October 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
Who lives there?: Around 700,000 people – although 100,000 or so are currently living as refugees in Nepal (Nepal is just to the west of Bhutan, separated by a small strip of India). Slightly under 50% of the population spoke the Nepali language in 1990. However, following an armed uprising amongst this group Bhutan enacted a policy of forced wearing of Bhutanese national dress and learning of Bhutanese language. The policy was resisted and well over 100,000 Nepali speakers were expelled from the country – many of those that remained have kept a low profile since.
The rest of Bhutan is largely populated by two very similar groups of Tibetan origin. The Ngalops, or West Bhutanese, tend to follow the official Drupka Kagyu form of Tibetan Buddhism whereas the Sharchops, or East Bhutanese, tend to follow the Nyingmapa form. However there is much intermarrying between groups and cultural differences are not particularly distinct – at least not compared to differences with the Nepali community. The Ngalop language is Tibetan whereas the Sharchop language is pre-Tibetan – but there is a degree of mutual intelligibility.
Bhutan is the world’s only officially Buddhist country (although Sri Lanka also sometimes makes this claim). The country is 90% Buddhist and 10% Hindu. The line between the two religions is blurrier than it is in India, but not as blurry as it is in Nepal.
How does the system work? (the theory): Bhutan has just moved from absolute monarchy to a measure of democratic monarchy. The king still has considerable powers – particularly via patronage. The King appoints the supreme Court and the Attorney General and the heads of the national commissions. The King can also amend legislation and ask for legislation to be reviewed. However the King has no power of veto.
The Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party in the lower house or National Assembly. The Prime Minister leads the executive and even has the power to impeach the king, requiring a two thirds majority in both houses to do so. The National Assembly is elected by first past the post for five year terms with 47 seats contested. The constitution actually allows for PR, with Bhutan divided into 20 multi-member constituencies and the system of election not specified. However at the first, and so far only, elections the Electoral Commission decided to further subdivide these constituencies and run the election under FPTP.
There is also a lesser, upper house which has 5 members appointed by the King and 20 members elected by first-past-the-post in elections in which party affiliations are prohibited.
Bhutan is divided into districts and sub-districts with appointed local government officials. At the very local level there are elected village henchmen who serve three year terms and report issues to higher officials. In actual fact most villages also have a great deal of autonomy under their henchman.
How does the system work? (the practice): The word of the King is still very powerful. Whilst lèse majesté rules make it difficult to determine how popular the royal family actually are, it is thought that they are reasonably popular, and it is known that many people were wary of moving towards democracy.
The democracy is, in any case, flawed. Whilst the elections themselves are reasonably free and fair the candidates are closely screened. Parties based on cultural or regional affiliations are illegal – and the main dilemma facing Bhutan is regarding cultural and regional. Parties can also be banned – and have been – if the Electoral Commission arbitrarily decides they “do not have the capacity to fill the people’s aspirations”. Various statements on the Electoral Commission’s website suggest that they were, in any case, only ever intending to approve two political parties – and were going to use the informal “primaries” to decide which two to approve.
The upshot of all this is that there are only two legal political parties in Bhutan – both have links to the king (who they fervently support) and differences between the two of them are minimal.
Nepali people continue to be under-represented and, whilst the government has recently relaxed enforced cultural and linguistic laws and allowed some Nepalis to return, many Nepalis are still living in refugee camps in Nepal.
Interestingly Bhutan is the most improved country in the world when it comes to press freedom. In 2002 Reporters Without Borders judged it the 5th most repressive regime in the world (just behind Turkmenistan), yet by 2010 it was 114th (just behind Croatia).
How did we get here?: Bhutan was one of many mountain fiefdoms in the area, some of which survived and some of which didn’t. It fell firmly within the British sphere of influence, but, like Nepal, after a couple of initial bloody noses it was decided it wasn’t worth conquering. Democratic reforms started in the 1950s and were attempted again in the 1990s. However these reforms were largely cosmetic and it was a genuine surprise to many when a transfer to democracy was announced in 2006 – with elections in 2008.
As previously mentioned, Bhutan has had a troubled history with the Nepali speakers who live in the south of the country. It also went to war in 2003 with several groups of Indian separatists (primarily Assami, Naxalite and Bodo) who were using the border areas as a base to launch attacks into India.
Who’s in charge?: The first ever elections led to a landslide for the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party: they won 45 of the 47 seats and their leader Jigme Thinley duly became Prime Minister. They are supposedly centre-right, although policy differences are largely cosmetic. The supposedly centre-left People’s Democratic Party of Bhutan picked up the other two seats.
Of the banned parties, the one that enjoys the largest following is the United Front for Democracy – an anti-monarchy group; they are not only banned but also exiled. The moderate Bhutan People’s United Party is also banned.
Other influential groups include the Buddhist clergy, the primarily Indian merchant community, and various Nepali cultural organisations (whose legality is a moveable feast).
What does it look like?: Bhutan is in the Himalayas and is very very high. It starts as mountain tropical jungle in the south, as you go higher you get to alpine pasture and then it’s glaciers to the top. High mountain climbing is banned in Bhutan, in part due to religious beliefs that this is where spirits live, and in part because the country has no mountain rescue service. Partly because of this, the highest point in Bhutan (7570m high Gangkhar Puensum) is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain.
What are the issues?: Maintaining what they see as Bhutan’s unique culture whilst still functioning as a multicultural state has been the leaderships greatest concern. TV was only legalised in 1999, and paranoia about the Nepali community has led to draconian cultural rules in the past. These are slowly being eased as democracy brings a period of détente but there is still a large refugee community and a great deal of cultural tension.
There are also issues with rural poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and corruption – particularly in law enforcement agencies and local government. The closed border with China stifles trade but it is in any case not an easy border, and it is unlikely to open any time soon.
A good book is: There are plenty of travel guides, but not much has been written on Bhuttanese politics. It is early days. Before she became considerably more famous as the jailed should-have-been-Prim-Minister-of-Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi made a living as a travel writer, and by all accounts her Let’s Visit Bhutan has aged quite well. Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan is one of the few specialist books on the country.
When are the next elections?: Elections for the legislative will be in 2013.