Bhutan's Reluctant Turn From Monarchy
ALISON STEWART, host:
The king of Bhutan has spoken, and he says, let's have an election. So when do monarchies choose to relinquish power to the people? Since yesterday, when the small Buddhist country, the kingdom of Bhutan, held its first parliamentary elections after King Wangchuck initiated the move seven years ago. Quick geography check for you - Bhutan is in the Himalayas wedged between India and China with a population of about 600,000 people.
It's remained largely isolated from the outside world, partly because of its geography, and partly because of its desire to be. One man who knows quite a bit about the country is Michael Hutt, professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies. Hi, Michael, how are you?
Dr. MICHAEL HUTT (Nepali and Himalayan Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London): Good afternoon. Very well, thank you.
STEWART: Now, the Wangchuck dynasty has been in place about 101 years. The move to a more democratic state was initiated by the former king and promoted by his son, the current king. Why are they both so willing to relinquish power at this point?
Prof. HUTT: I think it's a fairly astute judgment of the way history is moving in the region more generally. This is the 21st century. Autocratic monarchies are something of an anachronism these days, and I think rather than being pushed into this kind of change, the Wangchuck dynasty has decided to initiate it itself.
STEWART: It's interesting that it is initiating it, yet leaders of both parties in yesterday's election said, well, we may have preferred to have remained under the monarchy. And some voters agreed. Why would they?
Prof. HUTT: Well, I think that you need to sort of weigh these kinds of opinions quite carefully. In Bhutan, there really hasn't been, up until now, any avenue for legitimate opposition to the government or criticism of the king. So that if asked, Bhutanese citizens will always say very positive and warm things about the monarch.
And to a large extent, this is sincere. The king - the previous king, King Jigme Singye and his son are genuinely popular. But there is nothing whatsoever to be gained from voicing any kind of criticism of the government in Bhutan, and indeed there is, you know, there are things that can be lost.
STEWART: The 28-year-old king hasn't given up all of his power. He will remain as the head of state. How much influence will he have on a new government?
Prof. HUTT: Well, I think a fair amount. I mean, if you look at the manifesto of the victorious party in yesterday's elections, the first three lines read as follows. "We offer our unwavering allegiance to the sacred institution of monarchy, the life force of our nation. We dedicate ourselves to realizing the vision of the (unintelligible), as much as the teachings of Singye Wangchuck.
"We shall be guided by his majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck in our pursuit of gross national happiness through a true and vibrant democracy." So I don't think the king is going to have any trouble from this party.
STEWART: So it sounds like life may not change all that much, from what you just described and read.
Prof. HUTT: Well, I think what is happening here is that the kingdom is moving from a position where there was a very, very limited level of public participation in politics in the sense that every year an elected national assembly met for two or three weeks, but for the rest of the year, the king with a council of ministers and the royal advisory council ran the country's affairs. They've moved one step beyond that now so that people across the country have voted for one of only two parties.
This is a two-party democracy. A third party was actually disqualified from contesting the election. Both parties were led by people who have been close to the political elite, close to the powers in the past. Be the elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley was chairman of the council of ministers for two terms previously. So we have moved to a situation where there is now a government and, in fact, they won 44 out of 47 seats. So the question, really, is there going to be an opposition?
STEWART: We're speaking with Michael Hutt, a professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies, about the first election in Bhutan. He's joining us on the line from London. And I want to bring together two ideas that you've mentioned separately and see if there's any connection here. You know part of Bhutan's identity, or at least, the mythology of Bhutan, is the focus on the happiness of its people.
This gross national happiness index that's calculated by the government, and policies to uphold the happy - smoking bans, limits on deforestation. But I'm wondering, won't an election challenge this idea, because someone's going to lose and therefore leaving supporters unhappy?
Prof. HUTT: Well, that's true, and of course, the other thing to say in this connection is that it's difficult to conceive a gross national happiness when up to a fifth of the population is living outside the country in refugee camps.
STEWART: Yes, please explain this to our listeners.
Prof. HUTT: Well, essentially, if you talk about the population of Bhutan as a whole, it's possible to talk about two elements - very broadly about two elements of the population. Roughly two-thirds of the country consists of Buddhist people, speaking Tibetan-derived languages in the northern two-thirds of the country. And the other third, along the southern border with India, is populated by ethnic Nepalese who are predominantly Hindus and are descendents of people who migrated to Bhutan in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
And these people have become gradually integrated into the state over the course of many decades, up until the late 1980s, when the relationship between that section of the population and the government deteriorated very sharply. And the government imposed a number of rules and laws on dress, on language, on citizenship, which impinged very negatively on this population which began to organize itself into a political opposition to these policies.
And as a result of this, many of them were expelled from Bhutan. Many of them fled because they felt insecure in Bhutan. And for the last 17 years or so, they've been living in - 108,000 people have been living in five refugee camps inside East Nepal. And in fact, your own government, the government of the United States, have offered to resettle 60,000 people in the U.S. I believe the first batch is about to depart, if it hasn't already departed.
STEWART: So it is a much more complex picture than it appears on the surface. Michael Hutt is a professor of Nepali and Himalayan studies, joining us from London. Thank you, Michael.
Prof. HUTT: Thank you, pleasure.
MARTIN: It's Tuesday. That means New Music. Lizzie Goodman from Blender Magazine is in studio. I see her right there through the glass. She's waving.
Ms. LIZZIE GOODMAN (Editor, Blender Magazine): Hello.
STEWART: She brought some Gnarls Barkley with her. We're going to take a walk through some new tunes out today. This is the BPP from NPR News.
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