EVER since he was crowned 26 years ago, Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's major goal has been to prepare his more than half a million subjects for change and "greater participation in the decision-making process". On the eve of the 76th session of Bhutan's national assembly, Wangchuk dissolved his 22-member cabinet and issued a royal edict (Kasho) to the Speaker suggesting that Bhutan should have an elected council of ministers with executive powers; and that the national assembly should have powers to force a king to step down by a two-third majority vote, if necessary.
On June 29, as Speaker Kinzang Dorji read out the Kasho, most of the 140 members appeared stunned. "We did not need it now," said a member from the northern district of Haa. But Wangchuk was determined to push through the changes. The national assembly gave in finally, but when it failed to find a way to choose the six ministers, it was left to the king to nominate them. Wangchuk picked his panel of six, and the assembly voted them into the cabinet, but surprisingly, none of the ministers got all the assemblymen's votes. Says longtime Bhutan watcher Brian Shaw of the Institute of Asian Studies in Hong Kong: "It is indeed a major benchmark for change in the polity. In a few years, the system will surely become more competitive."
Bhutanese dissidents in exile, however, have been quick to dismiss the reforms as a "political gimmick by the king to fool the world". Says Thinley Penjore, chairman of the United Front for Democracy in Bhutan: "If the king genuinely wants to usher in democratic reforms, he should dissolve the rubber-stamp national assembly and pave the way for fresh elections to both these bodies and refrain from nominating handpicked civil servants whose only trademark is unquestioned loyalty to the king." In fact, Penjore rubbishes the changes as a "classic case of the bitter pill in a new coating".
Ratan Gazmere of the Appeal Movement Coordination Council alleges that the king has filled up the new cabinet with relatives or trusted followers "under the cover of elections". He says one of Wangchuk's brothers-in-law, Sangay Ngedup, is a minister, and the brother-in-law of his four queens, Ugyen Dorji, the deputy Speaker. Gazmere also points to the fact that the new cabinet does not have a single member from the kingdom's large Nepali-speaking population. "That shows the king's bias against our community," says refugee leader R.B. Basnet, now based in Nepal.
The new ministers are all relatively young professionals, in the age group of 45-50, who have been educated in India and the West. They replace veterans who have served as ministers for 15-20 years or, in some cases, even longer. Says hotel manager Pema Tenzin: "It is not that the veteran ministers were unpopular. But they were in power for too long and they had to be changed to give younger and brighter people a chance." That's a view many Bhutanese appear to accept but they do not seem prepared to take chances with the institution of monarchy.
So when Wangchuk pushed for acceptance of the second part of the royal edict—that would empower the assembly to vote a king out of power with a two-thirds majority—most members appeared reluctant. Says Tenzin Druba of Tongsha: "The monarchy is the pivot of the Bhutanese system and it cannot be unsettled." Wangchuk
argued that the reforms would not end the monarchy or weaken it. "It will only make the king in question answerable to the assembly and the people." In the end, the national assembly bowed to his wishes.
Opinion is divided on Wangchuk's sudden move. "It does appear strange that when military dictators all across the world have risked bloody confrontation to hold on to power they have usurped, a hereditary monarch should make himself answerable to his own people," says Gautam Basu, author of Bhutan: The Political Economy of Development.
Bhutan has a small middle class which is growing and has political aspirations—as most emerging middle classes elsewhere in history. "Instead of pitting the older feudal elite against this middle class in a situation of conflict, the king is paving the way for change, slow enough not to upset the old order but steady enough not to dishearten the new," says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, another expert.
In a way, Wangchuk is carrying forward the spirit of change represented by his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who created the national assembly in 1953, a year after his coronation, and 15 years later gave up royal powers to veto a legislation. He tried to provide powers to the assembly to force a royal abdication, but assemblymen stopped Dorji because the proposal appeared ahead of the times. Thirty years on, his son pushed through a similar proposal.
Will the new changes in Bhutan's polity mean a shift in its foreign policy? "Not much," says foreign minister Thinley. "Bhutan's specially friendly relations with India will continue and Bhutan will make a fresh attempt to work out a solution of the refugee problem with Nepal."
Tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin remain in the camps of eastern Nepal after they fled the kingdom, complaining of ethnic persecution. Bhutan denies the charges, but the refugees insist they were forced out of the kingdom by a merciless administration. The number of refugees is a bone of contention. Refugee leaders and the Nepal government says they number more than 90,000. Bhutan says the actual number will be less than half. Says Thinley: "We know that many people in the camps are not real refugees but Nepalese citizens." But he insists Bhutan is keen to take back "genuine refugees".
There is another area of worry for Bhutan. For the last three years, dozens of ULFA and Bodo rebel bases have sprung up in south Bhutan. During the assembly session, most members from the border districts in the south spoke about the threat posed by the insurgents. But what scares Bhutan is possible Indian pressure to send its troops to wipe out the rebels. "The Indian army believes a concerted operation against the rebels is a must to destroy the military potential of these movements," says an Indian diplomat. But he says that's something that petrifies the average Bhutanese.
"If India can solve these problems without having to undertake a military operation in Bhutan, that will be the best. But if the rebels refuse to negotiate, they will get us into a tight spot," says a Bhutanese home ministry official. He feels Bhutan's small army is not capable of taking on the heavily armed rebels, but an Indian military operation can unsettle the peace.
Bhutan's season of change has not just been restricted to politics. The kingdom does not have a national TV network and satellite dishes are banned in the kingdom. But during the soccer World Cup, select sports bodies like the Bhutan Olympic Committee were allowed to screen the matches. Hundreds of Bhutanese paid 10 ngultrums (or as many rupees) to see a match.
Now the Bhutanese are debating whether Bhutan should have TV or not. "The cable channels will threaten our culture, our distinct identity," says economist and novelist Karma Ura. Sonam Tshong, executive director of Bhutan's broadcasting service, says Bhutan must first have its national television before cable channels are allowed but he feels that television is expensive and radio appears more cost effective.
It may be a while before Bhutan gets television and a political system that is truly democratic, but for a people used to being shepherded around, the process of learning to move around in an uncertain world may have started. With electoral democracies in neighbouring India and Nepal unable to provide stability, the Bhutanese may continue to need their king, if not all his men.