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Bhutan Goes to Polls Next Week
The Bhutanese king has abdicated the throne in favour of democracy. The country goes to polls in December. This is welcome but the fate of 100,000 Bhutan-ese refugees in neighbouring Nepal remains unaddressed. They were denied citizenship.
THE INTERNATIONAL media treats the election in Bhutan as an event to celebrate from the Asian continent. The landlocked kingdom will go to polls to elect the National Council (upper house of Parliament) of Bhutan on December 31. The Council will have 20 directly-elected members from each dzongkhag (district). Five eminent personalities from various fields like literature, music, social service and others will be nominated by the King to the 25-member upper house.
 
Election to the lower house of Parliament will be held in February and March next year. Called the National Assembly, it will have 47 seats. Quoting Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan, the State-owned newspaper ’Kuensel’ reported that 3,12,817 eligible voters would exercise their franchise. On both the occasions, those who are 18 years and above and holding valid citizenship cards, will vote.
 
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is being praised across the world because its king is abdicating the throne in favour of democracy. But on the flip side, the issue concerning the fate of the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in neighbouring Nepal, thrown out of Bhutan in 1991, remains unresolved. The refugees are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. They were driven out of Bhutan because they protested the passage of a law in the 1980s that arbitrarily cancelled their citizenship. Accounting for as much as a sixth of the Bhutanese population, most of them, living in the south of the country, fled from Bhutan to Nepal in 1990. They have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since then, desiring to get back home.
 
Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul or the Dragon Kingdom, is surrounded by India and Tibet. The country is witnessing a transition from absolute monarchy to multi-party democracy on account of the Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicating the throne and not because of any popular uprising. Earlier, his main accomplishment (that was visible to the outside world) was his Gross National Happiness standard-of-living index but in December last, after setting in motion the transition to democracy, he abdicated the throne in favour of his eldest son, the Oxford-educated Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk.
 
The benefit of happiness, however, does not seem to have percolated through the Hindu Bhutanese. "Some 108,000 Bhutanese refugees have been registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), a New Delhi based rights body. Following a visit to the refugee camps in Nepal last month, Chakma reiterated his demand that Bhutan be held accountable for settlement of the exiles.
 
Bhutan is finding this an annoying distraction from Jigme’s plans for democracy, even as it is busying itself with conducting dry runs prior to the actual election of prime minister and council of ministers next year, which will reduce the monarchy to a ceremonial role, in the process. A second round of mock polls was completed on Monday, with school children, under the supervision of the Election Commission of Bhutan, participating as dummy candidates. Four mock parties, the Druk Red Party, the Druk Blue Party, the Druk Green Party and the Druk Yellow Party, each with different symbols and colours participated. Electronic voting machines were in place, with assistance and support from India.
 
Meanwhile, two political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan People United Party (BPUP) have registered with the government. A third political party, an alliance of retired civil servants, defence officials and businessmen called the Bhutan National Party (BNP) is in the offing. "We definitely need at least three credible political parties”, a local journalist told Asia Sentinel. "Otherwise it may turn into a situation where the voters would have to select one from the two worst candidates," he said. "We expect a smooth transition, though I cannot deny that many Bhutanese people are still apprehensive about democracy."
 
The mock polls are for everybody but the exiled Bhutanese, who repeatedly demanded to be included in the first round; their demand was turned down. Nepal-based separatists in the camps as well as the Bhutan Communist Party, a group formed by the refugees, has threatened to carry out bomb attacks in Bhutan during Monday’s mock voting but the situation remains calm.
 
The Nepal government has raised the issue with the Bhutanese authorities in 15 rounds of talks; but it has failed to persuade Thimphu to allow the refugees to return to Bhutan. Not a single refugee has returned to Bhutan. India, though recognized as Bhutan’s friendliest neighbour and largest aid donor, has kept out of the dispute, arguing that it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.
 
It appears that a lot of Bhutanese will migrate overseas. On May 26, US Ambassador to Nepal James F. Moriarty announced that US would offer permanent- resident status to at least 60,000 of them; he added that US would provide an additional USD 2 million in food aid to the camps. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also volunteered to take a share of refugees for resettlement. However, the Asian Centre for Human Rights has asked all the countries not to undertake any hasty resettlement.
 
Suhas Chakma, the Asian Human Rights Centre director, stressed: "The international community must be mindful of the implications of any resettlement process without any written commitment from Bhutan. It would be tantamount to supporting ethnic cleansing policies by the Royal Government of Bhutan." He warned that if Bhutan can get away with 108,000 refugees, the situation of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan could be untenable as they might also be forced to renounce their citizenship or leave Bhutan." He also added, "Bhutan, which has perfected the art of repression, need not expel the ethnic Nepalis en masse but it can somehow force them to leave."
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