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Bhutan: 'Democracy' from Above

Only two parties were allowed to contest the recent elections in Bhutan according to the draft constitution prepared by experts chosen by the king. Both parties ended up vying to show loyalty to the king and the ruling establishment. Even the draft constitution is meant to deflect international attention from the Bhutanese of Nepali origin who have been forcibly expelled and are living as refugees in eastern Nepal.


participated in the first ever national assem-

Bhutan: ‘Democracy’ from Above

bly election on the basis of adult franchise.

The elections to both the national council and national assembly were not on any Mathew Joseph C identifiable ideological plank. Both the DPT

Only two parties were allowed to contest the recent elections in Bhutan according to the draft constitution prepared by experts chosen by the king. Both parties ended up vying to show loyalty to the king and the ruling establishment. Even the draft constitution is meant to deflect international attention from the Bhutanese of Nepali origin who have been forcibly expelled and are living as refugees in eastern Nepal.

Mathew Joseph C ( is with the department of strategic and regional studies, University of Jammu, Jammu.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 10, 2008

he century old absolute monarchy in Bhutan technically came to an end in the last week of March 2008. A bicameral parliament constituted on the basis of adult franchise came into existence through elections conducted over a period of four months to the national council (upper house) in December 2007 and January 2008 and to the national assembly (lower house) on March 24, 2008. The national council consists of 25 members of whom five are nominated by the king. The rest represent the 20 ‘Dzongkhags’ (districts) in the country. The national assembly consists of 47 seats.

As per the political framework prescribed by the draft constitution, only two parties were allowed to contest the election to the national assembly. The two political parties were the Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa (DPT) – Bhutan Harmony Party – led by former bureaucrat Jigmi Y Thinley and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Sangay Ngedup, the uncle of the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. The DPT won with a more than convincing margin, 45 out of the 47 seats. As per the election commission of Bhutan around 80 per cent of the electorate and the PDP were competing with each other regarding their loyalty to the king and the existing ruling establishment. Before the electorate they were trying to prove their enthusiasm and commitment to implementing the vaguely defined ‘gross national happiness’ index (GNH) better than the other. The election campaign was generally uneventful due to the non-existence of an autonomous civil society and free media.

The process of making Bhutan a constitutional monarchy was started by the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. In March 2005 the government of Bhutan brought out a draft constitution. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated his throne in favour of his son, the present king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December 2005. The formation of the bicameral national parliament and the elections conducted were based on this yet to be ratified constitution.

Misleading Perception

Democracy in Bhutan is considered as a gift from the king thus giving the impression that the king imposed democracy on a reluctant population. The international media juxtapose Bhutan with Nepal in this regard,

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Economic & Political Weekly


portraying the king of Nepal as a power hungry outdated medieval personality and the king of Bhutan as a “modernising monarch” in a traditional country. This projection is a misleading one. It camouflages the various struggles waged by the people to achieve human rights and democracy in Bhutan.

The genealogy of opposition politics in Bhutan started way back in the 1920s. It began with the protests regarding high land tax rates by the people of Nepali origin. This was followed by the formation of the Jai Gurkha Solidarity Front (JGSF) in 1947. The establishment of the Bhutan State Congress (BSC) in 1952 was a landmark in the history of opposition politics in Bhutan. The demands put forward by the BSC like the granting of civil and political rights for all citizens, democratisation of administration and the abolition of feudalism were unheard of in Bhutan earlier. The BSC was active till the late 1960s [Joseph Mathew 2006].

The Bhutanisation drive initiated by the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the late 1970s and 1980s as a response to the political developments in Sikkim – merger of Sikkim with India – once again created the opportunity for oppositional politics to take off. The violent struggles waged by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in the Darjeeling Hills in the 1980s also played an important role in the resurfacing of opposition politics in Bhutan.

The Bhutanisation drive included the Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985, Marriage Act of 1980, the census conducted in 1987 to identify “illegal immigrants” and the implementation of ‘driglam nam za’ (code of social etiquette) in 1989. As a reaction to these discriminatory policies the people of Nepali origin in the southern districts of Bhutan came out on the streets in large numbers. Their anger towards the regime got crystallised into formation of human rights organisations like the People’s Forum for Human Rights, Bhutan (PFHRB), the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB) and the Association of Human Rights Activists, Bhutan (AHURA Bhutan), and political parties like the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) and the Bhutan Congress Party (BCP). The Druk National Congress (DNC) – a party formed by the non-Nepali people of eastern Bhutan – joined in the struggle for democracy

Economic & Political Weekly

may 10, 2008

and human rights in the mid-1990s. The Communist Party of Bhutan (MarxistLeninist-Maoist) is the latest entrant in the struggle for democracy in Bhutan.

The resistance of the people of Nepali origin led to their forceful eviction by the ruling establishment and this continued unabated throughout the first half of the 1990s. Around 1,35,000 people of Nepali origin were forcefully expelled from Bhutan in this manner of which 1,08,000 people live in the seven refugee camps manned by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in eastern Nepal [Frelick 2008]. The efforts taken to resolve the refugee problem through negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal did not yield any result due to the insincerity of Bhutan and the lack of political will in the case of Nepal. India has maintained a diplomatic distance from the issue of Bhutanese refugees trapped in Nepal. The US and countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand proposed phased resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in their territories. According to Ellen Sauerbrey, the US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, the US will resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in its territory.1 The third country resettlement is bitterly opposed by the refugee organisations and the political parties.

Anti-Nepal Propaganda

The most important issue before the new government under prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley is the resolution of the refugee problem which is lingering for the last 18 years. Thinley, an important former bureaucrat, was one among the major figures in evolving the Bhutanisation drive in the late 1980s. One of his articles titled ‘Bhutan: A Kingdom Besieged’ published by Bhutan’s ministry of foreign affairs in 1993 testifies to this.2 He articulated the stereotypical “Nepali aggressiveness” which threatened the integrity of Bhutan. A quote from the abovementioned article by him amply illustrates this point. It reads as follows:

After the signing of the Sinchula Treaty of 1865 under which the Bhutanese ceded the Kalimpong subdivision along with the 18 duars, the hitherto forbidden land of the Lepchas lay open to the Nepalese. Soon the Lepchas were driven deeper and deeper into the forests while the aggressive, colonising Nepalese took over the more fertile areas for conversion to permanent agricultural land. Even the forests succumbed to the heavy axe of the ‘intruders’ and the ‘children of nature, like the birds of the sky’ and the culture fell prey to those who are now masters of their homeland. With the destruction of their environment, the Lepchas had lost their habitat and source of sustenance.3

Given the mindset made clear in the abovementioned quote, it would be a mistake to assume that he would try to solve the refugee problem in the foreseeable future.

Prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley’s cabinet has two Nepali ministers namely Thakur Singh Powdyel (education) and Nandalal Rai (information and communications). The presence of these Nepali faces in the cabinet is intended to show the international community that Nepalis in Bhutan are safe and politically empowered. However, it would be difficult for the government of Bhutan to project that all is well with the Nepalis in Bhutan when around 1,35,000 among them are languishing outside as refugees.

Unlike Nepal, the “democracy” in Bhutan is a gift from the monarch. It is democracy from above and the drafting of the constitution clearly illustrates this. The constitution has been drafted by “experts” and not by a duly elected constituent assembly.

The much hyped transformation of Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in a “democratic” manner is an attempt by the Bhutanese ruling elite to hoodwink the international community. The projection of the image of the “bloodless transformation” of Bhutan from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy is to deviate the attention of the international community from the resolution of the refugee problem and to accommodate the emerging political dissent in Bhutan by its ruling elite.


1 See ‘Offer to Resettle Bhutanese Refugees’, URL: 2006-10/2006-10-19-voa1.cfm?CFID=230319163 &CFTOKEN=93455722.

2 See Jigmi Y Thinley, ‘Bhutan: A Kingdom Besieged’ in Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bhutan: A Traditional Order and the Forces of Change, Three Views from Bhutan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thimphu, 1993, pp 1-36.

3 Ibid, p 7.


Joseph C, Mathew (2006): ‘Political Transition in Bhutan’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 41, No 14, April 8-14 , pp 1311-13.

Frelick, Bill (2008): ‘Bhutan’s Ethnic Cleansing’, URL: bhutan17955. htm.

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