A Study Of Bhutans Political System Politics

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The Uniquely Quiet Child of South Asia: Bhutan. Bhutan, a country comfortably cradled between Asian giants; a South Asian nation that managed to dodge British colonization; a ferociously religious and traditional society striding along comfortably in today's modern world. In this essay, I shall try to tackle the issue of how Bhutan has managed to maintain steady democratic progress, present some challenges it may face in future and a general review of Bhutan against the backdrop of its more chaotic neighbours.

Democratic Transition and Intention

Bhutan's gradual shift towards a constitutional monarchy and embracement of democracy has been less dramatic than most of its South Asian counterparts. The turning point in Bhutan came about in 1952, when King Jigme Dorji started to introduce liberal reforms which included the setting up of the National Assembly and conforming to similar administrative structure to India for ease of foreign correspondences. Due to the resultant death of the Prime Minister and subsequently the attempts to assassinate the monarch, foreign policy matters were taken into Bhutan own hands in 1965 with the establishment of a Royal Advisory Council, instead of leaving it to an Indian Advisor (Kharat, 264-6). The series of modernisation mechanisms followed, including the setting up of a Council of Ministers in 1968. Further liberalisation movements progressed slowly in the hope of a careful evolution towards a more open and transparent environment. The key roles of the National Assembly, Royal Advisory Council and the Council of Ministers are vital broad steps towards democracy and the decentralisation of power to the people. (Kharat, 266-9) In more recent times, the monarchy has been ceding its powers, encouraging transparency through increased checks and balances. Accelerating the move towards democracy, such as the drafting of written constitution, legislating human and political rights, has allowed Bhutan to align with the world community despite its limited participation in global economics. The handing over of King Singye to King Khesar Namgyel also paved the road for parliamentary elections in 2008. [] Through the sequential relieving of monarchical powers, Bhutan confirms its desire for democracy at its core.

Current and Future Challenges

Ethnic tensions in the 1980s grew in the conservative nation with marginalising of minority Hindu Nepalese as illegal immigrants and expulsion of Tibetans who refuse to accept Bhutan citizenship. Such measures cast some doubt on Bhutan internal policies. However, it is noted that these developments have been proposed by the National Assembly. (Kharat 268) Thus, there were some issues about the maturity and capability of the National Assembly in providing appropriate policies. More importantly, the question is how well represented are these minorities in the National Assembly and whether they are repressed by the majority such that their voices are not heard. Nevertheless, the repatriation issue was a long-drawn affair that was formally addressed only in 2001 by both governments. Subsequent acceptance of relocation of refugees to other countries was agreed, but little has been done. [] In 2008, the bombings that rocked the nation were attributed to the unhappy Nepalese fighting for their rights. (Whelpton, 58) Hence, the links to ethnic violence and potential severity to social stability must never be overlooked.

In Dhakal's article, he questions the authenticity of Bhutan's democratic ambitions. The common Bhutanese is unable to understand the content of the constitution; there is incomplete information and education. Also, party leaders are closely linked to the monarchy (Dhakal). Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuck stepped down so as to participate in the election in 2007 [] . However, it is also noted that mock elections were held to help voters understand the concept of elections better, and almost 80% participation was recorded. The election result was largely a walkover of a pro-monarchy party winning another pro-monarchy party. (Dhakal) In essence, the spirit of the election seems to be lacking.

The issue of censorship and freedom of speech in the country is pressing. The mass media is still young and information dissemination is generally ineffective in Bhutan. Newspapers do not reach the rural masses and language barriers blocks out sections of the country. Ties with the government in all types of media have impeded information flow due to censorship, and general fear of political backlashes. (Dhakal) On the other hand, things have improved with the privatisation of previously state-owned media. Privately owned newspapers (Bhutan Observer, Bhutan Today, Drukpa) have popped up over the years claiming to provide independent perspectives, though outreach is still limited as most papers are English. [] 

Economically, Bhutan is one of the least industrialised nations in the world. [] With its economy based mainly on rural cultivation, it depends heavily on international support to build up its infrastructure. Recently, its export of hydropower to India (partially funded by India) [] , and a growing tourism industry seem as a promising base for development. However, the poverty gap is still extremely wide and much greater efforts to encourage the country's growth will be needed to enhance its development in today's world. The country diverts attention of its weak GDP to its "more important" Gross National Happiness (GNH), in line with the focus on traditional values, environmental preservation and wellbeing, rather than economic indicators, Bhutan's highly controversial GNH has drawn much criticism to being highly biased and a political excuse for its own economic deficiency.

There have also been worries of India's "swallowing" of Bhutan (think Sikkim). The Sikkim scenario, however, was vastly different from Bhutan's current stable and independent monarchy. With the Treaty of Friendship renewed recently, assimilation of Bhutan into India is unlikely at the moment.


There are many reasons often attributed to Bhutan's relatively peaceful situation are it's strategically less important location, manageable size and historically withdrawn, isolated stance towards world issues. Upon comparisons with fellow South Asia countries like Nepal, what makes it so special?

One most important factor that is often neglected is its monarchy's timely, gradual assimilation of democratic ideals without foreign or political pressures. The monarchy was formed and recognised by the British and did not ever have to encounter the teething problems that come with the struggle for independence, unlike most of the other South Asian nations. This peaceful political backdrop set the stage for the King to have the authoritative powers to govern without opposition. Following more than 40 years of relatively peaceful rule, Bhutanese will naturally have faith in the monarchy. Perhaps, in view of the various political instabilities in the region in the late 1940s, Bhutan simultaneously started its democratic intentions, though decentralisation of power over the following decades to ensure stability of the country. Such sentiments would likely appease any emerging opposition.

Bhutan was also predominantly firm Buddhists and education was mostly religious in nature. In a way, this form of education possibly encouraged social peace. Its isolation from world politics as India took care of most of its foreign relations also meant few interactions (and thus conflicts). In that sense, Bhutan had extremely cordial relations with India, while its peaceful relations with northern neighbours, China, have been affirmed with bilateral agreements on peace in the borders. The global acceptance of Bhutan was strengthened when it joined the United Nations in 1971. [] Furthermore, the Kings' continual effort towards implementing a constitutional monarchy and work towards democracy will not trigger many global debates, as it aligns itself with the widely-accepted "norm".

Nevertheless, Bhutan is still young in its quest for democracy; many problems would not have surfaced. The major challenges that Bhutan will face and how it deals with them will slowly but surely, redefine "Shangri-La" as we know it.

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