King drags Bhutan into democracy and first elections

21/03/2008 - 4:01

By Simon Denyer

THIMPU (Reuters) -The tiny and deeply traditional Himalayankingdom of Bhutan takes a slightly nervous step into the modernworld on Monday when it holds the first parliamentary electionsin its history.

Its northern neighbour Tibet may be writhing in protestunder Chinese rule, but Buddhist Bhutan, a nation of just600,000 people, is making a different kind of history .

Bhutan's fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, not onlysurrendered power without a struggle, he actually imposeddemocracy against the will of many of his subjects, beforeabdicating in favour of his Oxford-educated son in 2006.

"At first people were pleading with the king not to dothis," said Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-ownednewspaper Kuensel. "People were looking around at what ishappening in South Asia and saying 'no thank you'."

"But His Majesty said you can't leave such a small,vulnerable country in the hands of only one man, who was chosenby birth and not by merit."

Bhutan had been largely peaceful under a century of royalrule, aside from ethnic tensions that erupted in 1990. Thechaos, conflict and corruption of democracy in its giantsouthern neighbour India left many people scared.

In 1960, Bhutan was a mediaeval place, with no roads, carsor hospitals. It has hauled many of its people out of povertysince then, but is still only opening up slowly.

Even today national dress is compulsory, knee-length robeswith long socks for men, elegant gowns for women. Criticism ofthe elite was almost unheard of, even a year ago.

But democracy is coming, and "it is more real than werealised", said Dorji.

True, there are only two political parties, with almostidentical manifestoes based on the present government's latestfive-year plan and what people call "His Majesty's vision".

Both promote Gross National Happiness (GNH), the king'sidea that traditions and the environment should not besacrificed in the ruthless pursuit of economic growth.

Both say development must be more "equitable" than in thepast, but both party leaders are drawn from the elite, one thebrother of Wangchuck's four wives, the other a man closelyassociated with the idea of GNH. Each party leader has servedtwice as prime minister under royal rule.

Yet debate is arriving in Bhutan. As the two parties accuseeach other of some low-level corruption and vote-buying, thepress has in the process become freer.

"Ours was a society where people needed to be respected,and not really be stripped in public," said Gopilal Acharya,editor of the Bhutan Times newspaper.

"But these are public figures, and people have a right toknow what kind of people they are."

Yet for now this remains a closely controlled democracy.Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi disqualified a thirdparty from running because he felt it lacked sufficientleadership, candidates and resources.

"The Election Commission has moral responsibility, we arethe gatekeeper," he said. "We will only let in somebody who wecan assure can manage the country, if not better than the king,then at least maintain its present state."

There are limits to debate, too, and they are strict. Nocriticism of the royal family, no raising of ethnic issues in a"divisive" way.

In 1990, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were forcedout of Bhutan for demanding democracy and protesting againstdiscrimination, and more than 100,000 now live in crowded campsinside Nepal.

A similar number still live in southern Bhutan, but exiledgroups say many of them have been denied identity cards -- andthus voting rights -- making a "mockery" of the election.

Rebel groups have emerged from the refugee camps in thepast year and have threatened to disrupt the polls.

They detonated three bombs inside Bhutan on Thursday,injuring a policeman, and eight others this year, with onedeath.

Yet within Bhutan, there is real hope that democracy willalso bring with it gradual change for the Nepali minority. Theparties have fielded a combined total of 19 ethnic Nepalicandidates in the country's 47 constituencies.

"For either of the parties to survive it has to havesupport in the three main regions, the east, west and south,"said Tashi Tsering, spokesman for the People's DemocraticParty.

"It is an issue that neither party is taking up verystrongly at this point in time, but one the new government hasto face and address immediately."

For the Buddhist majority, democracy is still slightlybaffling, but it is a change many people are learning toembrace.

"We can speak out now," said 28-year-old Ugyen Dorji, anadministrative assistant in a school in the capital Thimpu."After democracy they have to come here, and talk to low-levelpeople."

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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