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.
Originally published in the Global Post.