Bhutan: An exile’s view of the parliamentary elections

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CHARLOTTE, NC — Five years into the democratic process, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan—better known to outsiders as the champion of Gross National Happiness—is now preparing for its second parliamentary elections, scheduled for July 13.

At least four political parties stood in the recent primary election, resulting in the selection of the two to face off in the general election—the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), the winner in 2008 election, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Thinley Penjore, president of the exile-based Druk National Congress-Democratic, moved to the US through a resettlement program. He doubts that he will see democracy in Bhutan other than the “hypocritical dramatization to eyewash the international community.”

The July election is, to Penjore, as it is to many in the Diaspora, not going to result in anything better than the past government.

According to DNS Dhakal, an exiled Bhutanese political leader and a senior fellow at Duke University, the result of the primary election indicates that Bhutan is displaying tolerance toward multiparty democracy.

Dhakal further added that the country didn’t progress as much as needed since the first general election in 2008. This, to him, only speaks of the fact that establishment of vibrant democracy is still a long way off.

Some optimism for transformation in the justice system surfaced last year after the Mongar District Court found Jigme Tshultim, the speaker of the National Assembly, and Minjur Dorji, the first Home Minister of the democratic government, guilty of corruption.

However, despite the verdict, the perpetrators continue to walk scot-free.

The window to freedom of speech and expression is gradually opening, and for that, Bhutan should be praised. Yet, self-censorship continues to rule the media sector; the rural voices remain largely isolated from media contact, which seems to focus on urban areas, leaving many important stories untold.

In its 2012 country report on Bhutan, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, a global assessment of transition processes, stated that Bhutan’s level of socio-economic development is gradually increasing. This may be true, but it is equally important to note that such developments have only touched the capital city, Thimphu. Those in rural areas still live under the poverty line. One can only hope that the July election will elect new faces that will ensure that developmental projects reach rural areas.

At the moment, Bhutan is facing a serious Rupee (currency) crisis, which has existed for some time.

“With the chronic currency crunch, the socio-economic condition of ordinary Bhutanese has been experiencing a downward spiral,” said Jogen Gazmere, Australia-based Bhutanese human rights activist and Amnesty International political prisoner of conscience.

During the July election campaign, the Election Commission has restricted the use of other languages besides Dzongkha, the country’s national language and one of world’s toughest. Ironically, almost everyone in the country speaks and understands the Nepali language, not Dzongkha.

The imposition of a national language is an indication of the prejudice felt toward those in the south and east of the country, who don’t understand Dzongkha and are incompetent to caste an informed vote, even if they chose to.

“The national language is not the lingua-franca of most people in the south and east,” read a recent editorial of refugee-run Bhutan News Service.
As a result, many might decide not to participate in the July election. Language restriction could be seen as a maneuver by the election commission to indirectly restrict Nepali-speaking or Sharchops representatives, who typically are considered a threat by the regime in the mainstream politics, from winning the elections.

The accuracy of the government’s unemployment rate has been repeatedly challenged. Youth unemployment rates are seen as a growing problem that influences drugs use among young people.

For two decades, Bhutan has failed to live up to its assurances that it will resolve its refugee problem. An estimated 80,000 of the refugees camped in Nepal have made it to the West through the ongoing resettlement program. About 10,000, who are still living in camps, have shown no interest for resettlement and are awaiting repatriation. They may tend to wait forever—whether or not it takes place.

A few days after his party’s victory in the primary, I chatted briefly with the outgoing Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley via his Facebook page. Responding to my query about his party’s position on the refugee issue, he said, “It is a humanitarian problem that must be resolved in ways that are dignified and durable for the people in the camps.”

Bhutan’s refugee is a political issue, not a humanitarian matter; the solution should be pursued politically through trilateral talks between Bhutan, Nepal and India.

The few positive changes following the first general election in 2008 should not be seen as a sign that Bhutan is heading to fully-fledged democracy.

As long as the country continues to sideline the refugee issue, those in the Diaspora are likely to continue to question the legitimacy of moves toward democratic change in their home country.

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Originally published in the Global Post.

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A father, husband, public speaker, and a freelancer, Mr. Mishra returns to this news portal as the Executive Editor after he had served in the same capacity for nearly three years in the recent past. Born in Dagana, Bhutan and raised in the refugee camp in Nepal, Mishra’s entry into journalism began as early as 2002, and he has been volunteering in the area since then.

Mr. Mishra worked as a special correspondent for The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) Monthly for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. Later, he became Editor at the same newspaper, and also served as the Chief Editor of TBR for two years. He is one of the founder members of Bhutan News Service (BNS), where he started serving as Editor (2006-2009), and later Chief Editor (2009-2011).

Mr. Mishra also served as one of the main hosts of the radio program, Saranarthi Sarokar (translates to ‘Refugee Concern’ in English) in one of the local FM stations in Kathmandu, Nepal from 2007 through 2009. As a host of the program, he interviewed dozens of high-profile Nepalese and Bhutanese politicians, academicians, social and community leaders, including foreign diplomats then based in Kathmandu and Jhapa, Nepal.

Aside from his reporting work while in Kathmandu, Mr. Mishra also got involved in other philanthropic work, and helped needy refugees. Mr. Mishra led two donation campaigns through the lobby in Kathmandu among fellow Bhutanese refugees and supported fire victims in the refugee camp in the eastern part of the country. Mr. Mishra also directly assisted dozens of sick patients with various illnesses from the refugee camps in Jhapa to get their appropriate treatment in Kathmandu-based hospitals at a discounted rate and/or free of cost.

Mr. Mishra has appeared in various national, regional and international publications including the Wall Street Journal, Aljazeera America, Explore Parts Unknown, Global Post, Himal Southasian, among dozens of other media outlets with articles aimed at advocating the Bhutanese refugee issue. The New York Times, BBC, Guardian Weekly, among many others have featured Mishra’s work. Mr. Mishra has also written articles extensively reflecting the state of ‘freedom of speech & expression in Bhutan.’

Mr. Mishra is also the author of a handbook called Becoming a Journalist in Exile.

Mr. Mishra is the recipient of two awards—one by the Bhutan Press Union (2006), and the other by the Organization of Bhutanese Communities in America (2011) for his contributions in the related field. Founder President of the Bhutan Chapter of the Third World Media Network (2006-2012), Mishra has also represented Bhutan in various regional and national-level trainings and seminars on media freedom while during his stay in Nepal.

Mr. Mishra holds his first Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Purbanchal University in Nepal, and the second Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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