Bhutan's Transition to Constitutional Monarchy: Challenges for Change

Street scene. Bhutan. (Curt Carnemark / World Bank)
Street scene. Bhutan. (Curt Carnemark / World Bank)

A Summary

New York: April 30, 2003

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a country best known for its fiercely protected environment, Shangri-La atmosphere and Buddhist underpinning. Seemingly untouched by modern civilization for centuries, it is a popular destination for a select number of travelers each year. But behind the tourist facade, Bhutan is being catapulted into the 21st century. A new penal code will for the first time defines what is and isn't a crime. Alongside fresh yak meat in the market stalls are stores selling new-fangled cappuccino machines, just as western disco, imported by cable TV, shares the dance floor with traditional dance at Bhutanese weddings. Perhaps most important, democracy is being introduced from the top down as the country transitions from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. The Asia Society panel included Ambassador Lyonpo Om Pradhan, Carrie Cohen and Julia Taft and moderated by Ambassador Nicholas Platt, who discussed Bhutan's changes and challenges. The program was part of the Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program.

After presenting a brief historical background of the country, Ambassador Lyonpo Om Pradhan outlined various factors that need to be kept in mind in drafting a suitable constitution for Bhutan, including the establishment of the Monarchy, which brought in peace and stability in the country after nearly 200 years of turmoil and civil strife in the country. He mentioned the loss of territory to British India by a weak and fragmented leadership in the 18th and 19th century, the concern felt by Bhutan when its neighboring political entities lost their sovereignty, the threat posed to its security by the presence of Indian militant organizations such as the ULFA and BODOs in its territory and the efforts by the Monarchy to empower people and lead them towards democracy and prosperity. For these reasons, he said, "Bhutanese find it unwise to make an overnight carbon copy of any system of government. Each step that is taken has to be thought out carefully and in full consultation with the people."

He stated that despite their linguistic and ethnic difference, "there is a need to keep the Bhutanese people united in their endeavor to remain as a nation." Although mostly a Buddhist country, a significant part of the population practice Hinduism and other religions are tolerated. The Ambassador's own lineage is from Nepal, he mentioned later. Other issues that need to be considered are the role of religion and the religious establishment (Bhutan was established as a theocratic state with a secular government) and the role of political parties. "The religious establishment is not only the fountainhead of religion but also the receptacle of Bhutanese culture and tradition," he said. "It can even be considered the very soul of Bhutan."

Carrie H. Cohen took a leave from her job as an assistant attorney general for Eliot Spitzer in NYC to help develop a penal code and evidence act for the Bhutanese government. She reiterated how carefully the changes to Bhutan must conform to the old. Only 40 years ago, she says, Bhutan had no public education, no free health care and a code of law based on one from the 16th century. Since then, the government has "carved out pieces from the master code to create, for example, a child support act, an inheritance act, and a marriage act," she explained. Without a specific penal code "people did not have a clear idea of what exactly was a crime and what was the penalty. Sentences for the same crimes were different in different districts. But as I drafted the penal code and evidence act, I knew it had to be based on forgiveness and rehabilitation," which came from Bhutan's religious background, which informs the judicial system as well as all systems of governance in Bhutan. "The High Court's crest, a golden yoke, is tied with a white silken knot, which can be loosened," she says, "to remind the people that despite the severity of the crime, sometimes compassion is required."

A recent gold smuggling case, unheard of a few years ago, illustrates how sharply Bhutan will undergo legal changes. "The country will have a lot of litigation in the next 30 years," she said, in answer to a question from the audience. "It has no law school, most people are trained in India. Parties to suits typically have not had lawyers," but that will change. "This is a very educated, highly motivated population and forward thinking. They will need these qualities going forward."

Julia Taft, a United States expert on refugee flows and disaster relief, described the Bhutan that most tourists never see. Although historically many Nepalese moved to Bhutan and became residents, many do not qualify for citizenship under old rules. It is unclear whether those rules will change with the new constitution, she says. In the late 1980s, ethnic unrest caused thousands to leave Bhutan and set up refugee camps in Eastern Nepal. Those refugees now number 102,000 people, living under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Despite efforts by both the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments to repatriate some of these people, twelve years has passed, she says, with slow results. After case-by-case verification, the Bhutanese government will repatriate those Bhutanese evicted from the country by mistake, those who voluntarily left and now want to return and those who committed crimes. But non-Bhutanese are still in limbo.

"These camps have schools, micro-enterprises like weaving," she explains. "These are by far the best educated refugees I have seen in many years. What an asset to have them as part of the Gross National Happiness system. I am here to congratulate the Bhutanese on progress but the international community cannot wait until all 102,000 are interviewed. The longer these refugees are in exile, the more difficult it is for them to return. The way forward is to accelerate the verification and then start resettling the first 12,000 to show good will. These camps have got to close."

Ms. Taft argues that the refugees who want to return to Bhutan could actually stabilize the southern area of the country where groups like ULFA exists, pushing the terrorists out in conjunction with a Bhutanese edict giving them until June 30 to leave the country. "Don't look at the Bhutanese culture for its purity," she cautions. "Rather look at it for its ability to embrace its southern diversity. It won't look the same in the south as in the north (if refugees repatriate), but it can still be a viable country if returning refugees are offered the opportunity for viable reintegration. The UNHCR, UNDP, UNICEF and other UN agencies will assist in this important effort."