All change in Shangri-la?

Ahead of Bhutan's parliamentary elections, Michael Hutt looks at the reality of the transition of th

The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is currently engaged in an extremely interesting exercise. The aim of its ruling Buddhist elite is to take Bhutan a few steps down the road towards becoming a genuine participative democracy, but without unleashing forces that will loosen its own control of the country’s destiny.

This is a carefully calculated response to popular aspirations within Bhutan and to the expectations of Bhutan’s foreign friends and neighbours.

Until the 20th century, Bhutan was ruled jointly by a reincarnate lama and a secular administrator. The country underwent many years of internal conflict between the feudal lords of its various districts during the previous centuries. The establishment of the Wangchuck monarchy in 1907, which brought this conflict to an end, was in large part an outcome of the country’s encounter with the British colonial state.

Since then, the preservation of the sovereignty and distinct cultural identity of Bhutan has been an overriding concern, especially as independent India became more heavily involved in the country’s development and internal affairs. For much of the 20th century, the King held absolute power, supported and advised by a small handpicked political elite. A National Assembly, established in 1953, met for just a few weeks each year.

2008 will see the conclusion of a long and gradual process of political change. In 1998 the King appointed a Council of Ministers, and a prime minister began to represent the country in overseas fora. Bhutan’s first written constitution was drafted in 2004 and was taken out to every district for a long and carefully guided process of comment, discussion and consultation. The constitution provides for elections to a small upper house (part elected and part appointed by the King) and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Having stated earlier that he would abdicate when the elections were held in 2008, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the fourth Wangchuck king) abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel in December 2006.

Last year a mock election was conducted across the whole country, with the electorate casting its vote for either a ‘red’ party or a ‘yellow’ party. A peculiarity of the constitution is that while it allows for the establishment and registration of political parties for the very first time, and allows these parties to contest the first stage of its general elections, only the two most successful parties in this round can proceed to the next. The party that wins the higher number of votes then forms the government, while the runner-up forms the opposition. Thus, Bhutan is establishing a ‘two-party democracy’ rather than a multi-party democracy.

The first round of elections to the National Council was held during the first week of January; elections to the National Assembly are scheduled for March. Only two parties contested these first elections: the People's Democratic Party (PDP), headed by an uncle of the King, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) headed by a former chairman of the Council of Ministers. Bhutan’s Election Commission denied registration to a third party, the Bhutan People's United Party (BPUP), allegedly on the grounds that its candidates did not possess the necessary competence, experience or qualifications. This decision has given rise to some stridency even among bloggers on Bhutanese websites that are normally very strongly nationalistic and fiercely loyal to the establishment.

Bhutan’s population comprises three main ethnic groups, none of which constitutes a numerical majority. During the early 1990s, approximately one half of one of these groups — the ethnic Nepali population —either fled or was expelled to refugee camps in eastern Nepal in one of the world’s least known ethnic conflicts.

These 100,000 people are now very sorely divided over the question of whether to continue to wait to be repatriated (a prospect that remains extremely remote) or to accept offers of resettlement recently made by countries including the USA and Canada. There is evidence to suggest that many of the Nepalis who remain in Bhutan are denied many rights, including the citizenship documentation that would enable them to vote in Bhutan’s new electoral processes.

The unending exile of about one sixth of the population of Bhutan, combined with the denial of civil and political rights to their ethnic kin within the country, is beginning to give rise to a politics of violence that closely mirrors that witnessed in Nepal over the past decade.

The latest example of this was the detonation of bombs in four locations inside Bhutan on 20 January. In an email sent to regional newspapers and selected individuals, a group calling itself the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan claimed responsibility for the blasts and declared ‘we have come to the conclusion that all the new changes which so much is being hyped is just cosmetic and in reality is not going to benefit all the Bhutanese except a small section’.

Journalists regularly describe Bhutan as a Shangri-la, and its government’s policy of striving for ‘Gross National Happiness’ is often quoted with approval. However, the political realities here are very starkly problematic. Charting the course for the future political development of a tiny multi-ethnic country lodged in high mountains between India and China must be one of the greater challenges of the 21st century.