Bhutan’s Road to Democracy

Bhutan’s Road to Democracy

Bhutan’s first democratically-elected prime minister discusses the century-old monarchy’s transition to democracy and its ties with its neighbors, India and China.  

September 24, 2008 4:26 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

In March 2008, Bhutan held its first parliamentary elections (BBC), shifting away from a century-old absolute monarchy. The largely Buddhist country of around 700,000 people is nestled in the Himalayas between Asia’s giants, India and China. The head of country’s first democratically elected government, Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley, tells in an interview that the Bhutanese people were apprehensive about democracy because of the poor state of democracy in South Asia. He says he is confident, however, that democracy will work in Bhutan. Thinley also discusses Bhutan’s relations with its neighbors, China and India. He says relations with India have shown continued growth "because of historical and economic reasons," but that relations with China "have not developed in an equal way."

Bhutan’s road to democracy has been a rather unusual one. Instead of people demanding it, it was the former king who pushed a move toward democracy. In fact, news reports suggested that the people of Bhutan were quite apprehensive and reluctant to embrace the change. Why do you think such a decision was made, and do you believe such a top-down approach to democracy can work?

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It will definitely work, and it has already started working. What one does need to understand is that the process of democratization in Bhutan was not something that was undertaken and completed overnight. It was a process that was initiated as early as 1953 by the third king of Bhutan, and then the fourth king accelerated the process, beginning in 1981 until the final step culminating in the electoral process where two parties vied for the privilege to serve the people. So between 1981 and 2008, we’re talking about twenty-seven years. That’s a long time. And during those years, various institutional arrangements for the functioning of a democracy, to support the democratic process, were already established.

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Nevertheless, the people were, yes, apprehensive. The people were not keen on bringing the kind of change that, in their eyes and in their mind, could not be very different from what they saw in the world at large and in particular in our neighboring countries in South Asia. In many of the countries, democracy had failed or was in the process of failing, and leading to tremendous upheavals, strife among the people. In some cases, they have seen so much violence that people felt that under the benevolent rule of a king, who was so very popular, who was revered, loved, and adored by the people, they had the best. And they were not about to give up the best that they had for something that, as I said, could perhaps not be different from what they saw elsewhere. So they were anxious. But the king prevailed over them, saying that even though the final choice must be theirs, they must realize that the king becomes the leader only by the accident of birth and not by merit or by virtue, and that to place the future of a country in the hands of such a person is not in the long-term interest of the country.

Bhutan has long been a part of India’s strategic defense plan in its border disputes with China. Under the 1949 friendship treaty with India, Bhutan was guided by India in its external relations. Bhutan also shares strong military ties with India. But last year Bhutan revised this friendship treaty. Could you tell us a little bit about what kinds of specific changes were made, and why Bhutan took this step?

The friendship treaty that we revised, you have to understand, was a treaty that was not crafted by a free and independent India and a sovereign Bhutan. This treaty, in fact, was the legacy of the British Empire. It was a treaty that was signed between Bhutan and the British Empire, and the government of independent India inherited that treaty. With minor changes, it was revised in 1949. There were various anomalies, and 1949 is a long, long time ago. So much has changed in India and in Bhutan. Not only is the language archaic, but the content itself tended to be irrelevant. The friendship treaty, which, among other conditions, requires that Bhutan consult India and be guided by India in its foreign relations, simply gathered dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in India and in Bhutan. And India respected Bhutan’s sovereignty and Bhutan’s aspirations and, in fact, supported Bhutan. As you know, over the years we have established diplomatic relations with twenty-one countries, so the friendship treaty was irrelevant, and obviously, at the same time, it was never evoked.

But given the mutual desire on the part of the two countries to strengthen our relations, on the understanding and the knowledge and the conviction that the future and the destiny of the two countries are intertwined, and wishing and willing to support each other through development cooperation and partnership, we agreed to revise the treaty and make it more relevant. That is what was done. Be that as it may, what was revised was a document. But the spirit of the friendship, the special relationship between the two countries, has not been altered at all.

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As yet, Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with its other neighbor, China. How do you see your future policy toward China? Do you see diplomatic relations happening?

Well, everything will happen in good time. We do have good relations with China. China is our other neighbor. We have only two neighbors, contiguous countries neighboring Bhutan, and these are China and India. Because of historical and economic reasons, our relations with India have tended to grow. On the other hand, China being across the Himalayas, our relations have not developed in an equal way. But in a globalizing world, and given the good relations that we already have, formalization is something that will come in good time.

How do you plan to balance between these two giants?

Bhutan sees itself as being located in a very favorable way. Rather than see constraints and disadvantages in terms of our geopolitical location, we tend not to be pessimistic. We like to look at things from a brighter point of view, and depending on how you choose to see your own position, you will see opportunities or challenges or threats. In our case, because we feel that we have been so ideally and so preferentially located between these two great countries that are growing so very rapidly, economically and otherwise, what we see in fact, are simply opportunities.

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Do you feel any threat from China?

No, we see only growing opportunities.

There were some reports of Chinese army’s incursions into Bhutan even as recently as last year.

There have been no invasions from China into Bhutan, but we share common borders with China, and these borders have not been clearly defined. That is the process we are engaged in now. The delimitation process discussion is what we are engaged in with China. It is only natural that both animals, cattle as well as people, will stray across borders that are undefined.

India has concerns about Indian insurgent outfits finding safe havens in Bhutan. How does Bhutan deal with the threat?

With determination, with courage, and with conclusive effectiveness. Yes, Bhutan had been very successful in the conservation of its environment, leading, among other things, to the preservation and densification, if you will, of the forests along our borders with India. The success of our environmental conservation was such that we did not even know that there were camps of militants, separatist elements from India, that had been established in the forests. We did not know until it was rather late. And these elements were training inside Bhutanese territory, in the jungles, and they were also launching attacks and engaging in terrorist activities and perpetrating such crimes on the Indian people. India was obviously concerned, but small as our army may be, when we acted, we acted with such determination, as I said, under the leadership of the king himself, in such a way, that these elements have been removed from our country, and there are none at all.

You’re here in New York for the UN General Assembly. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, but as yet it does not have diplomatic relations with any of the five permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States. Why is that? Do you see it changing sometime soon?

When India becomes a member of the Security Council, which I hope it will, India will be the first Security Council member with which Bhutan will have established relations. We are supporting India, and today I was very happy to hear the president of France, Mr. Sarkozy, also speaking on the importance and the necessity for a more representative Security Council. So far, we have not had [diplomatic relations with the five permanent Security Council members], but for good reasons. These were good reasons at the time that we took this decision, but the world has changed, and it continues to change, and we will now review the policy.


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