[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 4 January 2006
Review: 106/06
Democratic Bhutan: Sincere promise or a ploy?

In his public address on the occasion of Bhutan's 98th National Day celebration on 17 December 2005, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced his decision to abdicate in favor of his eldest son, 25-year-old Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and hold country's first national elections in 2008 to establish full-fledged parliamentary democracy in the tiny Himalayan kingdom. Considering that King Gyanendra of Nepal has been crushing democracy with an iron hand to cling on to absolute power, the Bhutanese king's abdication is likely to please many in the international community.

i. Sincere promise or a ploy?

King Wangchuk's intentions were made known on earlier occasions also. During his 33-year rule – he ascended the throne in 1972 at the age of 17 - the country saw a gradual but steady transition to democracy. The transition began four years ago when the King handed over the powers of daily government to a council of ministers and empowered the national assembly to force a royal abdication if the motion was backed by three-quarters of its membership.

On 26 March 2005, His Majesty released a 34-point draft constitution of Bhutan for public review. The draft constitution provides for two houses of parliament – a 25-member National Council and a 75-member National Assembly - with the king as head of state. Once adopted, the Constitution will replace the royal decree of 1953 that give the king absolute power and turn Bhutan into a parliamentary democracy.

Yet, His Majesty's reform programmes have been overshadowed by expulsion of ethnic Nepali origin citizens of Bhutan who now question King Wangchuk's moves. According to Tak Nath Rizal, exiled former member of Bhutan's parliament, the National Assembly, and a former advisor to the king, King Wangchuk had told the National Assembly that he would resolve the refugee problem in two years, but he has so far refused to take back the refugees.

ii. The refugees' right of return

Over 1,00,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin have been languishing in seven United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) managed camps in eastern Nepal since 1990 after they were expelled as alleged “non-nationals”.

A total of 15 rounds of bilateral Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) meetings were held between Nepal and Bhutan, the last one being held in October 2003. But a solution to the refugee repatration remained elusive. There have been talks of resettlement in third countries though no concrete proposal has been formally placed.

In the face of apathy of the Bhutanese government, the refugees have made several attempts at self-repatriation in recent months, the latest being on 17 December 2005, which coincided with Bhutan's National Day. At least 60 Bhutanese refugees were injured, four of them critically, when Indian police baton charged on the hapless refugees preventing them from crossing the border at the Mechi Bridge in Kakarbhitta.

In similar incidents on 28 November 2005, Bhutan police arrested four Bhutanese refugees who entered Bhutan through Kakarbhitta transit. On 4 October 2005, Bhutan police arrested twenty-three Bhutanese refugees from Beldangi camp who returned to Bhutan in Phuntsoling. Of the arrested, 16 were returned to the Indian police. On the same day, Indian police arrested 19 Bhutanese refugees, including 11 women, while attempting to return to Bhutan through Jaigaon area of West Bengal. On 14 August 2005, about 100 Bhutanese refugees reached Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing but were sent back to India by the Bhutanese police. In a major bid, 323 Bhutanese refugees, from 4 months-old babies to 75 years of age, including 157 women, tried to enter India through Mechi Bridge en route to Bhutan on 3 August 2005 only to be shoved back by RNA and Indian security forces. Indian police also detained nine refugees.

iii. Human rights violations

Bhutan is a land where King Wangchuk has famously talked about the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan being more important than Gross National Product, a reminiscent of modern day Shangri La, an imaginary kingdom of everlasting peace and youthfulness. But in Bhutan the word of the monarch is final and his wishes are supreme orders. Under such autocratic rule, human rights will only be ruthlessly suppressed with impunity.

There is no freedom of speech. Anyone who speaks a word against the king or members of royal family is most likely to be sent to prison. There is only one newspaper and it is controlled by the government. TV was introduced only a few years ago but in July 2005 many Indian TV channels were banned.

iv. Crown Prince as new King: Old wine in a new bottle?

In his December 17 address, King Wangchuk made it clear that Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk would be enthroned as the fifth Druk Gyalpo before the 2008 elections. The Eton and Oxford-educated prince has recently completed a year-long training course at National Defence College in New Delhi, which is said to have been specially designed to equip him for his future role as the Himalayan kingdom's ruler.

Only time will tell whether the military-trained king-designate Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk will be able to keep the promises of his father to bring democracy in Bhutan by 2008.

However, it is essential to remember that the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal constitute nearly 20 per cent of the total population of Bhutan. Any democracy must be inclusive. The democratisation process in Bhutan is unlikely to have legitimacy unless sizeable populations of the country are given the opportunity to participate. If Bhutan takes the path of democracy and guarantees the rights and freedoms provided in the constitutions of most of the countries and the United Nations human rights standards, the grounds for expelling the Nepali origin citizen of Bhutan will be found to be “illegal”.  Bhutan should explore the possibilities to resolve the refugee imbroglio before it explodes.

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