earned praise from the World Health Organization. But tobacco was always available in Bhutan on the black market. Perhaps the government could have gone for alternatives such as education, awareness, taxation, allocation of smoke free zones, etc.

Bhutan’s history of being an anti-tobacco country can be dated back to December 2004 when it banned the sale of tobacco, which made it the first country in the world to do so. Such propositions were made by Bhutan’s unicameral parliament, a body in which, under the monarchy, ministers and people’s representative from around the country met twice a year to discuss progress and issues affecting the country. The representatives usually belonged to the older generation and had maintained tobacco consumption was a sinful activity and against Buddhist values. It is said that Bhutan’s most revered Buddhist saint Guru Rinpochhe (Guru Padmasandhava), credited to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan and believed to have come from present day Pakistan, condemned tobacco in his teachings and scriptures as early as in the eighth century.

It can also be seen that the rich people always had an upper hand as they could afford to pay 100% import duty and enjoy tobacco; the same might not be possible for the lower and middle classes. The law also seemed to be discriminatory because common people were the ones who often got caught in the process of avoiding 100% import duty.

Under popular criticism and pressure the government finally had to amend the act and in January 2012 it passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Act which now allows imports of tobacco and its products for personal consumption including 300 cigarettes, 400 bidis, 50 cigars and 250 grams of other tobacco products by paying required import duties.

Rupee Crisis

Bhutan today is in the midst of a currency crisis arising from huge trade imbalance with India. India had been the largest trading partner of Bhutan till date and the Bhutanese currency (Ngultrum) is pegged to the Indian rupee since its introduction in 1974. Such currency crises have not only affected developmental activities, but they have also encouraged an informal exchange of Indian currency with Bhutanese currency which has distorted the par value of the Ngultrum making it lose its value against the rupee. The government in general along with Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan had failed to foresee the crises that lay ahead and had failed to take appropriate measures on time.

Low productivity of the agriculture sector makes Bhutan dependent on India for all agricultural goods such as vegetables, rice, cooking oil, flour, etc. The agricultural sector, which is considered the backbone of our economy and employs 69% of the population, had not received due consideration until recently. Only in the past few years has the government taken more active steps toward farm development.

The housing boom in Thimphu and other cities at the same time has also impacted the rupee crisis because most of the construction materials are imported from India but completed houses do not earn rent in rupees. The availability of cheap labor across the border and lack of technical expertise within Bhutan have made the country dependent on Indian manpower for almost all developmental and construction activities. Bhutan also lacks a manufacturing base and so it is too reliant on India for importing everything; it imports almost everything from matchboxes to complex machines.

Doing business in Bhutan is still a hurdle, and it was ranked 148th among 185 economies in 2013 by the World Bank. Comparatively it is far below all the South Asian countries except Afghanistan.

Above all, the crises are said to be propelled by poor fiscal policies and weak legislation that had failed to forecast and foresee the approaching challenges. The finance ministry is blamed for failing to live up to its vision which states that it will strive to “steer and sustain a robust economy through a dynamic fiscal policy and strong culture of fiscal discipline”.

All responsible authorities were reluctant to accept their responsibility and had indulged in a blame game. The Governor of the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) of Bhutan in his initial broadcasts had blamed the government for its high expenditure as the cause for the crises but the blame changed its focus to private consumption and private sector in the later stages for some unknown reasons. They have even blamed the media for blowing up the issue out of proportion.

The government finally recommended a series of measures including monetary measures, tax increases, decrease in government expenditures, trade related measures, restricting imports, and tightening credits. The Royal Monetary Authority has also initiated a financial literacy program recently to increase financial awareness of the general public.  Following these steps the government may also consider revising monetary and fiscal policies at times when necessary, strengthening the agricultural base, improving the public transport system, and check and balance on imports when the products are locally available. The government may also consider examining the issue of pegging the Bhutanese currency to the Indian currency to initiate some healthy debate.

Foreign Policy

Although Bhutan is a tiny state, it has been able to make its presence felt around the world. Perhaps it is because of this reason the government put some of its limited resources to secure a non-permanent seat in UN Security Council in 2012. The question then was: if the government already knew that it was almost impossible to win against stronger contenders like South Korea and Cambodia, why did the government decided to put further financial pressure on our donor-dependent economy? Foreign policy being a very important matter was not even discussed with the opposition and the National Council members.

Being located in geopolitically sensitive location every small move may be looked with suspicion by our neighbors. There had been previous instances of media hype; e.g. on the meeting of the Bhutanese Prime Minister with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of Rio +20 Summit in Brazil, 2012. The meeting which was mainly to request China to consider Bhutan and support it for a UN Security Council bid, hosted a lot of false media speculation and reporting stating the willingness of both countries to establish diplomatic relations soon. Some Indian scholars consider that the Chinese influence over Bhutan is growing just like over other South Asian countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Although India has remained Bhutan’s closest development partner and neighbor, such false reporting and prejudice can generate suspicion and ultimately have adverse impacts on existing relations between two nations.

Bhutan had just managed to secure 20 votes where as other two competitors South Korea and Cambodia had secured 116 votes and 62 votes each. Additionally, Bhutan till today does not have any diplomatic relations with the permanent members of UN Security Council. Considering these and other relevant facts the government should have pondered more seriously whether to go ahead and bid for a Security Council seat.

The Prime Minister, however, said that Bhutan’s effort to get a UNSC seat allowed Bhutan to establish diplomatic relations with 25 new countries with 15 more were to follow soon. Consequently, in the last few years Bhutan’s diplomatic relation with other countries has increased from 22 to 52.

The Foreign Ministry reported that Bhutan should be proud that such a campaign had further strengthened the sovereignty of the country and has also enhanced goodwill from the international community. But the opposition has maintained that Bhutan’s sovereignty was already an established fact without having to be the member of the UN Security Council. He argued that Bhutan today is a member of some 75 multilateral organizations including the UN, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Non-Aligned Movement, and SAARC.

With the signing of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 2007, which replaces Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949, Bhutan’s foreign policy is no more guided by India. Hence its every move will be watched closely by its neighbors. So the role of the government becomes crucial to keep up to the expectations of its neighbors.

Corruption

Corruption is one of the major threats to the common good. Corruption can destroy lives and communities and it also undermines the country and its institutions. It can generate popular anger that can threaten and destabilize societies or worsen an existing conflict. While no country can be totally corruption free, the aim should be to become as clean as possible. Corruption is directly related to human suffering when poor families are extorted for bribes even for basic public services like health care, education, drinking water and other necessary services. Bhutan in this sense is far better than most countries but it still has a lot more to achieve.

Bhutan is the 33rd least corrupt country among some 176 countries compared by Transparency International in 2012. It was ranked fifth in the Asia-pacific region and first among the South Asia countries. However, the country in recent times has seen a lot of corruption cases coming to light. Mismanagement of public fund, misuse of authority, nepotism, favoritism, embezzlement, bribery, collusion, deception and misuse of government property are the major challenges that Bhutan faces today. Policy corruption is not yet a serious problem but has the potential to be so which can be highly detrimental to the system of governance.

The Gyelposing land scandal case saw the National Assembly Speaker, Home Minister and many other senior and high profile people to have been involved. Although the illegal selling and allocation of land to influential but ineligible persons was carried out in 2001 and 2003, the case was only revealed when a private newspaper “Business Bhutan” brought the issue to public notice in 2011. The recipient of illegal transaction of land included the prime minister, members of the royal family, ministers and other high-level and influential people.

The Anti-corruption commission (ACC) had boldly taken action by investigating and finally taking the case to the court. The District Court convicted the Home Minister, National Assembly Speaker and other land allotment committee members for their corrupt practices in its verdict of March 8, 2013, even though the government had always held the culprits as innocent. The Office of the Attorney General had opined that the case was baseless and had even questioned and filed a case against the Anti-Corruption Commission questioning its legality to prosecute the case by itself. The government also maintained that much of the corruption had happened 10 to 12 years back and so the present government had nothing to do with it.

Election law does not allow anyone who has been convicted for criminal offense to contest in elections. However supporters had asked for leniency for the convicts. Perhaps a long history of theocratic and absolute rule that had prevailed in Bhutan before Constitutional Monarchy had made people inclined to accept abuse of power as an integral part of its tradition and culture. But with the onset of democracy, the government is expected to integrate anti-corruption actions into all aspects of decision making. Public expenses and contracting should be made more transparent and concerned agencies held accountable. Overall the government is expected to take tougher action against all kinds of corruption. 

Constitutional Institutions and the Media

Since the time democracy was introduced Bhutan has witnessed the evolution in the functions of constitutional organizations like the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC), Office of the Attorney General (OAG), Judiciary, Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), Royal Audit Authority (RAA), the media and Parliament. Conflicts that have occurred sometimes between them have in a way helped these institutions to emerge clearer and stronger in their roles.

It is the disparities among these institutions that have helped the public realize what the democracy is really about. A calm and placid government would not have activated the roles played by these institutions. Parliament and parliamentarians themselves have become more powerful and focused over time learning from their experiences. The opposition party has played its part in dragging the government to the court for its unconstitutional tax raise. And the Judiciary upheld the rule of law by giving a fair and neutral judgment in the best interest of the state.

The media has comparatively become more open and critical after 2008. The press freedom index of Bhutan was rated at 82nd in 2013, which is better than of all the other South Asian countries.  Many newspapers and local radio stations have emerged in recent times. Until 2008, the media was more or less state controlled because of their direct dependence on the government. The “Kuensel” was the only newspaper until 2006 when the first private newspaper “Bhutan Times” appeared. Today, the country has 12 newspapers, six radio stations, two television news channels, and one entertainment channel. Television service and internet were only started in 1999, making Bhutan the last country to do so.

However the best part of democracy in Bhutan was the emergence of a critical and investigative media. As a result the public today get to read news which tries to raise public consciousness. Moreover social media is playing its role in spreading messages to a larger audience. With around 78,700 Facebook users till 2013, it accounts for 11.25 % of the total population. Bhutan is also ahead of most SAARC countries in Facebook penetration.

Religious Freedom and Ethnic Challenges

The constitution does protect religious freedom in the country but its practice has been limited to some extent, especially so when the government deems that religious activity interferes with the country’s identity and stability. However religious freedom has seen its growth in recent times with the government’s approval to construct a Hindu Temple in the capital and the granting of legal status to Christians.

A majority of the population in the country is Buddhist following Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism forms the second largest population followed mainly by Lotshampas/southerners.   Unconfirmed estimates also show that there might be about 6,000 to 20,000 Christians in the country.

The Chhoedey Lhentshog, a religious regulatory body, was established in 2009. The government provides aid to most of the Buddhist monks and nuns but not to other religious leaders and learners. The country also observes major Buddhist holidays as national holidays but only one Hindu festival “Dassain” is observed as a national holiday. Other than that, there are no holidays for other religious celebration. Pressure is always there from the authority to observe traditional Buddhist values, including participation of all students irrespective of their religion in Buddhist prayers and rituals at schools.  Civil servants are also required to take an oath of allegiance which is presided over by Buddhist lamas. Followers of other religions, except Buddhism and Hinduism, are free to worship in private but not allowed to practice in public.

The constitution also guarantees that there shall be no discrimination on grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics, or other status. People from the west are considered to be of Tibetan origin and are called Ngalongs; those living in the east are called Sharshops and are considered to have originated from Burma (Myanmar); and the southerners are called Lotshampa and are considered migrants from Nepal. All of these three ethnic people are said to have migrated long before the country was united. Other indigenous people and minorities consist of Doya, Monpa and Brokpa who are considered to be the original inhabitants of the country. Also there are around 2000 to 3000 Tibetan refugees who came to Bhutan following the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet to India in 1959.

However, there had been ethnic discrimination during the late eighties and early nineties when the government had imposed strict laws to spread Drukpa (Northern) identity among the southern Bhutanese. Subsequent regulations, such as the Nationality Law 1958 and Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985, found mainly the southerners as illegal immigrants.  The Acts stated those people who could not prove their stay in Bhutan before 1958 were to be considered non-Bhutanese. Many people could not prove their residence in Bhutan due to lack of documentary evidence. Many were expelled and many left in fear and some still left willingly to show solidarity to those expelled. The wave of discrimination also affected eastern Bhutan to some extent.

The refugee camp in Nepal had around 107,000 refugees in 2008 but the Bhutanese government has claimed not all of them are Bhutanese. Some are said to have migrated from India and Nepal to live in refugee camps as well. Till July 2011 Bhutan and Nepal had held 15 rounds of talk without any resolution. The Bhutanese government made minimal efforts in taking the issue further for reaching to a durable solution. In addition, given the political situation in Nepal the talks are expected to get further prolonged.

However since 2008, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have jointly started refugee resettlement programs to eight countries including the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand. A total of 75,261 people have been resettled until the end of 2012.

The state still has challenges of solving the issues of the Lotshampas community. In spite of no fault of their own, some who physically were living in Bhutan were not able to get state recognition as citizens. Some others living in Bhutan but with a past history of their family members being involved in demonstrations of 1990s were not granted citizenship. Without a citizenship identity card they virtually cannot do anything except work as laborers. Citizenship Identity Card and Security Clearance Certificate are prerequisite in almost all economic and social activities, be it the opening of a bank account, getting a job, buying property, travelling abroad or doing business.  The government has said that the matter has been studied and the report has been forwarded to the King who has the sole prerogative of granting citizenship; but it seems it will take a very long time.

Civil Society

Civil society has been portrayed as the prime catalyst for promoting democratization process in developing countries. It can have various roles from monitoring to capacity building and advocacy to disciplinary role. However Bhutan lacked the growth of civil society organizations (CSO) until the enactment of the Civil Society Organizations Act of Bhutan, 2007 and subsequent establishment of the Civil Society Organizations Authority in March 2009.

The democratic government of Bhutan is said to be liberal in its approach toward civil society organizations. As a result new NGOs have emerged in recent times. The government also claims that it is mindful of the need for civil society organizations so that they can provide certain services that the government is unable to deliver or services that can be delivered more effectively by such organizations.

Slowly the NGOs are fulfilling the gap that exists between the government and the people and have been able to empower people on various aspects. As democracy takes root further NGOs with diverse focus would be needed in an emerging democracy like Bhutan. Presently there are twenty-six registered CSOs, and an additional thirty-six registered religious organizations. In the past one year alone, twelve CSOs are said to have been registered.

However NGOs dealing in important thematic areas of democracy like human rights and corruption are missing. It is important for the government to encourage new NGOs to fill the gaps that exist.

Conclusion

The very first democratically elected government has completed its tenure on rather very controversial note. The government at times has shown an aggressive attitude toward criticism, but it ultimately learned to live with some of it. The autocratic behavior of the government is linked to the system followed during the monarchy that preceded it.

The constitutional bodies and agencies have played their roles in upholding the democratic institutions and democratic values. Accordingly the media emerged strong and has been able to provide a greater platform for citizens to speak out. At times there have been clashes and divergent views between the democratic constitutional bodies but it has only made them become stronger in their functions.

On the whole, democracy in Bhutan has been satisfactory because it has been able to tackle corruption issues that had occurred under absolute monarchy and would have never come to light if Bhutan was still an absolute monarchy where people in power had the ultimate authority.  Government has learnt to be more tolerant with time and accept public criticism, although reluctantly.

Lastly it is commendable that the opposition has done the hardest job in the first ever democratic governance in the country. Bhutanese democracy is still in its infancy and there is still a lot to achieve and strive for. The people have to still wait and see what awaits them in the next five years from a new government.

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