Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hopes for Bhutan

Bhutan became a kingdom 101 years ago, encouraged by the British when most of the squabbling factions agreed to unite behind a monarchy. Having wrested much of Bhutan's lowlands away, the British were happy to see what was left remain independent. And there Bhutan remained, essentially in the Middle Ages, until it started, cautiously, to open up to the outside world in the 1960s. A road to India was built in 1961. An airport came in the 1980s. Television and the Internet arrived only in 1999.

Although no army waits at the gates to invade - Bhutan has more monks than soldiers - the country is nonetheless engaged in a struggle for its survival. Bhutan saw China take over Tibet, its spiritual homeland, in the 1950s. Bhutan then saw India manipulate Nepalese immigrants in neighboring Sikkim, taking advantage of the resulting unrest to annex that semi-independent kingdom in 1975. Bhutan watched Nepal's monarchy self-destruct in an orgy of murder and suicide, to be followed by a weak king, and a Maoist insurrection that this year came to power in an election that abolished the monarchy.

One Bhutanese said the other day that Nepal's monarchy, by not bending sufficiently with the times, had gone the way of the French monarchy, while Bhutan's was more like the British, adapting with the times.

And so it has. This year, the year of the earth rat on the Buddhist calendar, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, forming political parties, and holding mock elections to get the people used to the real elections this spring. Bhutan likes to call itself the world's newest democracy, all done without a revolution or a civil war. Bhutan's king abdicated in favor of his Massachusetts- and Oxford-educated son.

But the Bhutanese still worry, and rightfully so. Will its nascent democracy evolve in a constructive way? Or will it evolve as Pakistan's has, with parties controlled by powerful families and led by crooks? Unhappily, too much of the story of democracy in South Asia is also a story of violence and corruption.

As opposed to the story of democracy outside South Asia. Oh, wait.

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