kingdom of Bhutan has emerged from 100 years of absolute monarchy to
become the world's newest democracy, and doing so without a revolution
or civil war. In this week's International Press Clubwe look at Bhutan's historic transition
with a population of almost 700,000, is a tiny, land-locked kingdom in
the Himalayas. Huddled between powerful neighbors India and China,Bhutan
for centuries has remained relatively hidden from the modern world,
making it one of the least developed countries in the world. It started
to open up to the outside world in the 1960s. A road to India was built
in 1961. An airport came in the 1980s and television was introduced
just nine years ago.
For more than 100 years, Bhutan has been ruled by the Wangchuk hereditary monarchy. Between 1972 and 2006, the 4th
in that line, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, continued his predecessor's
policy of slow modernization. But as Bhutan's Ambassador to the United
Nations, Daw Penjo tells us, the 4th King Wangchuk also introduced some
political reforms toward establishing a democratic society: "After
accession to the throne in 1972, His Majesty the 4th
has worked relentlessly to empower the people through a steady process
of democratization. His Majesty introduced a number of important
initiatives toward this objective."
2005, King Wangchuk announced to a stunned nation that the first
general elections would be held in 2008, and that he would abdicate the
throne in favor of his eldest son, the crown prince.
the new young king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is trying
to build on his father's efforts to transform the country.
this year, the country held mock elections to introduce people to the
idea of voting. In March, Bhutan became a two-party parliamentary
democracy, and voters participated in the first direct election of a
47-seat National Assembly.
Chellaney is professor of strategic studies in New Delhi. He is also a
member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of
India. He says Bhutan's experiment with democracy is an ideal example
for others to follow. "Well, Bhutan made a very conscious decision to
go from a hereditary monarchy to a modern democracy. Bhutan has made
that successful transition to being the world's newest democracy. That
is a big achievement. That decision was not imposed on Bhutan. That was
the choice that Bhutan made for itself, and the person who made that
decision was the much loved 4thKing of Bhutan who thought
that the way to safeguard Bhutan's sovereignty, given the way Bhutan is
sandwiched between China and India, is to give the people of Bhutan a
say in the governance of this little country."
Bhutan's giant neighbor to the south is India. And as the world's
largest democracy, India has played an important role in Bhutan's
development and its transition to a parliamentary democracy. Brahama
Chellaney says the two nations share a unique relationship. "Bhutan and
India have a very free problem-free relationship, says Mr. Chellaney.
"It is also an old historic relationship. Bhutanese and Indians are
closely linked together, ethnically, culturally, and in fact they are
also old Buddhist links between the two countries. The Indians always
refrained from interfering in the affairs of Bhutan."
Ambassador to the UN Daw Penjo says India always supported the
democratic aspirations of Bhutanese people: "We enjoy excellent
relations with India in all spheres. In fact, it can be seen by the
most recent visit by the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. The
visit took place immediately after our parliamentary elections. He also
addressed the first joint session of Bhutanese parliament. As our
closest friend and neighbor, India has supported and encouraged this
democratic process. Bhutan's newly elected Prime Minister Jigme
Thinley's first official visit will be to India later this month."
In a response to accusations in 1987 by a journalist from Britain's"Financial Times" newspaper that the pace of development in Bhutan was slow, King Wangchuck told him that "Gross National Happinessis
more important than Gross National Product." The statement signaled his
commitment to building an economy that is appropriate for Bhutan's
culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values.
Ambassador to the U.N. Daw Penjo says the belief has served as a
unifying vision. "GNH, Gross National Happiness, is the development
philosophy of Bhutan. This philosophy puts people at the center of
development. GNH, Gross National Happiness, is more important than GNP,
Gross National Product. It basically states that a balance has to be
found between economic development and cultural and spiritual
well-being, sustainable and equitable economic development,
conservation of environment, preservation of culture and good
governance. This is important to maintain national identity as a small
country between big neighbors in South Asia."
people of Washington were introduced to the rich culture of Bhutan
recently when a Buddhist temple was constructed on the Washington Mall
as part of the Smithonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival. Amid
fluttering prayer flags, Bhutanese dancers, archers, and weavers showed
their skills. A Photograph of a Bhutanese man setting up his tent
graced the front page of The Washington Post.
UN Ambassador Daw Penjo was happy with the event: "We are deeply
touched that Smithsonian Institute has chosen to honor Bhutan by
inviting us to participate in the 42ndAnnual Folklife
Festival in the Mall at Washington DC. described by many as US Front
Yard. It is good for Bhutan to share with our friends in the United
States the living culture and traditions of Bhutan."
analysts note what's happening in Bhutan may be something new among the
world's political experiments. By keeping its cultural identity intact,
while advancing economically at its own pace, Bhutan has shown itself
to be a unique model for aspiring democracies.
This program was written by Subhash Vohra and voiced by Terry Wing