In March 2008, Bhutan ended its century-old system of absolute monarchy in favour of parliamentary democracy. This was a significant decision for a state that had always fought against democracy, claiming that it would damage the well-preserved culture and traditions of the isolated kingdom. Yet today, a year after the historic polls, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (the son of the monarch who originally made the decision to democratise) retains many of his political powers, including the authority to directly interfere in government activities and to reject decisions of the elected Parliament. The fact that people can now use their franchise and criticise the government is certainly a major achievement for Druk Yul. But taking stock of the first year of democracy in Bhutan, it must be said that far less has been achieved than initially expected.
There were certainly large promises made. During the campaign last year, the now-ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party propounded a philosophy of economic development and poverty alleviation, backed by the country’s omnipresent official ideology of Gross National Happiness. After a year in power, however, there has been no visible progress in achieving any one of these goals, with not even a single development project having been approved by the DPT government. What is more, those projects already underway have been either delayed or halted outright, such as the construction of the second international airport in the southern town of Gelephu.
The decisions that have been made have been of questionable help to the mass populace. Even with consumers hemmed in between an economic crisis and rising prices, in January Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s government decided to raise the salary of government employees by an average of 35 percent (and as high as 61 percent for some). As this move was made with seemingly no assessment of the prevailing economic environment, it has since added fuel to uncontrolled inflation of about nine percent, the highest ever recorded in Bhutan. This is particularly important in light of the fact that inflation had hit its highest point in October-November, three months before the decision was made to raise salaries.
Moreover, while self-reliance is one of the aims of the Gross National Happiness perspective, the country’s dependence on grants increased in the past year. During 2008, India alone announced financial assistance of INR 100 billion; nonetheless, Thimphu continued to ask donors to fund development projects, with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Austria and Denmark subsequently extending support. Meanwhile, the government failed to support the private sector by, for instance, making available additional capital or postponing the debt-repayment schedule. Around half a dozen industries were forced to close down during this period, and Thimphu seems unmindful of the increasing unemployment problem. Much of this current situation may well have its roots in the global economic downturn, but it has also shown the new government to be hesitant and, more worryingly, perhaps even incapable of following through on its own professed ideals of self-reliance.
Waiting for governance
Bhutan did successfully hold its first-ever elections, and for that it should be commended. But it remains far from a democratic country, with a significant percentage of its people still being denied their most basic rights. Monks and religious figures, for instance, along with those in jail, were not allowed to vote in last year’s polls. Rallies and public demonstrations are still not allowed, and trade unions are legally discouraged, with employees barred from forming more than one union in an office. And while the Constitution guarantees the freedom to assemble, the government has been known to break-up political meetings, and to fine media houses for criticising officials.
Whole sections of the populace are discriminated against. A large section of Lhotshampa, the Nepali-speaking minority of the south, was also disallowed from voting in the elections, including the more than one lakh refugees in UN-overseen camps in southeastern Nepal and elsewhere. Though a few lawmakers in Parliament have raised the issue of revisiting the 2005 census that officially categorised many Lhotshampa as non-nationals, as well as ending the requirement for the Lhotshampa to receive official No Objection Certificates (NOC) in order to work or attend school or start a business, there has been no progress on any of these fronts.
There has been no change in the judiciary. The High Court continues to act as the apex court, despite constitutional provisions for the creation of a Supreme Court. According to Article 21 of the Constitution, a chief justice and an unknown number of justices are thus to be appointed by the king. As such, to date the king remains the country’s highest court of appeal, and lawyers remain fearful of defending those that the government has charged with having committed ‘offence against state’. While there may not necessarily have been a sharp rise in human-rights abuse (with statistics past and present being notoriously difficult to come by), it can be said that in general the rights situation in Bhutan has certainly not improved. Most significantly, there remains no government agency tasked with the protection of human rights, and national and international groups are still not allowed in to monitor the situation.
One area that has seen some positive change in the past year has been the education sector. Schools have opened in the southern districts for the first time since 1990 (the year that saw a mass exodus of Lhotshampa), and a number of colleges have also opened throughout the country. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that schools and colleges are still far from adequate in terms of accommodating the increasing number of students. Indeed, more than 60 percent of Bhutanese students who are interested in higher education are forced to travel to India or farther, due to an absence of seats in higher-education institutions in Bhutan. While Education Ministry officials have repeatedly stated that the government will open schools in every village, no plans have yet been made public as to how this promise will be implemented.
Good governance was the primary slogan of the DPT during the campaign period; once in power, however, the party seems to have failed rather dramatically in this area. Corruption has increased substantially, for instance, while the delivery of government services remains desperately slow. The Parliament is yet to enact many laws, creating a situation in which the bureaucracy continues to follow the prescriptions of the cabinet (as is the case with the continued requirement for NOCs). The security environment in the southern districts has actually worsened, with the country for the first time experiencing a series of bomb blasts. This has even prompted some MPs to demand government security even to travel to their constituencies. Structurally, one of the state’s greatest weaknesses is the fact that public services remain extremely centralised, with NOCs and even small-business licences only available in Thimphu. The DPT seems quite happy with this centralisation, even though, with the introduction of democracy, the people’s voice grows louder.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that the people of Bhutan are collectively unhappy with the state of their new government. In a survey published in September by the Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan, about 55 percent of respondents stated that “nepotism and favouritism” are the most prevalent forms of corruption in the country, followed by the “misuse of public funds” and “bribery”. Similarly, a recent survey by the state-run Kuensel found that more than 47 percent of the population is disappointed with the democratic government. Some 12.6 percent say the government has failed, more than a quarter say that it has been ‘fairly successful’, and only 14 percent respond that the first year of Bhutanese democracy has been successful. Such numbers do not bode well for the DPT government. Perhaps, however, that remains the country’s current saving grace: having taken the first tentative steps, Bhutan is indeed a democracy now. The people can and will penalise government officials if the list of broken promises grows much longer.