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  Asia-Pacific
Bhutan Turns Democratic
By Nava Thakuria
Special Correspondent
Bhutan had its first election on March 24, 2008.

Appreciation for the King for paving way for democracy, but inviting criticism for ignoring the prolonged Bhutanese refugee issue- Bhutan has gone for general election on Monday (March 24) amidst such contrast international views. Now it will be worth observing, how the newly elected government in Thimphu deals with many burning issues, those knocking the Himalayan Kingdom for decades now.

The tiny Himalayan Kingdom, ruled by the Wangchuck dynasty for a century, has prepared for its National Assembly polls on March 24. Enriched with the experience of conducting smoothly the first round of election for its upper house of Parliament in December and January (not speak of two rounds of mock polls last year), the Shangri-la has stepped into the final pace for converting an absolute monarchy to multiparty democracy. After the latest polls for the lower house of Parliament, the new government supposes to take over the reign of the nation with nearly seven hundred thousand populations.

And, amazingly, the credit for its transition goes for none other than the former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 52, who insisted democracy for Bhutan, where his successors would be placed for ceremonial heads only. Even the King could be impeached by the parliament with a two-thirds vote. It may be surprising, where many South Asian countries including Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh are bleeding for democracy, the Bhutan monarch has shown a different picture to the international communities.

The isolated Buddhist kingdom, sandwiched between two giant neighbors (India and Tibet/China) is known for its unique standard of community living, where the rulers weigh more on Gross National Happiness in spite of internationally recognized Gross National Product index. Smoking is banned throughout the country, where education and health care facilities are provided free for every Bhutanese. An isolated Kingdom had witnessed the entry of Television in 1999 only. Internet facilities follows it next year.

The process of transition from monarchy to democracy in Bhutan started in 2001. The then King Jigme Wangchuck empowered a council of ministers to serve the people of the kingdom in better ways. In 2004, the king also disclosed about a 34-point Constitution for the country. The Constitution is expected to get approved after a referendum, following which it would replace the present regime, which enjoys absolute monarch power. It may be mentioned that former King Jigme Wangchuck is the fourth representative of Wangchuck dynasty, which came to power in 1907 and continued till date.

Pouring more surprise to the Bhutanese, King Jigme Wangchuck paved way for his eldest son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2006. He made his declaration in front of a crowd of nearly 8,000 monks, farmers and students at a remote village that 'Chhoetse Penlop (crown prince) will be enthroned as the Fifth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King).' The new King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has already proved his intelligence, caring behaviour and also commitment to the country as his father maintained. Born in 1980, King Jigme Khesar Wangchuck otherwise groomed by his father to rule Bhutan under a constitutional monarch. Moreover, King Jigme Khesar Wangchuck achieved a brilliant career during his higher studies in USA, UK and India.

"We are ready for the polls and hope to conduct the exercise in a free, fair and peaceful manner," said Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan. Some 318,465 registered voters are eligible to exercise their franchise to elect 47 members for the lower house of parliament, quoting the CEC of Bhutan, Kuensel, a government run newspaper reported. The Bhutanese citizens, who are 18 years and above and holding valid citizenship cards, will vote, it added. However the candidates for the polls must be graduates. Bhutan has, on record, more than 11,000 graduates.

March 24 has already been declared as a national holiday with all government and private establishments to be closed. The voting will reportedly start at 8 am (Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India) and ends at 4 pm. Like the National Council polls, Electronic Voting Machines, supported by India, will be used again. The counting is supposed to start immediately and the results should come next day. The results will be telecast and broadcast live through Bhutan Broadcasting Service and Bhutan Radio.

Members of the royal family and clerics directly associated with the religious institutions will not be allowed to participate in the voting. It is learnt that observers from many countries including India, Japan, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Netherlands, the United States, the European Union and the officials of the UNDP (based in Thimphu) will assess the polls process.

After disqualification of Bhutan People United Party, there remained only two political parties in the fray. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), headed by the former agriculture minister, Sangay Ngedup has chosen a White Horse as its election symbol. Moreover, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or Bhutan United Party, led by the former home minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley has accepted a pictorial design of three flying birds (Thrung Thrung Karm) as its symbol. Both the parties are known to be closed to the Royal family.

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 percent of the members are school dropouts, or have no credible academic qualifications, the commission declared.

The Bhutan Election Commission had already conducted the polls for 25 member upper house of parliament (called national Council), where each Dzongkhags (a district) elected 20 members and five eminent personalities from various fields like literature, music, social service and other areas were nominated by the King. Nearly 50 percent voters turned up for the upper house election. However, the CEC Dasho Kunzang Wangdi expects that over 70 percent voter will turnout this time.

Kuensel, while supporting the comments of the CEC, narrated in one of the editorials, "We have every reason to believe that most registered voters will vote. We hope to see an impressive turnout in the election, not just because it is a historic election, but because we are a part of the democratization process. In countries, that see very small voter turnouts, it is because they are disillusioned with their politicians. We have every reason to trust our politicians at this stage."

But the security for the lower house polls will emerge as an important aspect, as like as during the upper house polls. The Bhutan government sealed the border with India during the polls with an aim to prevent unwanted elements from outside during the NC election on December 31. The Royal Bhutan police and the Royal Bhutan army were engaged for the security during the polls.

Meanwhile, the peaceful country witnessed few explosions since January. The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) believes that it was the work of any one of the outfits the Bhutan Tiger Force, the Bhutan Maoists Party or the Communist Party of Bhutan, who are based outside the country.

The RBP apprehends similar disruptive activities by the rebels to discourage Bhutanese people from participating in the poll process. It suspects that a number of terrorist organizations based in Nepal might try to create trouble during the general election. Quoting the Bhutan police sources, Kuensel even went on describing that those outfits had surfaced in the UNHCR-run refugee camps in Nepal. The Royal Bhutan Army had recently launched a crackdown on some locations inside Bhutan and arrested more than 12 rebels with weapons and explosives.

Bhutan has meanwhile earned brickbats from international communities for its prolonged refugee issue. Mentionable that, the refugees, who are Nepali-speaking Hindu Bhutanese, were driven out from Bhutan during Nineties. Since then, they are living in camps of eastern Nepal. Nearly 1,00,000 Bhutanese refugees, who were later recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, were allegedly driven away by the Bhutan authority from south Bhutan.

The crisis began in 1991 as the authority started harassing the ethnic Nepali people living in South Bhutan. It was aftermath of a new citizenship act (passed in Eighties) that arbitrarily cancelled the citizenship of the Nepali speaking Bhutanese. A series of protests reciprocated the verdict, which was dealt with a massive crackdown. Finally thousands of Nepali origin families fled Bhutan in 1990. Significantly they accommodated nearly one-sixth population of the country. A few families came to India (no pass is required for a Bhutanese to enter India), where most of them arrived in Nepal. The refugees are still living in the crowded camps spread out in two districts of Jhapa and Morang of Nepal.

Nepal government raised the issue with the Bhutan authority and already participated in not less than 15 rounds of talks, though it failed to convince Thimphu to allow the refugees to go home. It is understood that not a single refugee has returned to Bhutan till date. The UNHCR Antonio Guterres had recently visited some refugees in Nepal. Significantly it was the first visit by a UNHCR to take stock of the situation in the refugee camps ever since those were established 16 years back.

Antonio Guterres himself admitted that 'it was difficult to see any immediate solution' to the Bhutanese refugee issue. The UNHCR Representative in Nepal, Abraham Abraham, said, "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," the Nepal media reported, which is largely anti-Bhutan government.

Meanwhile giving some relief to the Bhutan government, the first batch of Bhutanese refugees left for the United States during this month. "A group of 20 refugees left Nepal as part of the third-country resettlement programme,' quoting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sources in Kathmandu, Nepal media reported. In fact, the United States last year agreed to resettle more than 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. Similarly Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway had also come forward expressing their wish to take a share of refugees for resettlement.



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Nava Thakuria, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is based in Guwahati of Northeast India. He also contributes articles for many media outlets based in different parts of the glove, and can be contacted at navathakuria@gmail.com

 

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