Burma and Bhutan: A Tale of Two Top-down Democracies


What do Burma and Bhutan have in common? They are the two Asian countries that have imposed democracy from above not long ago. Both are Buddhist nations. Burma turned democratic in March 2010 with the general election that was rigged and widely condemned. However, a quick remedy—an open and verified by-election in April 2011—has helped Burma paved the way to democracy. Since then the country has embarked on dramatic political and economic reforms that took the global community by surprise. It used to be one the world’s most disreputable rogue states. Now it has turned its status around from zero to hero although some serious problems remain related to human rights and fierce fighting with key minority groups.

On the other side of India’s Assam region from Burma lies Bhutan. The kingdom, known as Shangri-La to the outside world, moved away from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 2008, when the first election was held to choose a new government. Before the democracy actually came, the popular monarch began numerous education programs to raise understanding and awareness of new political developments, especially the duties and responsibilities of Bhutanese citizens. Bhutan’s democratic transformation is the world’s smoothest without any of the bloodletting often witnessed in other emerging democracies around the world.

Burma has now become a rather exceptional case in the annals of democratic development when it comes to top-down democracy. Naypyidaw calls its political system “disciplined democracy,” with strong guidance from the state apparatus, especially the military, which comprises 25 percent of the national and regional parliaments in the country.

So far, the economic and political reforms have gone in tandem—a rare practice in this part of world. Most reforms are mainly on economic liberalization. For instance, three decades ago both Vietnam and Laos adopted market-oriented policies to improve their moribund economies. Political reforms in both countries have been sluggish. Burma, which began economic and political reforms two years ago, has made tangible progress on the civil rights issues that both Vietnam and Laos have been avoiding so far. Last year, it set up a national human right commission, freed up the media and recognized the role of civil society organizations.

In a similar vein, Bhutan has been unprecedented when it comes to top-down democracy. Now Bhutan is playing a high-profile role in promoting the idea of using Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an index to measure the well being of a country instead of wealth alone. Former King Jigme Wangchung Namgyal was the person who thought of this concept some three decades ago. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, Bhutan promoted this idea at the United Nations in 2012. The GNH has now been picked up and discussed around the world, especially among leading economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz.

The first five years of Bhutan’s top-down democratic experiment have gone through numerous successes and errors. A new general election has been slated for June with the new faces of young politicians. Bhutanese-style democracy began with only two parties comprised of senior and junior civil servant officials. Now three additional parties have registered and will contest in the election. All parties are now learning the dos and don’ts of political campaigning with economic and social platforms. The candidates, both veterans and rookies, are using a small but vibrant local media, especially daily and weekly newspapers, to reach urban and rural voters. Radios and TVs are popular means. But given the country’s high and mountainous terrain, the six radio stations are doing their best to add more political news. The Bhutan Public Service remains the only station to provide political aspirants with air time to express their views and engage in debates.

Consequently, both countries have continuously taken dramatic reforms to deepen their style of democracy. Foreign assistance in terms of capacity building and human resource development has played an important role in promoting and improving their democratic institutions. Both countries want international acceptance and to join in the wave of democratization throughout the world. The jury is still out on whether top-down democracy as opposed to bottom-up democracy will be able to bring about the kind of benefits and freedoms seen in liberal democracies.

Taken from irrawaddy.org

[Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.]


  1. Dear MYINT THIN, it is great to go through your commentary. However, your understanding over Bhutan’s movement for democracy looks minimal.

    Democracy holds freedom and civil rights- while initiating this principles, more than 100,000(1/6 population ) of our fellow Bhutanese were forced to be refugee. Have you heard about the hidden story of our 1/6th population? Do you ever explore why they were kicked out of my country?

    If you introduce this question to our government they will lie you, because the government is under the control of monarch. We still don’t have fair and transparent government which speaks the truth. But we are on the way to make one- which speaks the truth, speaks about the people, and speaks for the people.

    So, if you look through your bird eye- your statements-
    “Bhutan’s democratic transformation is the world’s smoothest without any of the bloodletting often witnessed in other emerging democracies around the world.” would hold very little credibility.

    Anyway, thanks for your writes up, and we hope in future you would bring the evidences from the people not from the monarch or the controlled government.

    Tashi Delek !

  2. This guy should once visit people from countryside of Bhutan. He has zero idea about Bhutan and its Government. Does not mean you have vocab and you can write whatever you enjoy. The world has changed and if you are true journalist, you should be dynamic. Get the real facts and relate those facts from public eye rather than from fraction of ruling elites.

  3. The author touches on some important aspects of democracy, issues at the surface level but misses on some important elements that are instrumental in shaping the development of political ideology in both countries. What the author calls democracy from top is true but there is much more people’s movement and people’s contributions in both countries that he fails to touch upon.

    There are many aspects that these two small Asian economies share in common but their history of growth both on the political and economic front varies.

  4. The author is no different from Bhutan’s Karma Ura. While he seems to like democracy, he fails to understand or mention the important move towards democracy made both in Burma and Bhutan at the peoples’ level. Instead he is suggesting that a top down approach is as good if not better than the bottom up approach. No way.

    Karma Ura does the same thing, he knows what type of democracy is better, but he supports what the author mentioned as ‘disciplined democracy’.

    The reason why we have enough problems in this world is because we also have too many problem creators.

  5. Those in need of the favour of democracy favoured democracy of their choice. The Bhutanese people are yet to understand its significance that will hardly be explored without suffering loses and having to pay the price for it.

    Democracy is a solution to autocracy and dictatorship that is felt and resented by the mass of commoners. Bhutan’s need for democracy was because of the consciousness of particular group beginning to feel the threat and looking for safety under responsible government with written constitution. The group was easily identified by the offending party, in the fresh reminiscence of its consciousness of propagating the offences.

    It was given to the citizens that did not voice the need, expressing generosity and thus playing the hero on the face of blatant acts of villainy to the conscious group that was offended, to stop the chances of loosing full ground to age old LEGACY once the same understanding influenced the remaining part. That would pose formidable threat! Who will like to lose as a villain immediately after hearing the songs of praises sung as hero?

  6. Dear Author,

    well expressed article. The path and journey to democracy taken by both the country looks similar yet the approach was different. However, the most disturbing thing is the comment passed by those disgruntling people either leaving in Japa or one of those countries who were kind enough to take this people. Sir, remind you these people have no respect for the country who embrace them wholeheartedly, when there own people rejected them in Nepal. Another thing, patriotism to one country from heart and not from mere mouth. I would request you, check their history properly. They are not the people who believes in peace and mutual co-existence. We have so many Southern Bhutanese here in our country, who are genuinely Bhutanese and respect the law of the country which are of far far better than the country they live in now. I know one thing for sure, believe it or not, I feel its in their blood and genes, need example check the political affair in nepal. Sir, mark my worth, those people taken by UN to other countries, this people will after staying their, they will do the same there too