Freedom in the World
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Bhutan received an upward trend arrow due to by-elections that were judged free and fair by international observers.
By-elections for vacant positions not filled by 2011’s local elections were held in 2012 in a free and peaceful manner. While tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who were displaced in the 1990s have been resettled in other countries in recent years, thousands of people remained in camps in Nepal by year’s end. Bhutan increasingly worked to end its international isolation in 2012, trying to take an Asian seat at the UN Security Council.
Britain helped to install the Wangchuck dynasty as Bhutan’s ruling family in 1907, and a 1949 treaty allowed newly independent India to assume Britain’s role in conducting the kingdom’s foreign and defense policies. In 1971, Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father as king.
The government in the 1980s imposed restrictions on Nepali speakers, also known as Southern Bhutanese, to protect the culture of the ruling Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. The newly formed Bhutanese People’s Party (BPP) responded in 1990 with violent demonstrations, prompting a government crackdown. Tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese fled or were expelled to Nepal in the early 1990s, and soldiers raped and beat many villagers and detained thousands as “antinationals.”
The king launched a gradual transition to democracy in 1998. Political parties were legalized in June 2007, and elections for an upper house of Parliament were held in two rounds in December 2007 and January 2008. Elections for the lower house, the National Assembly, took place in March 2008. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party won 45 of the 47 seats, while the People’s Democratic Party took the remainder; voter turnout was nearly 80 percent. A new constitution promulgated in July provided for some fundamental rights, but it upheld the primacy of the monarchy and did not adequately protect the rights of Nepali speakers.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck succeeded his father as king in November 2008, though he had been in power since the outgoing king’s abdication in 2006. The monarchy remained highly popular with the public, and many Bhutanese expressed reservations about the shift toward democracy, excacerbated by the lack of qualified politicians in the country.
Local elections that had been postponed since late 2008 were finally held across the country in early 2011. Officials experienced difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to stand in the elections in a country with a small population, voter apathy, and high education requirements. All candidates were officially required to be nonpartisan and to prove that they had no party affiliations. Several candidates in the local elections ultimately were disqualified because they did not meet the age or professional requirements. Some polls took long to open due to logistical difficulties, and turnout was relatively low, reportedly due in part to the remoteness of certain areas of the country and to voter apathy and distrust that the polls would result in concrete change.
By-elections for vacant positions not filled by the previous year’s elections were held in 2012 and were more successful than those from 2011, with a better-funded election commission able to issue audits, hold the elections, and commission outside analyses of its results. The government also helped aspiring Bhutanese politicians learn more about democracy by organizing seminars and sending them for training in India.
Bhutan is an electoral democracy. Despite concerns about problems that kept some Nepalese from voting during the 2012 by-elections, international monitors deemed the elections to have been free and fair.
The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly, both serving five-year terms. The king appoints 5 members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king to serve as prime minister. The cabinet previously was nominated by the king and approved by the National Assembly, but in 2012 there were many disputes among cabinet members about whether these positions should be chosen by Parliament. The cabinet has increasingly taken on the role of governing, and not just deferred to the monarch for guidance. The king remains the head of state and appoints members of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the heads of national commissions. He can return legislation with objections or amendments, but once it has been reconsidered and resubmitted, the king must sign it into law.
Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in 2007; four new political parties were registered in 2012.
The government operates with limited transparency and accountability, but steps have been taken in recent years to improve both. The 2006 Anti-Corruption Act established whistleblower protections, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is tasked with investigating and preventing graft. In 2011, the National Assembly passed an anticorruption law that strengthened and expanded the ACC’s mandate. Bhutan was ranked 33 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The authorities restrict freedom of expression, and a 1992 law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. A 2006 media law led to the establishment of two independent radio stations, but it did not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. Since then, the government has liberalized the issuing of media licenses, allowing more outlets to emerge, particularly in the past two years. The state-owned Kuensel and two independent weeklies, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer, generally publish progovernment articles but occasionally cover criticism of the government. In February 2012, The Bhutanese, the country’s first national broadsheet newspaper, launched with a plan to become the first daily paper in the country. The internet is accessed by about 15 percent of Bhutan’s population. The government monitors online content and blocks material that is seen as pornographic, but rarely blocks political content.
The constitution protects freedom of religion, and a 2007 election law bars any ordained religious figure or “religious personality” from voting or running for office. In 2010, the election commission maintained that even lay members of religious organizations would be prevented from voting, but in 2011 and 2012, monks and other members of religious groups participated heavily in the local elections. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion and reportedly receives various subsidies. The Christian minority is allegedly subject to harassment by the authorities, and permits for the construction of Hindu temples are apparently difficult to obtain. Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported, though nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claim that the teaching of Nepali and Sanskrit is banned. The government requires that Bhutanese wear traditional dress on certain occasions and at certain times.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the government must approve the purpose of any protests. In recent years, security forces have arrested Southern Bhutanese refugees based in Nepal who entered Bhutan to demonstrate for the right to return home.
The constitution guarantees freedom of association, but only for groups “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” NGOs that work on human rights, the refugee issue, or other sensitive matters are not legally allowed to operate. Under the 2007 Civil Society Organization Act, all new NGOs must register with the government. The government prohibits independent trade unions and strikes, though most of the country’s workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture.
An independent Judicial Service Council created in 2007 controls judicial appointments and promotions. However, critics have alleged that the judiciary is not fully independent. Until a new Supreme Court was finally seated in early 2010, the king served as the final arbiter of appeals. Concerns were raised in 2012 by the press and the public over the quality of the justices and their lack of training for their jobs. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture remain areas of concern, and dozens of political prisoners continue to serve lengthy sentences.
Prior to the mass expulsions of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, the government had stripped thousands of their citizenship under a 1985 law that required both parents to be Bhutanese citizens. While the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that the overwhelming majority of refugees have proof of Bhutanese nationality, the government maintains that many left voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants. Some 55,000 refugees live in extremely poor conditions in Nepal and have been denied reentry to Bhutan, and the Bhutanese government continues to harshly criticize the UNHCR. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to third countries began in 2007. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “more than 69,000 of an original total of 108,000 refugees from Bhutan have found a durable solution in third countries” including the United States.
Women participate freely in social and economic life but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics, though they participated heavily in the 2011 elections. They also comprise nearly 50 percent of the workforce.