Bhutan: South Asia's Shangri La

Bhutan is an island of peace and tranquility in South Asia's myriad political, social and economic conflict panorama. The former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as an enlightened monarch abdicated the throne in favor of his eldest son, though many people in the country believed that this was not necessary. Jigme Wangchuk also announced elections in the country in 2008. Bhutan published rules for formation of political parties some time back. Under these provisions two political parties were formed though there was limited enthusiasm amongst the people for such an exercise. Formation of credible parties is said to be an important facet of democracy. So far only two parties, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan People's United Party (BPUP) have been formed mostly comprising of present advisors of the Royal council, retired government officials and others.   

In preparation for Elections in 2008 the country is conducting mock elections from 21 April to 28 May. The problems of conducting elections would be evident with the mountainous terrain. There are 869 polling stations. Thus polling stations have to be located in areas which are accessible. Each polling station has been located, on an average, two kilometers to within two hours walk from the communities and villages and would cater to not more than 1,000 people or less than 100.

The Bhutanese approach to democratization is refreshing. The process is not expected to be smooth. Hence a pragmatic appraisal provides grounds for proactive measures to absorb dissent. At the same time elections are not the ultimate manifestation of democracy in a state and include many other facets such as a culture of assimilation of varied views. This has to be nurtured over the years. A workable democracy may be still many years away. However given the measures initiated by the Monarchy and the governing council this would be the first experiment in transforming a state to democracy in a positive, benign form in South Asia.

The process of democratization has been driven no doubt by fears of emergence of inimical forces as the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) in April 2003 and events in Nepal where the monarchy has been side lined after a fratricidal war taking over 13,000 lives. On the other hand there was no excessive pressure for the Bhutanese monarchy to convert to a constitutional monarchy. The King who has always believed in the principle of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP) has been far sighted enough to initiate proactive change.

On the foreign policy front, the revised Indo-Bhutan Treaty provides for an independent foreign policy by Thimpu and reduces India's leverages in Bhutan. With an open political system, the forces affecting decision making will also be diffused thereby varied interests can gain influence. The United States seems to have welcomed this process. Bhutan and US relations based on non diplomatic contact would continue to be build constructively, that was the message that was sent across during the visit of United States ambassador to India, Dr. David C Mulford to Bhutan from 16-18 April. 'I think what we have today in terms of our relations is working very well,' Dr. Mulford is reported to have said by Kuenselonline. 'There are no disadvantages for either of us and in my opinion; there is no need to move ahead.'

There are two issues of security concern for India which may arise from the revised treaty. The first relates to China. While Thimpu and Beijing do not have diplomatic relations, there have been a number of dialogues between the two states in the past. There is an agreement for peace and tranquility between the two states signed in 1998. While the northern borders of Bhutan are rugged and impassable, given Chinese penchant for single-minded pursuance of a policy of active engagement of neighbors, Beijing is likely to exploit the clause of independent foreign policy to come closer to Thimpu. While this may not be immediately harmful to Indo-Bhutan relations, in the long term there may be reason for caution.

The second aspect of security concern is sanctuary to Indian terrorist groups as the ULFA and Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO) in Bhutan. Given closeness of the two countries, India was able to prevail over the Bhutanese government to launch Operation All Clear in 2003 and neutralize the ULFA. Similar leverages in the years ahead need to be ensured.

Notwithstanding the above it is hoped that Bhutan transforms itself into a modern constitutional monarchy, a model for other states in South Asia while retaining its old world charm of a Shangri La in the idyllic Himalayas.   


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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