Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Exercising Democracy in Bhutan

Reuters may have had some bad experiences with covering news from remote locations, but they seem to have assigned Simon Denyer to track what is likely to be a critical period in the history of Bhutan. Last week Denyer was on site in Thimphu to cover the first parliamentary election in an isolated country that had been under royal rule for a century. At a time when it is hard to find a country whose electoral process is free of controversy (or worse), there was something refreshing about Denyer's account of the Bhutanese transition:

By turning out in huge numbers to vote on Monday, impeccably attired in national dress, Bhutanese people showed an enthusiasm for democracy that surprised themselves.

Yet this was not a vote against the kings of Bhutan or a century of royal rule. Most people had been upset when the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, told them he was imposing democracy before abdicating in favor of his son two years ago.

Instead, Bhutan's people voted for stability, and chose a party with plenty of experience of serving under the fourth king, and which promised to preserve the achievements of his rule.

However, now that the country has its first elected parliamentary government, what will happen next? This question seemed to be important enough for Denyer to remain in Bhutan, rather than picking up and heading off to another assignment.

Denyer has decided to focus this question on the plight of Tibetan refugees in Bhutan. While he is a bit fuzzy on the numbers, it is clear that the problem involves a large number of refugees in a small country:

Bhutan has a population of less than 700,000 people and after an influx of Tibetans in 1959 it closed its northern borders for fear of being swamped. New refugees are no longer welcome.

What is missing is an account of how many Tibetans are currently in Bhutan, but the number is clearly enough to warrant government attention. Whether or not that government will pay attention and what sort of attention it will show, however, lie at the crux of Denyer's report. Prior to the election, the Bhutanese policy towards these Tibetans was somewhat mixed:

Those who renounced the right to return to Tibet were granted Bhutanese citizenship, and they and their children were allowed to take part in last week's elections.

But the majority told Bhutanese authorities they would like to return to Tibet one day. As a result, they remain refugees, and youngsters complained that makes them feel like second class citizens.

Without a security clearance -- something they say is virtually impossible to obtain -- Tibetans cannot get government jobs, enrol their children in higher education or obtain licenses to run private business.

Many get around that rule by renting shop licenses off native Bhutanese, but it leaves them in an uncomfortable limbo.

"It is hard for us to get papers, and we don't get jobs easily," said a woman who sells Tibetan souvenirs in a small market in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.

"If we get independence we would like to go back to Tibet," she added. "But if we get ID cards we would probably stay here."

Despite their cultural links, Bhutan's people hardly seem to care about the problems of their Tibetan neighbors, a function of their long isolation in the Himalayas.

However, now that those Tibetans who opted for Bhutanese citizenship have a voice in the parliament, it will be interesting to see whether or not the plight of these refugees becomes a matter for parliamentary debate. The trigger for such debate may be based on whether or not Tibetans have a right to unite with other Tibetans around the world in voicing protest against China:

In a remote corner of the Himalayas, a small Tibetan refugee community felt helpless as it watched protests erupt all over the world against Chinese rule in their homeland. For in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, ethnically, culturally and linguistically close to its giant northern neighbor Tibet, demonstrations are not allowed. Young Tibetans were even reluctant to give their names for fear of trouble.

"We want to demonstrate but we don't have the right to, and that is very bad for us," said a 24-year-old who gave her name as Tenzing. "If we could, people would know that Tibet belongs to Tibetans."

This is a difficult matter for a brand-new representative democracy to address; but ignoring it is likely to have consequences. We know this from the consequences in the United States of a legislative body that kept trying to ignore the divisive question of slavery until the country finally erupted in its Civil War. Bhutan is a far smaller country, but size does not matter when a critical issue is in danger of being ignored. The parliament may try to hide behind the assumption that the eyes of the world are looking at too many other problems to give much attention to Bhutan, but that is a feeble rationalization. Like it or not, Bhutan's representative government is facing a serious test within a week of its first election; and the country will have to draw upon at least the vast resources of accumulated cultural wisdom to attend to that test with the attention it deserves.

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