Bhutan faces a number of teething problems as it transitions from a monarchy to a democracy.
Since general elections in July 2013, Bhutan is facing an acceleration in cultural, religious, linguistic conflicts coupled with sharp political polarization. The electoral divisions are normal in any democracy, in which competing political parties offer their programs, giving people a choice to select the one they find better or more viable. But in countries, like Bhutan, political polarization take bizarre turns, leading to chaos and perpetual instability. This happens when the political leadership fails to agree on any national agenda. Bhutan, a small and vulnerable country, is facing political discord and divisions for the many months now.
Before Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal (1594-1651) unified Bhutan, it consisted of competing warlords and religious sects in different valleys, all vulnerable to civil wars and foreign interventions. Under Zhabdrung, Bhutan became a strong regional player enhancing its territory well into Bengal and Assam. Bhutan also successfully held off and defeated invasions from bigger neighbors. Unfortunately, after this era, the country once again became politically divided with isolated valleys ruled by different warlords. This led to foreign intervention as the British took advantage of the situation and annexed it. The rise of the Monarchy in 1907 saw an end to hundreds of years of divisions, civil commotions and subjugation of the British in 1910. There was once again political unity accompanied by stability and prosperity under the monarchy.
In March 2008, the first elections were held in which the Bhutan Harmony Party won 44 out of the 47 seats. In November 2008, when Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned, India started alleging links between Assamese separatists and Bhutan’s dissident Druk National Congress. This and other issues persisted till the second elections in July 2013 that were won by the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) which got 32 seats against Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party's 15 seats.
In the wake of elections, Premier Tshering Tobgay was criticized for receiving the Indian Ambassador, V.P. Haran, along with the entire Cabinet on the very first working day of the government. The meeting was addressed by the Indian Ambassador. Earlier New Delhi forced Pavan K. Varma, to resign “due to his failure to prevent Bhutan developing relations with China”.
Political commentators in Bhutan alleged that India was looking to
fuel people’s discontent against the government. Delhi favored the PDP in winning the election, defeating the ruling Peace and Prosperity Party. Many resent what they see as India’s “overlordship” over the Kingdom’s affairs. Writing in his blog, political analyst Wangcha Sangley wondered: “Why do Indian media and politicians want to castrate Bhutan for the most harmless relationship effort with China?” Liu Zongyi, a scholar of strategic affairs at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), a well-known think-tank, was of the view that New Delhi influenced the outcome of the 2013 election. He said: “it manifested Delhi’s anxiety over China’s recent overtures to Bhutan. India won’t allow Bhutan to freely engage in diplomacy with China and solve the border issue,”
There is resentment inside Bhutan that democracy is not bringing sovereignty as the leadership is hand in hand with New Delhi that treats the small, landlocked Himalayan neighboring states of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan in the same manner as the British imperialists. The Indian ruling class has always regarded the sovereignty of these countries as subordinate to what it considers its strategic interests. This was very clearly stated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who said in the 1950s that “from time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with a magnificent frontier… We cannot let that barrier to be penetrated because it is the principal barrier to India.”
Not only the pro-India and antiIndia divisions are perpetuating in the wake of 2013 elections, there are disagreements over many other issues, from growth strategy to press freedom, from the refugee problem to ethnic disturbances. In an open letter to the premier, president of Druk National Congress (Democratic) said: “Your party has a heavy responsibility to patch up the worsened relationship as well as maintaining the sanctity of our country’s sovereignty forever cherished since time immemorial.” Analysts say that there is nothing normal about perpetual divisions. The divisions are getting deeper and have impacted a lot more people, from the elite of Bhutanese society to government functionaries to ordinary citizens, than in 2008.
Little has improved on the human rights scene. Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan ensures that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status. In reality, only Buddhists and Hindus are allowed to form organizations to function legally in the country. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007, the only legislation that provides for the formation of religious groups, says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan”, which is Mahayana Buddhism. This belies democratic norms and human rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
There is, however, optimism in Bhutan that the youth is committed to further the political process and overcome the difficulties faced by the country.
Bhutan, fighting political, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences in its nascent democratisation process, is lucky to have a wise and visionary monarchy that besides unifying the country has helped its journey from a feudal to a democratic state. People say that now that the monarchy has entrusted the people with political power, it is the responsibility of the political leadership to use it in a mature manner to build a strong nation and move ahead and stop squabbling like petty warlords of the past pulling a nation apart for limited and narrow objectives.