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Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 11:49 GMT
Bhutan moves towards democracy
The king wants to become a "constitutional" monarch

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is set to emerge as a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy on top.

The first draft of a new constitution is ready for "extensive deliberation" before it is adopted with necessary changes.


We must know whether we are ready for multi-party democracy or not

Sonam Tobgye, Chief Justice

The national assembly, largely symbolic so far, will debate the draft but the salient features of the constitution will be circulated to grassroots bodies for a "thorough debate".

Officials working on the draft for the constitution say King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is keen that Bhutan should evolve as a parliamentary democracy, but efforts are being made to adopt the model that best suits the Bhutanese people.

The Constitution Drafting Committee has 39 members and is chaired by the chief justice of Bhutan's Supreme Court.

Power transfer

"The process is now in full steam and the king wants a transition sooner than later," said Dechen Tsering, another member of the drafting committee.

Bhutan's absolute monarchy dates back to 1907, when Jigme Singye's great grandfather Ugyen Wangchuk was formally anointed the first king of Bhutan with British support and patronage.

Jigme Singye, a soccer fanatic who was educated in India and Britain, was enthroned in 1972 .

Thirty years later, King Jigme Singye wants to remain a mere "constitutional monarch" .

"He wants real power to go to his people. Bhutan is ideally suited for grassroots democracy because the population is small," said Dawa Tshering, a former foreign minister who now heads a think-tank.

The draft constitution outlines a structure of representative democracy that begins with the village councils at the grassroots and ends with the National Assembly and the cabinet at the top.

Concerns

But the focal point of the debate now is whether Bhutan should have multi-party democracy or not.

"This is the crux of the problem. We must know whether we are ready for multi-party democracy or not. The pros and cons have to be weighed very carefully," says Sonam Tobgye, Chief Justice of the Bhutanese Supreme Court and chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee.

Some experts argue that Bhutan's changes can only be cosmetic, and that real power and initiative will always remain with the palace.


How can there be genuine democracy if they exclude thousands of our people who were forcibly ousted from the kingdom

Ratan Gazmere, refugee leader
Indian professor AC Sinha, an author of several books on Bhutan, said: "The entire process of the so-called change is piloted by the king.

"There is no political culture or education in Bhutan.People still do what men in authority signal them to do."

But Brian Shaw , a Hong Kong based Bhutan-watcher, said: "Gradual change is what Bhutan needs and any attempt to rush things could mean trouble."

Mr Shaw, who has attended nearly every single session of the Bhutanese National Assembly, says debates there have become more lively, and representatives are beginning to speak out more vociferously.

Uncertainty

Gautam Basu, author of a book on Bhutan, says it is a matter of intense debate whether a small country like Bhutan needs a federal structure in the form of a district council, or whether it would be enough to have a National Assembly and the village councils.

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
Bhutanese refugees face an uncertain future
Citizenship laws are another area of fierce controversy.

The election process, however, may not be difficult to evolve as in October this year, Bhutan held elections for 201 village headmen through secret ballot.

That could be now be adopted for electing representatives to the National Assembly.

But if there are to be elections before the Nepalis ousted from the kingdom are repatriated, tens of thousands of them would become non-citizens because their names would surely not be on the electoral rolls.

"How can there be genuine democracy if they exclude thousands of our people who were forcibly ousted from the kingdom?" asked Bhutanese refugee leader Ratan Gazmere.

With such contentious issues around, the experiment of democracy in Bhutan will be fraught with uncertainty.

See also:

10 Jun 02 | South Asia
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