In December 2006, in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the then ruling King, 51 years old Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced that he would abdicate his throne, setting the country to a path toward parliamentary democracy. Earlier in 1991 too, he had made similar type of announcement stating, “If the problem in south is not solved positively, I will abdicate my throne.” It was with the students of Sherubtse college, then only one in the country. He took the time frame of three years to do the job. But surprisingly in 2006, without hinting a bit of solution to the problem; without mending the fences for democratic setup of government, he just passed over his absolute, autocratic post to his son in the name of ‘abdication.’ He actually gave way to so-called parliamentary, by-party system of ‘democracy graced by an almighty king’. He and the palace have been just irrigating their vested inner desires through the channel of this fake parliamentary system called ‘Democracy’. The rigid royal followers are just utilizing the newfound democracy as a weapon to embark on others instead of making it rooted in the hands of Bhutanese people in real sense.
Anyone can say that the heart of Bhutan’s parliamentary democracy is plugged on to Jigme Singye’s remote brain. What a abdication he chose, when his own kind of kingship is taken over by the young Jigme Khesar?
Learned in Oxford with palace luxury, Khesar does not have proven experience of leading the constitutional monarchy with the basic tenets of traditional politics changed. That’s why he is just going as his father’s obedient pupil in ethno-politics. As a guardian of Bhutanese constitution, he seems less bothered about the refugee problem in general as well as the functioning of democratic organs that can ensure a good governance which Bhutanese people want in real sense and not a illusion.
Very desperately, we have to say that mainly India and the western world persuaded king Jigme assuming his steps as sacrifice to the people of Bhutan. The western world might have taken king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a role model. But, king Jigme and Bhutan can’t be compared with such a Middle East power block in politico-economic terms. Bhutan remained aloof for dozen of decades from the outer world and so was the political structure, economic activities, civic life and issues of government-citizen relations. For decades, the kingdom home to only six hundred thousand people, has been the adobe of interest by social scientists, independent journalists and even the natural scientists.
Unfortunately, a large chunk of the internal revenue and external grants from the donors went to the palace and its vicinity including the stagnant army. The country was kept off-limits to the world influence by means of restricting television and internet to the public until 1999. A few foreigners who traveled to Bhutan have always been the special guests and taken on a guided tour to some hinterlands of northern Bhutan, away from the human settlement, to view the chhortens, monasteries or dzongs having cultural value. Even some of them are told about the ‘insecurity’ in southern part, if they wish to go some tourist destinations other than the guided ones.
Until these days, in so-called parliamentary democratic system, Bhutan has no precise legal and constitutional provisions protecting freedom of speech, expression, association, and exhibiting dissidence incase of impeachment of fundamental rights of citizens. The forceful use of traditional dress code to other ethnic groups against their will is the violation of civil rights. It only shows the fake nationality superimposed by one ruling ethnic group to other ethnic groups. The direct interference of the home authority on practice of Nyngmapa sect of Buddhism by Sarchhop community is yet another violation of freedom to religion which the Bhutanese delegates to human rights forums have been promising every time.
Instead of promoting western notions like gross national product, gross individual earnings and its productive use, Jigme has created a hazy concept called ‘gross national happiness’ influenced in part by Buddhism, which is limited to the Royal elites.
According to political analysts, Jigme has explained gross national happiness as the “acquisition of contentment rather than capital”- feeling of well-being derived from social and economic development, preservation of culture and environmental conservation among other things. Western academicians pitched upon the idea, introducing annual conference on gross national happiness that features papers like “Planning for sustainable Happiness: Harmonizing our Internal and External landscapes”.
Bhutan’s rural and urban pictures are distantly different. In rural areas, Bhutan remained almost unaffected by the passage of time. Dzongs, the massive fortress and monasteries consisting of white stone citadels with imposing pagoda-roofs-towered over the landscape, pristine marvels compared to the ruined regions of Nepal, Tibet and northern India, much of which are scarred by logging and industry. Inside the dzong prayer halls, red robed novice monks chanted sutras and burnt smoky butter lamps in front of imposing statues of local deities. In the plains around the dzongs, men threshed rice by hand and cut new fields with small trowels, while local women shooed cows, boars and wooly yaks along the footpaths.
But, in Thimpu, the capital, there can be found that gross national happiness didn’t always live up to its advertising. Frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity, seeing the relative modernity of India on Indian TV broadcasts and chafing at restrictions on dress and speech, young Bhutanese have begun to lash out. In recent years once-sleepy Thimpu has witnessed a crime wave and one study showed that a significant number of young Bhutanese watch TV twelve hours a day. In downtown Thimpu, young class shucked their traditional Gho-checked, bathrobe-like outfits cut off at the knees-for jeans, T-shirts and mobile phone holsters at night. They prowled in bunches and mock-brawled in city squares, mimicking the American professional wrestling shown on TV. Adolescents have also developed major drinking problems- there can be seen young Thimpu residents spending evenings sucking down drugs and cough syrup and then fighting in the streets for real. One night, a few years ago a tourist saw two young men bloodying each other on the icy main drag. Like audiences of a film, referees waiting for combatants to fall on the ice, a small crowd let them fight until they hit the ground and then separated the boys.
Bhutan’s supposed uniqueness has also attracted upscale Western travelers who have brought on the very change Bhutan supposedly resisted. High-end hoteliers have set up shops in Bhutan, building luxurious resorts complete with Yoga classes, masseuses imported from Thailand, and pan-Asian cuisine that could have come straight from Bali (Indonesia). Celebrities have been decamping onto tiny Thimpu. One day, a tourist went hiking with a local Bhutanese guide, Ugyen. He hurried him up a mountain and when the tourist reached the top, Ugyen told him,”We’re making pretty good time…May be if we get to space 34 [ a local night club] early we’ll see Cameroon Diaz”. “Cameroon Diaz?” the tourist asked, befuddled. The idea of seeing a Charlie’s Angel in a place where some of the countries still lacked electricity seemed at the least, far-fetched. “Yeah, she was here recently”, Ugyen said to the tourist, ” She was on the dance floor all night at space 34, dancing real sexy with a group of people…..I think she had some rapper with her, too. You know that guy-Redman?” (The tourist later found out she was actually shooting an MTV show on the environment in Bhutan).
A depressing tale, perhaps-just another traditional culture that could not stand up to modernity, indeed when there are many Westerners in Bhutan who’d come to see the gross national happiness and left disappointed by Bhutan’s nightclubs, parties and cell phones. Except that in recent years the king had made propaganda that he himself apparently decided to grace his people that his subjects could embrace elements of the modern world without losing their unique identity.
Now, having known all these realities can’t we say Bhutan’s new hazarded parliamentary democracy is cornered in Thimpu, and it is unknown to the real Bhutanese people?
Former founder/editor of ‘Sandesh Saptahik,’ a weekly Nepali-language newspaper which stopped after some years of publications due to lack of funds, Ghimire is associated with BNS.