Bhutan wary of democratic change

The isolated nation holds its first-ever national election Monday after decades of guardianship by kings who severely limited contact with the outside world.

Manish Swarup/AP
Big changes ahead? Schoolchildren walked past a designated election campaign stand Thursday in Bhutan's capital, Thimpu.
Scott Wallace
Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images
Bhutan to end royal rule: Women talked to a Buddhist monk in Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, last week. The Himalayan country holds its first-ever election Monday.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan holds its first national election Monday – a historic event expected to herald great changes in this deeply conservative, isolated country.

Bhutan, which is wedged between India and China, has been ruled for over a century by kings who have jealously guarded it from the outside world. International media were allowed into the kingdom only in 1974 and television in 1999. Tourism and foreign investment have been limited in order to slow the homogenizing influence of global culture.

But after Monday, when Bhutan elects its first democratic government, the kings' guardianship will come to an end. Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, will be ruled by the people. The king, who had ruled with absolute power, will become a constitutional monarch, impeachable by a two-thirds vote in parliament.

At the moment, however, many Bhutanese are concerned about what changes this new democracy will bring, and most say they would prefer to be governed by their adored king.

"I love the king; I can't see what's wrong with having him as ruler," says Payang Bidda, as she sits by the roadside stall where she sells bright-red chilis and salty dried fish in Thimpu, the capital.

Democracy is the kings' will

It was Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who decreed in 2006 that Bhutan should be transformed into a democracy. Since then, he and his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who assumed power last year, have set out to educate their subjects on the nuts and bolts of democracy. The fifth king is fast becoming as beloved as his father: photos of the handsome, Oxford-educated 28-year-old adorn most shops and homes.

Even politicians show extraordinary deference to the king.

"Everyone in the party would tell you they're only doing this because it's what the king wants," says Palden Tsering, spokesman for the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Virtuous Bhutan Party, one of the two parties contesting 47 seats in parliament.

Both the DPT and its rival, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), admit that their manifestos are practically identical. Both say their priority is to modernize Bhutan, connecting remote villages to roads and electricity and building more bridges over the country's gushing ice-melt rivers.

Infrastructure developments such as these may not sound like much, but in Bhutan, they will constitute a significant change. Visitors to Bhutan often describe this landscape of dense green forests, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags as one of the last wonders of the world.

Here, the lush green countryside is pristine: visitors are not allowed to climb Bhutan's sacred mountains. There is not a traffic light in the entire country.

Bhutan's former caretaker prime minister, Kuenzang Dorji, says that retaining Bhutan's identity in a democratic framework could be difficult.

"Bhutan will modernize more quickly now for sure," says Mr. Dorji. "That's what the politicians are promising people. The challenge will be balancing economic development on one hand with cultural values and with the natural environment, which is so important to us."

Analysts say the king's decision to surrender his power was prompted by the experiences of other Himalayan Buddhist states. In 1949, Ladakh was divided by India and Pakistan. In 1950, Tibet was taken over by China. Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975.

The king may also have wanted to avoid the kind of popular antiroyalist uprising that was seen recently in Nepal.

"His Majesty, in his wisdom, believes that a small and vulnerable country like Bhutan cannot be left without a proper, stable, political system," says Kinley Dorji, editor in chief of the Kuensal newspaper.

But there are also compelling domestic reasons for democracy in Bhutan.

Bhutan's fourth king ruled over major changes. In the 1960s, there were no proper roads and few schools and hospitals. The king made free education and health care nearly universal. Under his reign, life expectancy rose from under 50 years of age to 66 and the annual per capita income rose to $1,400, one of the highest in the region.

'Gross national happiness'

He also introduced gross national happiness (GNH) as an alternative to economically oriented development measures. GNH holds that tradition and the environment should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of economic prosperity.

But a fifth of the people live in poverty.

In urban areas, unemployment is rising among the young; for those ages 15 to 24, it stands at more than 5 percent.

"I'd love to be a businessman," says Rudra Deb, who works in his brother's butcher shop. "But doing business in Bhutan is impossible at the moment."

Businesses in Bhutan are controlled by the government or a few wealthy families. But in the coming months, significant employment is expected to come from the tourism sector, the biggest employer outside farming. A new airport will be built, and hotels will rise up in remote areas, once the roads are built. "Times are changing," says Thinlay Dorji Wangchuck, managing director of the Bhutan Tourism Corporation. "Tourism is going to open up hugely, and we estimate it could create 100,000 new jobs."

But many here are wary of what that will do to Bhutan's cultural identity. Karma Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimpu, a think tank that has conducted detailed research into GNH, says attendance at village festivals has dropped 50 percent in recent years.

"Modernization will come, but what really matters is that Bhutan keeps its values," says Kinley Dorji. "When the hotels get bigger than the monasteries, then we'll know we have problems."

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