With Bouquets and Brickbats, Bhutan Tastes Real Election

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Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom has set a milestone embracing its first general election on the last day of 2007. When Pakistan, Burma and Nepal are bleeding on their ways to achieve a democratic regime in their countries, Bhutan has shown a different picture, where a monarch comes out for a democratic set up in his kingdom. But the challenges of the new democratic regime in Thimphu will lie in dealing with various national concerns, more precisely resolving the Bhutanese refugee issue that has been haunting the government for the last 17 years.

The international media poured news of the Bhutan election as an event to celebrate from the Asian continent. The landlocked kingdom, surrounded by Tibet (now under Chinese territory ) and Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh had gone for polls on December 31 to form the National Council (upper house of Parliament) of Bhutan. The Council has 20 directly elected members from each Dzongkhags (representing a district). Five eminent personalities from various fields like literature, music, social service and other areas are to be nominated by the King to form the 25-member upper house.

The polling to 15 Dzongkhags (constituencies) of the country began at 8 am and ended at 4 pm (Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India). Electors in national dress, which is otherwise compulsory in public places in Bhutan, joined the poll process to elect their preferred candidates from over 40 non-political party candidates. The election to the Dzongkhags of Haa, Gasa, Lhuentse, Trashiyangtse and Thimphu was postponed due to ‘non-availability of more than one candidate in a constituency’. Polling is likely to take place in those constituencies on January 29.

The winners in the 15 Dzongkhags were declared promptly. Quoting the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of Bhutan, ‘Kuensel’, the state run weekly newspaper disclosed the name of the winners as Tshewang Jurmin (from the constituencies of Bumthang), Tshewang Lhamu (Chhukha), Sonam Dorji (Dagana), Naichu (Mongar), Ugyen Tshering (Paro), Jigme Rinzin (Pemagatshel), Namgay Penjor (Punakha), Jigme Wangchuk (Samdrup Jongkhar ), M K Rai (Samtse), Karma Donnen (Sarpang), Sonam Kinga (Trashigang ), Jagar Dorji (Trongsa), Justin Gurung (Tshirang), Sonam Yangchen (Wangduephodrang) and Pema Lhamo (Zhemgang).

The chief election commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi termed the exercise as a triumphant attempt to transform their kingdom into a democracy. “The citizens of Bhutan, who are 18 years or above and possessing valid citizenship cards cast their votes. Bhutan has 3,12,817 eligible voters,” he informed us. Nearly 15,000 officials were engaged to conduct the process in more than 700 polling stations. Unlike India, there were no election posters or noisy public rallies in the constituencies before the election. The government declared the polling day as a public holiday.

The security was a major concern for the kingdom during the polls. The Bhutan government sealed the border with India for 36 hours beginning from 6 pm on December 30 to prevent unwanted elements from outside. Bhutan police and the Royal Bhutan army were engaged for security during the polls. The Electronic Voting Machines, supported by India, were used in the poll process and observers from India, the US and a few other counties including a team of UNDP (based in Thimphu) monitored the election.

Earlier the election commission conducted two rounds of mock polls in April and May last year. Four dummy parties with students as candidates participated in the polls. The relevant rules of elections were however strictly followed, where advanced voting equipment was used to attract and educate the voters of the kingdom. The turn out was of course low. The election commission, of course, termed those as important and successful attempts.

Currently there are two political parties in BHutan. The People’s Democratic Party, headed by the former agriculture minister, Sangay Ngedup has chosen a White Horse as its election symbol. Moreover, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, led by the former home minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley has accepted a pictorial design of three flying birds (Thrung Thrung Karm) as its symbol. Earlier, the election commission disqualified a third party named Bhutan People United Party (BPUP). The BPUP lacks both maturity and the appropriate mix and strength in terms of its membership since more than 80 per cent of the members are school dropouts, or have no credible academic qualifications, the commission declared.

The initiative is depicted as a path breaking attempt for the Buddhist kingdom to transform its nation from an absolute monarchy to a multi party democracy. Significant enough, the transformation offer came form the Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself and that too not because of any popular uprising. Moreover, in December 2006, King Jigme Singye abdicated the throne in favour of his eldest son, the oxford educated Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. King Wangchuk has four wives, all of whom are reportedly sisters. After the general election that paving way for an elected Prime Minister (with a council of ministers) in 2008, the Bhutan king would become the ceremonial head of state, where the parliament will possess the power to impeach even the king by the support of two-thirds majority in the Assembly.

In a time when the international communities are crying against the tyrannical rule under the present regimes in Burma, Pakistan and the pro-democratic activists have stepped up their voices in Thailand, Nepal, Tibet (China) and also Bangladesh, the development in Bhutan came as a pleasant surprise for various democratic organizations and political analysts of the globe.

“But the new Druk democracy will find it difficult to resolve the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees issue, who have been denied access to the poll process,” argued a Thimphu based journalist. Talking to this writer from Thimphu, the experienced journalist, who wanted anonymity, also suggested the regime in Thimphu would invite more criticisms from intentional communities in the near future.

Mentionable that, the Bhutanese refugees (mostly Nepali-speaking) are taking shelter in western Nepal and still crying to go back their villages in southern Bhutan. They were driven out after they protested the passage of a law in the 1980s that arbitrarily cancelled their citizenship. As many as a sixth of the Bhutanese population, most of them living in the south of the country, fled Bhutan in 1990. They have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since that time, seeking to get back home.

The Nepal government raised the issue with Bhutanese authorities in 15 rounds of talks, though it failed to convince Thimphu to allow the refugees to go home. Not a single refugee has returned to Bhutan. India, though recognised as Bhutan’s friendliest neighbor and biggest aid donor, has kept out of the dispute, arguing that it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres admitted that ‘it was difficult to see any immediate solution’ to the Bhutanese refugee issue. Antonio Guterres visited some of the Nepal-based refugees few months back and incidentally it was the first visit by a top-ranking UNHCR official to the camps since they were established more than 15 years ago. After interaction with hundreds of refugees in Goldhap camp, the UNHCR official admitted that ‘the refugees have a great will to go back’ to their home country.

Of course, the UNHCR Representative in Nepal, was quoted by a Kathmandu based news portal recently saying that ‘UNHCR prefers to help refugees go back to their home countries when they can do so in safety and dignity, however, in this case, the only option currently available is that for resettlement in a third country for those refugees who wish to make this choice’.

Meanwhile, media reports reveal that the US government has shown interest to resettle approximately 60,000 refugees from the camps. “The United States will begin accepting applications for the resettlement of the refugees from Bhutan living in Nepal soon,” quoting the US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty the Nepal based media had reported. Ambassador James Moriarty had also paid a recent visit to one of the Bhutanese refugee camps, where those in exile were compelled to live with no possibility for jobs and proper education for their growing children. Similarly, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also come forward expressing their wish to take a share of refugees for resettlement.

Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Suhas Chakma, the Asian Human Rights Center director, stressed that the international community must be mindful of the implications of any resettlement process without any written commitment from Bhutan. It would be tantamount to supporting ethnic cleansing policies by the Bhutan government. He warned that if Bhutan can get away with 108,000 refugees, the situation of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in southern Bhutan could be untenable as they might also be forced to renounce their citizenship or leave Bhutan.

Kuldeep Nayar, a senior Indian journalist expressed his concern over the apathy towards the Bhutanese refugees. He is optimistic that a democratic Bhutan would resolve the issue amicably. However, the veteran journalist has a point to the king of Bhutan, that if ‘he is really taking honest steps for a democratic system in Bhutan, he should call all those citizens of Bhutan who are staying in refugee camps since last 17 years, back to the country before the scheduled election in 2008’.

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.