The kingdom of Bhutan has always remained resolutely isolated from political trends in the rest of Southasia. But a process of change has been speeding up, ever since former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began to let go of the overt reigns of power. On 24 March, this process received an additional jolt, as 79 percent of the 318,000 Bhutanis eligible to vote went to polling booths to chose their first-ever democratically elected National Assembly, the lower house of the country’s new bicameral Parliament. Kathmandu photographer Sumit Dayal visited Bhutan to document the atmosphere.
The world’s ‘youngest democracy’ had something of a rocky start. For one, the two parties in the running, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), seemed noticeably similar. The platforms of both banked on the ‘gross national happiness’ concept introduced by King Jigme; during the campaign, the parties competed to appear more royalist than the other. Nevertheless, voters themselves clearly saw enough of a difference to put the DPT in power by a landslide, handing them 45 out of 47 seats.
Then there was the issue of who exactly was allowed to vote. Under a February 2007 law, the country’s large clergy – monks, nuns and lay religious practitioners – was barred from voting, supposedly to ensure the separation of religion from politics. Those not considered citizens were also prohibited from casting a ballot. Large numbers of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa, from southern Bhutan – who make up roughly 40 percent of the population – were also disenfranchised. This was due to stipulations in the country’s 2005 Constitution, along with the 1988 and 2005 censuses, which denied many Lhotshampa their right to citizenship, purportedly due to their ‘non-national’ status.
Nonetheless, as Dayal’s pictures indicate, the advent of multi-party democracy, as well as a suddenly flourishing consumerism, are together challenging traditions. It was only in 1999 that Bhutan allowed the Internet and television into the country, making it the last country on earth to legalise the latter. All of the exposure has dramatically impacted youth culture, and there has been a rise in juvenile delinquency in Thimphu. But there is worry and resistance as well, with the world suddenly catching up with Druk Yul. At the moment, much of the parliamentary debate on the new constitution – proposed by King Jigme back in 2005, before handing de jure kingship to his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck – has focused on whether its contents should be debated at all.
From an outside perspective, the answer to this is obvious: in order for a democracy to burgeon and take root, a constitution must be promulgated and implemented such that Bhutanis of all colours, creeds and linguistic backgrounds are given a voice in their country’s affairs. As always, it is difficult to say just how much of an impact outside perspectives will have in Thimphu, or in the rest of Bhutan. But if the past is anything to go by, its effect will be increasing by the year.
~ Sumit Dayal is Delhi-based photographer.