In 2008, Bhutan completed one of the most peaceful transitions ever to democracy. Initiated by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the process was unique: a voluntary abdication of power (in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck) in the face of public opposition to democracy.
Imagine losing the living embodiment of a Platonic Philosopher King - someone universally loved for his enlightened leadership - relinquishing his power to a system that has fared tenuously, at best, throughout the region. Truly, the people were heartbroken!
And yet, Bhutanese are aware that there is no going back. At least, His Majesty the Fifth King, who retains his symbolic authority as Constitutional Head of State, won’t allow them to.
All the way, he has been supportive of the transition, vesting his legitimacy as King on the success of the democratic system. “For our generation, the sacred gift of democracy from His Majesty the Fourth King will be our shared and primary endeavor,” he affirmed during the National Day Ceremony in 2007. “If we do not succeed and our nation and people suffer, it will mean that I have failed in my duty as King.”
In the years since, most Bhutanese have been trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance of transitioning: listen to the King, because he knows what’s best for the people; move towards democracy, because the people are best suited to rule themselves.
While many of the hallmark democratic institutions have been set up - a model Constitution, local and national elections, an independent judiciary, legislative, executive and media - the democratic culture has been slow to emerge. The challenge for Bhutanese is one of psychological reorientation, as they shift from that status of being subjects to being citizens (as well as subjects).
Many don’t feel the impetus to make the shift. Why change at all? Indeed, life before democracy was much simpler for the average Bhutanese. Under the King, the state provided substantial support for the population. Education and health care are free (and still are). Educated people could get comfortable, permanent jobs of their choice in the civil service. It was common for the landless to be granted land under the kidu (“welfare”) system. If you were a rural-based farmer, like over 70% of the population, you could rely on the strength of your communities to resolve any problem.
Traditional social structures also work against change. With remnants of feudal hierarchies intact, social propriety is still defined in top-down terms: respect those above you in the pecking order, let them make all the decisions, and don’t ask questions. This is most evident in classrooms throughout Bhutan, which are highly teacher-centric. Students are taught to regurgitate answers they are given for examinations. If they don’t act submissively, they risk being chastised, as corporal punishment remains a popular means of dealing with non-conforming students.
These norms have been re-entrenched symbolically through clothing - for example, the colored sashes (kabney) that denote one’s status; through rituals - at all events, guests are required to stagger their arrival, with commoners arriving first, and high officials or royalty arriving last; and, perhaps most significantly, through their national language, Dzongkha, which is an honorific-based language that encodes the relative status of the speaker to the person being addressed.
Like most Asian cultures, Bhutanese culture places a strong emphasis on social harmony and avoidance of conflict at any costs. This is typical in most interactions, where any suggestion made, especially by leaders, will be met with a “Lasso La” (roughly translated as “Whatever you say, sir/madam”). An ideal person is expected to work for the good of the group and to adjust the self according to others’ expectations. Rarely do people choose to openly disagree. In a small society, where “everyone knows everyone”, and is possibly related, disagreeing entails risking losing face and becoming the subject of gossip – a culture quite strong here!
By no means do I intend to suggest that all of these norms and artifacts are at variance with democracy. As Amartya Sen has written, it is a myth that Asian cultures are “incompatible” with democracy. However, as some commentators (and even high Buddhist Lamas) have pointed out, these traditions should be critically examined and not merely held on to for tradition’s sake – especially if they conflict with such universal values of equality and justice.
Yet, it’s patently clear that Bhutan’s society has not been an open one - a society in which people participate in decision-making, can freely express themselves, and discuss their common problems without the oversight or interference of the state.
Of course, culture does not change overnight.
Nevertheless, times are a changin’ - and changing fast. For one, people’s consciousness of their rights is rising. In the same way pubescent teens subvert their fathers, Bhutanese are beginning to question the government’s authority to enact policies made for the “public good”.
Take, for example, the recent “Pedestrian Day” policy, a unilateral, ad hoc decision made by the Executive Cabinet intended to limit car usage on Tuesdays. Many endorsed the spirit of the law - walk more, develop healthy habits, and save on gas expenses. However, the policy wrought many impractical consequences, particularly the delays and loss in productivity to the private sector. People are now voicing their disapproval with the government, even accusing leaders of international exhibitionism.
To the government’s credit, they are encouraging feedback and are making no attempts to forcibly censor people.
The media is also creating public space for people’s voice. With 2 TV Channels, 6 Radio Channels, and 12 newspapers - 9 of which were introduced in the last 4 years - people have more access to news, views, and opinions than ever before. Concurrent with this growth has been an emboldening of the media to ask questions. It’s not uncommon now to see front-page stories on corruption scandals, lapses in government policy, and even cartoons mocking high officials.
Unfortunately, the media, consisting of many untrained journalists, has begun to follow some of the global trends, reporting predominantly negative stories and developing an adversarial relationship with the government. Cynics are now abound, some who have gone so far as to proclaim the death of Bhutan’s democracy after a controversial advertisement circular.
There are still many questions ahead: how can underserved populations, like youth, be more included in decision-making processes? How can Bhutan attain economic self-sufficiency and independence when the agricultural sector – the basis of Bhutan’s economy – is quickly shrinking due to rural-urban migration? How can people be motivated to undertake all the responsibilities that citizenship entails?
Bhutan is a country of great aspirations, none less than their drive to find a middle way to development, famously captured by their banner of “Gross National Happiness”. While these aspirations have yet to be fully realized, what’s reassuring is that they continue to actively ask the questions. Whereas most democracies have already established a modus operandi, Bhutan is at a momentous period in its history when it can dream up something different.