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Bhutan: A royal family affair

I. New Year Rituals

On 14 December 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan announced abdication of the crown and coronated his eldest son Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk the new ruler of Bhutan. Earlier in December 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk had announced his decision to step down in 2008. The King's abdication of power in favour of his son remains solely a family affair and this by itself does not promise any democratic reform in the country.

In the recently released “SAARC Human Rights Report 2006”, Asian Centre for Human Rights has ranked Bhutan as the No. 2 human rights violator amongst the member States of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This is due to absolute denial of many rights by the King of Bhutan including denial of political rights, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of the press; lack of independent judiciary; lack of any willingness to establish an NHRC and continued discriminatory policies against the ethnic Nepalis and Sarchops.

The human rights situation is unlikely to improve due to the coronation of the new King.

II. Flawed democratization process

Yet, the coronation of Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk has been held by some as keeping Bhutan's date with democracy. But, democratisation process of Bhutan remains deeply flawed. The draft constitution released on 26 March 2005 is nothing more than a replica of the condemned 1998 Constitution of Maldives.

The provision of two-party political system as envisaged in the draft constitution shows how socalled democracy will remain limited in Bhutan.  In a true democratic society, the rulers must not restrict the freedom of association and assembly and decide the number of political parties.

The draft Election bill provides that any registered voter, except apolitical persons like civil servants, servicemen, and members of royal family, truelku, lam or a religious personality, will be eligible to join or form political parties.

Yet, it is the draft Election Bill which appears more disingenuous. It bars anyone from contesting the parliamentary elections if he or she does not have a formal university degree. The same was heard in Pakistan under General Parvez Musharaff. Bhutan has only about 11,000 graduates and the majority come from the ruling Drukpas. This is nothing but to ensure the rule of elite.

III. The refugee question

Bhutan might be asked as to whether a process which excludes over 106,000 of its subjects who constitute nearly 16 per cent of the total population of Bhutan (672,425 persons according to the 2005 census) can be considered as legitimate. Or is it not a case that the socalled democratisation process is nothing but a part of the exercise to seek legitimacy for the ruling Drukpas?

Despite Bhutan-Nepal Joint Verification Team recognising hundreds of refugees as citizens of Bhutan, Bhutan has failed to take back a single refugee. On 22 December 2006, the World Food Programme warned that it might no longer be able to provide full-scale ration quotas to the refugees from January 2007 due to lack of funds. Given the political turmoil in Nepal and patronage of India, Bhutan believes that the refugees will walk out of the camps one day and the problem will have a natural solution.

On 2 October 2006, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs, Ellen Sauerbury stated in Geneva that the US was willing to “absorb 50,000 or 60,000 of the [Bhutanese] people who are now in these [refugee] camps”. UNHCR's Representative, Abraham Abraham reported stated that Australia, New Zealand and Canada have also agreed to resettle some refugees in their respective countries; but they have failed to announce the number of refugees they are willing to resettle.

Refugees in Nepal remain deeply divided between no hope of return to Bhutan and the promised dreamlands. The ongoing 86th session of Bhutan's Parliament, the National Assembly, will reportedly debate the Bhutanese refugee issue. The National Assembly may once again reiterate not to accept any Lhotsampha.

IV. Say No to “Ethnic Cleansing”

At the heart of the Bhutanese refugee crisis lies the policy of ethnic cleansing. While there might be some refugees whose nationality can be disputed, there is no doubt that large majority of those living in the refugee camps can prove their nationality even under inherently discriminatory citizenship laws of Bhutan.

The policies of the United States, India and others are nothing but supporting establishment of a Bhutan which does practices ethnic cleansing. It is precisely because of such soft policies towards Bhutan in the name of preservation of “Shangrila” that Bhutan dared to issue a nationwide notification on 19 November 2005 that all conferences and public meetings must be conducted in the national language, Dzongkha, pursuant to a 1993 Kasho (edict) issued by His Majesty the King. The minorities like Nepalis or Sarchops have no right to their language.

The question will remain whether the United States and others will accept all other non-Drukpas to preserve the Shangrila.

As a prominent German anti-Nazi theologian wrote in his famous poem:

“First they came for the Communists, 

and I didn't speak up, 

    because I wasn't a Communist. 

Then they came for the Jews, 

  and I didn't speak up, 

    because I wasn't a Jew. 

Then they came for the Catholics, 

  and I didn't speak up, 

    because I was a Protestant. 

Then they came for me, 

  and by that time there was no one 

    left to speak up for me”.

Ethnic cleansing by any means and by any country must not be tolerated and encouraged.

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