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Experiments with democracy

Mahendra P. LAMA

Thursday 15 January 2004, by LAMA*Mahendra P.

Article paru dans Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 01, January 03 - 16, 2004.

A combination of domestic political compulsions and international pressure leads the monarchy to introduce some democratic processes in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

THE ongoing army campaign against the militants hiding in the jungles of southeastern Bhutan for the last 12 years has brought to the fore an array of sensitive issues. Of late, the quadrangular zone consisting of northern Bengal, eastern Nepal, southern Bhutan and mid-western Assam has emerged as a diabolical vortex of militant activities. Linked to the other militant groups of northeastern India and neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar, the militants in this zone have a complex conglomeration of ideology, objectives and strategy. Though they perceptibly differ in many respects, including their avowed objectives, they tend to converge consistently on a crucial point: their anti-state principles.

Despite having a long, open and unmanned border with India, except the excursions by the forces of British India in the mid 19th century, Bhutan has had no major experience in dealing with aliens through military operations. There are fundamental questions as to why Bhutan has to resort to such actions now and why not in the initial stages of the militants’ intrusion. What are the long-term implications for Bhutan of this army action particularly with a large-scale covert and overt support from India?

India has been asking Bhutan to flush out these militants for the last six years. Bhutan has consistently maintained that it is negotiating with the militants for their friendly exit. Since this Himalayan Kingdom does not have the capability and experience to involve in such a massive combat operation, what was seriously feared in Bhutan was that any joint action with the Indian Army, might amount to an infringement of the sovereignty and identity of Bhutan. Bhutanese were equally apprehensive of the fallout, including any retributive action by these militants against the existing political system.

However, for a long period, Bhutan’s inaction in the face of what its Foreign Minister Khandu Wangchuk described as the "most serious threat in the Kingdom’s history" also gave the impression that it wanted to utilise the militant infiltrators as a bargaining chip to discourage India from supporting any pro-democracy movement in Bhutan; ask India to maintain a neutral stand on Bhutanese refugees and pressure India to extradite United Front for Democracy leader Rongthong Kuenley Dorjay who languished in an Indian jail for indulging in `criminal activities’ in Bhutan.

Broadly, three reasons could be attributed to the ongoing Bhutanese Army action. First, the pressure was building on the Monarch from the Indian side as the Union government was increasingly finding it difficult to convince Assam and West Bengal governments on its inaction. Since the ruling parties in these States were the opponents of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, the inaction was taken as a sign of indifference and insensitiveness. There were vociferous demands by these State governments in many forums to act against the militants. In fact, this issue started getting hooked up with other critical issues relating to transports, power transmission, cross-border trade and other social and economic exchanges as Bhutan has maximum and comprehensive interactions with these two States.

The message was loud and clear when Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, visited Bhutan in March 2003. Also, when the Bhutanese monarch visited New Delhi in October last, he was "very firmly" told by the Indian leadership about the action expected. The final negotiation with the militants was held in November. Before this, extensive national security coordination meetings were held in the affected districts of Serbhang, Samdrup Jongk-har and Pema Gatshel in March last. The Bhutanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs elaborately briefed the representatives of the international community in Thimphu about the impending military action in the third week of November. All these go to show that the action was long planned.

Secondly, there have been very strong pressures from within Bhutan. The Kasho (royal edict) was issued by the king in 1998 and a new form of Cabinet was introduced. Since then, there has been a visible change in the nature, level and direction of the discussions and proceedings in the National Assembly. In fact, the National Assembly had never witnessed such an enlivening debate on the militants and security issues. The last session of the Assembly, held in July 2003, discussed the possibility of raising a volunteer militia and pledged full support in terms of funds, materials contributions in case of an armed conflict.

In June 2001, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) signed an agreed minutes with the Bhutanese officials. As per the agreement, it had removed four of its nine camps by December 2001. But they were later found to have been relocated in the same district.

In the National Assembly, a range of views were expressed. Till the last moment there were strong reservations against military action. The Home Minister said: "The military action would bring unimaginable suffering to the people. In December 2000, with no provocation, 15 innocent Bhutanese people were gunned down and 19 injured in Bhutanese buses on the Assam highway... . That will be nothing compared with what might happen if we start military operation against the militants. There will be loss of property; schools and hospitals will be closed down; economic development will be impeded and more than 66,464 people will be directly affected in 304 villages of 10 dzongkhags (districts)." Another member said: "We cannot wait until they reach the capital."

The intensity of the debate was unprecedented. The Education Minister said: "It was important to carefully weigh the implications of an armed conflict. Even the most powerful countries with the best military equipment faced many problems and difficulties during a war. But it is necessary that every Bhutanese citizen is ready to sacrifice his life to protect the security of the nation... . (I am) ready to exchange the ministerial scarf for a soldier’s uniform if the command comes from the Golden throne... it is time to prove our dedication and patriotism for our beloved country."

The king informed the Assembly that "India had given its assurance that the Indian Army would not come into Bhutan without the permission of the Cabinet and the National Assembly" and reminded "the members that this might be the last chance for the National Assembly to understand all the consequences and come to a final resolution on the militant problem". He also said that "a military clash would mean a clash with all three militant groups. Besides many other problems, the civil servants, business people and public who had to constantly travel through Assam and West Bengal would face great security risks."

Thirdly, there are possibilities that at least the disgruntled and frustrated young boys and girls among the one lakh Bhutanese refugees who have been forced to live in the camps in eastern Nepal for the last 13 years may be vulnerable to militancy. This fear was doubly enhanced by the very complex geographical location of the area and the increasing activities of Maoists that directly impinge upon the Bhutanese monarchy. The frequent attempts by the Bhutanese refugees to march to Thimphu via Siliguri and Jalpaiguri have created a serious problem to the local government.

The ongoing Army action against the Indian militants fits well into the larger framework of anti-terrorist drive in the region. This is in fact possibly the first action carried out, though unknowingly, within the operational ambit of the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism signed by the member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1987. Under its provisions, member-states are committed to extradite or prosecute alleged terrorists thus preventing them from enjoying a safe haven in their respective territories. This could be a precursor to such actions in other member-countries including India and Pakistan.

HOWEVER, all these actions are to be understood against the backdrop of the changing political situation in Bhutan. The end of 1990s saw some significant changes in the Bhutanese political system. The refugee issue exposed the Bhutanese system and socio-economic structure in an unprecedented manner. There have been extensive discussions at the regional and international level on the imprudent citizenship laws of the country, the discriminatory census operation, the imposition of traditional Bhutanese etiquette, including dress codes, and human rights violations. More critically, a large number of international human rights organisations, and donor agencies, including the European Union, started imposing severe conditionalities on Bhutan with regard to its treatment to the southern Bhutanese.

What happened on the floor of National Assembly in the first week of July 1998 was both historic and momentous. The National Assembly had always been considered to be a forum where any serious dissent used to be taken as something anti-tsa,-wa, -sum (against the King, the Country and the People). The king issued a royal edict which stated that "the time has now come to promote even greater people’s participation in the decision-making process. Our country must always have a system of government which enjoys the mandate of the people, provides clean and sufficient governance, and also has an inbuilt mechanism of checks and balances to safeguard our national interest and security". This amply demonstrated that the king was perturbed by the increasing pressure of democratic forces and was ready to make some limited concessions.

Jigme Singhye Wangchuk then proposed three fundamental changes to the system of governance in the kingdom.

- 1. All Cabinet Ministers should henceforth be elected by the National Assembly;

- 2. The Assembly will decide on the role and responsibilities of the Cabinet;

- 3. The Tshogdu Chhenmo (National Assembly) should adopt a mechanism to move a vote of confidence in his Majesty the Druk Gyalpo.

Since 1907, when the theocracy established by Shabdrung ended and monarchy was established, the king has absolute authority and was also solely responsible for the nomination of the Ministers.

Though the National Assembly established in 1953 is considered to be the most crucial body in the system of governance in Bhutan, its legislative functions have been overawed by the omnipresent executive. It could so far play only second fiddle to the king. The Assembly has 150 members. Of them, 105 are chimis (representatives of the people voted by the heads of families), 10 are monastic representatives and the remaining 35 members are representatives of the government nominated by the king. The very composition of the National Assembly, in fact, brings in the most ardent advocates of the status quo, thereby making the entire structure anti-reforms.

When the Kasho was issued, the king appeared to be a lone radical as the Assembly representatives were reluctant to accept the change. The emotion-packed two-day deliberations on the royal edict in the Assembly spoke volumes about the anti-reforms mind-set of the representatives. Its quite a unique situation when the "King proposes and people dispose". This has been the case in Bhutan for the last five decades now.

For a majority of these members who had thrived under the direct patronage of the king, the very term "elected" was unpalatable. They said that elections could result in partiality, vested interests, divisive politics, corruption and that people not suitable for the posts of Ministers could get elected. As a result, the king had to nominate the Cabinet candidates and announce their portfolios. Then a secret ballot was held in which 140 members participated.

The practice of the king chairing the meetings of the Lhengyal Shungshog (Cabinet) also ended. Under the new arrangement, the chairmanship was to be held on a rotational basis by elected Cabinet members. The chathrim (role and responsibility) of the Cabinet is to be drafted by a committee comprising National Assembly members representing the clergy and the government and was to be placed to the 77th session of the National Assembly.

What ultimately came out was an entirely new generation of Ministers. A suave Dawa Tshering, the longest-serving Foreign Minister, was replaced by an astute and dynamic bureaucrat Jigme Thinley and a conservative Home Minister Dago Tshering, by a more down-to-earth Thinley Gyamtsho. Yeshey Zimba, an economic liberal, bagged the Finance portfolio and outward looking Sangay Ngedup got Education. Surprisingly again, most of these Ministers were serving bureaucrats. In fact, the king’s Kasho clearly wanted it that way, It said: "To ensure efficient executive governing of the country, candidates should be selected from among persons who have held senior government posts at the rank of secretary or above."

However, the advocates of reforms have not seen any qualitative change in both the thinking and practice of the monarchy. Some of them even go to the extent of saying that the king introduced the new system because he wanted to get rid of the old set of Ministers in a sophisticated way and without offending them.

More significant has been the issues related to the second edict regarding the devolution of power and the role of the Cabinet. The Kasho more or less remained silent on the methods and extent of devolution. The unfolding of this Kasho in the last five years has been quite interesting. There have been significant moves including some indication that the legislature and the judiciary will be increasingly free from the clutches of the executive. The drafts of the first and "democratic" Constitution of Bhutan and a new penal code are ready. International constitutional experts are being consulted to give them a final shape. Bhutan now has a National Judicial Commission. A new law (the Jabmi Act) will "reaffirm and uphold the cardinal principle of fair trail with the help of Jabmi (legal counsel) to protect and establish people’s rights at all stages of proceedings". The Royal Civil Service is to be now controlled by an independent commission.

In the 81st session of the National Assembly, a member representing Bumthang mentioned that "in my last 13 years, a lot of changes have occurred. In the beginning chimis (members) will mostly express their appreciations for development activities... but now with the decentralisation of power to the people, the discussions have become totally different."

The third significant element of the Kasho was that "a two-thirds vote of no-confidence by the National Assembly shall require the King to abdicate in favour of the Crown Prince or the next-in-line of succession to the Golden Throne". This particular edict has to be seen in the context of the increasing demand of the advocates of reforms regarding the abrogation of monarchy. When a similar edict was introduced in 1968 by King Jigme Dorji (the present king’s father), the National Assembly had "reluctantly" agreed to it. However, within a couple of years the Assembly decided to surrender this privilege. King Jigme Dorji also tried to introduce more revolutionary changes in the political structure of Bhutan to form a government combining monarchical and democratic systems. He surrendered his power to veto any legislative bill passed by the National Assembly. He also established the first High Court in Bhutan and introduced the system of Council of Ministers. Somehow the present monarchy could not keep the pace of reforms going.

Though this no-confidence proposal was endorsed by the Assembly this time, it is to be seen how sustainable this particular Kasho would be. Given the fact that the king is considered an "object of veneration" and "as a Lam, a King and a parent" and going by the intensely emotional tenor of debate, it remains to be seen whether this privilege will be surrendered by the Assembly.

However, the institution of monarchy seems inevitable for this traditional kingdom to survive. This is more so in a situation where tradition, culture and religion continue to play a critical role in the preservation of sovereignty. What is required is a conscious strengthening of the process of devolving of power and granting freedom to democratic institutions like the judiciary, the mass media and civil society. All these have to be backed by a sound policy on the election of people’s representatives.

Both the domestic compulsions and international pressure have led the monarchy to introduce these democratic processes in Bhutan. The fallout of the expulsion of a large number of genuine Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens, mostly from southern Bhutan in 1990-93, the increasingly visible chasm between the ruling Drukpas and other prominent ethnic groups in Bhutan like the Sarchops, the clash of interests between the ruling elites and the feudal elements, the information deluge facilitated by globalisation and the slow intrusion of pro-democracy forces into the Bhutanese villages - all these factors have helped bring about this awakening in the 31-year old regime of King Wangchuk.

Given the nature of absolute monarchy, the political changes brought about through the king’s Kasho in the 76th session of the National Assembly should in the normal course have vital ramifications that should meet the expectation of the advocates of multi-party democracy in Bhutan. However, some people on the other side of the fence have expressed scepticisms over the royal edict. Rongthong Kuenley Dorjee an India-based leader of the United Front for Democracy in Bhutan described the contents of the Kasho as a mere "eyewash and of no consequence".

THE biggest challenge to Bhutan in the aftermath of the military action is to keep its territories out of bounds for the militants without the overbearing presence of the Indian Army. For this it has to bring about fundamental changes in its security and military apparatus. More than this, devolutions of power on the administrative and development fronts must be carried out with war-time zeal and speed. This is where the king’s pet programme of Geog Yargye Tshogchung (decentralisation) will come under severe test. The best way to ensure peace and security is to keep the people happy and develop a political culture that tolerates and carries all shreds of opinions and communities. One should not forget that the militants entered the Bhutanese jungles at the height of instability triggered by the massive expulsion of its citizens by the Bhutanese State in the southern zones.

Equally vital is to find a lasting solution to the refugee problem. They can no more be subjected to political arbitrariness. Bhutan has to take all of them back with full respect and dignity. This can be done only if citizenship, land holdings and politico-cultural rights are restored to the refugees. Everywhere in the world, conscious advocacy and propagation of the concept of second class citizens by the state has led to the question of divided loyalty. Bhutan has to accept and absorb this hard fact.

Either by taking the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or by constituting a team of independent international observers, Bhutan should take forward the proposed repatriation and rehabilitation process. Bhutanese refugees today require a total solution.

There are signs of limited openings. In some sense, things are changing fast in otherwise a slow-moving Bhutan. Television channels are now available. For the first time, the government has published a vision document entitled "Bhutan 2020", a "Human Development Report 2002" and a "Poverty Assessment and Analysis Report 2000". As a part of its attempt to join the World Trade Organisation, Bhutan has made its tourism policy strikingly liberal. It has privatised most of the top public sector undertakings, including Bhutan Carbide, Penden Cement, Bhutan Fruit Products, Bhutan Logging Corporation. Bhutan Tourism, Druk Satair Corporation, Bhutan Polythene Company; and so on. More notably, Coca-Cola has set up a bottling plant in the Himalayan kingdom. Many shopping malls have sprouted. This is how it is keeping pace with the other South Asian neighbours.

The challenge is to match these material-economic changes with socio-political empowerment of the people through an array of democratic institutions.


Pic1: V.V. KRISHNAN ; Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan, on his arrival in New Delhi on September 14.

Pic2: V.V. KRISHNAN ; Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Crown Prince of Bhutan, with Bhutanese Ambassador Dago Tshering, in New Delhi on August 28.

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