Wary of democracy in Bhutan

Citizens of the peaceful kingdom have seen how corruption can infest democracy.

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It often comes as a bewildering surprise to Americans that not all people think democracy is the best system of government, even when they value its ideals. Often, a fear of insecurity or a preference for well-being over free-for-all politics is at the heart of this.

Singapore may be the classic example of a country that has grown in a generation from a run-down backwater to a high-tech nation with living standards rivaling those of Europe – but with a controlled political system that falls short of full democracy.

Last year in Thailand, when the Army, backed by the much-revered king, overthrew a populist, democratically elected prime minister, Thai intellectuals surprised Westerners with their defense of the coup. Latin America's current crop of strongmen with antidemocratic agendas are coming to power through majority votes.

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On April 21, the faraway kingdom of Bhutan practiced democracy. Although it was only a mock election – the real parliamentary voting is scheduled for next year – it served to remind the Bhutanese that the last Himalayan Buddhist monarchy is about to be dramatically transformed. The move – a political shift from near-absolute rule to a democratically elected government – is being greeted by nothing more positive than apprehension. A lot of people think that this may be a terrible mistake. Iraqis aren't the only ones skeptical of the promises of democracy.

No invading armies or sectarian violence in Bhutan, however. No grass-roots groundswell for change. It was the king himself, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ordered democracy. Nice touch.

The move had been on his mind for years. More than a decade ago, long before turning over power to his son in December, he told me he was aware that his kind of monarchy was no longer politically fashionable, though he had his qualms about democratic government. Nevertheless, he soon set to work on a seismic political change in this country of about 700,000 people scattered over a mountainous realm slightly larger than Switzerland.

So why aren't the Bhutanese jumping for joy? After all, theirs is the only country in South Asia without some kind of elected government. Ironically, this democratic neighborhood is the problem. The Bhutanese look around them and see democracies racked by political, ethnic, or ideological violence – in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh – and infested with debilitating corruption setting back de­velopment across the regional map.

Lhatu Wangchuck, who was Bhutan's ambassador to several neighboring countries and its deputy chief of mission at the United Nations before becoming the director-general of the tourism department, says his fellow citizens are just not very confident of what's ahead. "We have seen what corruption can do to democracy," he said recently in an interview in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital. "It can cripple government."

Bhutan, while not perfect as it is, has much to lose. It is a poster child for environmental protection. (Mountain climbing is banned because the peaks are sacred.) Its living standards are rising steadily, outpacing those of some other nations in the neighborhood, especially in health and education. Development decisions are made locally. Women have considerable rights. The entire country has more or less been declared a no-smoking zone.

One of the king's major initiatives was the establishment of an anticorruption commission, on which a lot of ordinary people pin their hopes in case a new national parliament, to be elected next year, sinks into money politics and electoral skulduggery. A constitution has been written. The UN is helping guide the election commission as it tries to teach Bhutanese what voting means.

The king has given his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a year to work on entrenching constitutional monarchy before his coronation at the end of 2007. Khesar will be the fifth king in a dynasty enthroned in 1907 with support from the British, who weren't able to make rugged Bhutan a colony and had to settle for influence. Before monarchy, Bhutan was a theocracy with warlords.

The new king will no longer rule, though he will remain head of state. But the powerful Buddhist hierarchy will lose its political role. As the last royally appointed government is about to be dissolved, political parties are forming. At the top, events are moving fast. Meanwhile the country watches and waits. Says Lhatu Wangchuck: "We can only hope that good sense will prevail."

Barbara Crossette is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas." ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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