According to Mathew Joseph C, associate professor at the Academy of International Studies in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, and author of the book Ethnic Conflict in Bhutan, the royals’ decision to democratize was a “clever move” on the part of Bhutan’s monarchy and the Ngalong ruling elite.
In an email interview with The Diplomat, Joseph argued that the monarchy’s “democratization project” was aimed at “silencing the demand for real democracy that the democratic movement of Bhutanese people who were expelled from the country had raised.” Elections were “to hoodwink the international community” into believing that Bhutan was a democracy, he wrote.
According to Joseph, Bhutan is “not at all a democracy.” It is “completely controlled by the monarchy and the Ngalong ruling elite.… is beyond any sort of questioning.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Drawing attention to the elitist origins of Bhutan’s constitution, Joseph pointed out that it was drafted “not by an elected constituent assembly but by experts.”
Critics also point to the rather elite composition of parliament. Election laws make it mandatory for candidates to be university graduates. In a country with widespread illiteracy, such laws automatically exclude most citizens, especially those from poor and marginalized communities.
However, it is Bhutan’s disenfranchisement of a significant portion of its population that is the most damning indictment of its democracy. Perceiving a political, demographic and cultural threat from the Lhotshampa community of ethnic Nepalis living in southern Bhutan, the Bhutanese elite launched a Bhutanization drive in the 1970s, followed by draconian citizenship and marriage acts that resulted in thousands of Lhotshampas being stripped of their citizenship. A census in 1988 that identified “illegal immigrants” was followed by large-scale expulsion of Lhotshampas from Bhutan in the early 1990s, who were subsequently denied the right to vote in the 2008 elections due to their refugee status.
Nonetheless, over the past five years Bhutan has taken steps to strengthen its democracy, holding local elections in 2011. But while elections may be a key component of democracy, but they do not by themselves make a vibrant democracy. Bhutan’s democracy will be remain fragile as long as it remains restricted to the nation’s elite university graduates and the state is identified with Dzongkha speaking Buddhists.
If the coming elections manage to be more inclusive, they may gain credibility. For a start, parties need to include Lhotshampas on their lists of candidates. Further, discussion and debate of the ethnic issue, which is prohibited under election laws, should be allowed during the campaign. In 2008, nine Nepali speaking candidates entered parliament as members of the DPT. This number is insufficient to effect change.
Now more than ever, Bhutan must address its conflict with the Lhotshampas. If the parliament that emerges from the upcoming elections does not give this issue priority, its commitment to democracy rings hollow.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is a political analyst based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.