From a historical perspective, there are two types of democracies today: the first comprises those countries which became democratic principally in the 18/19C: mostly in Europe but including the US and the British settler colonies, as well as parts of Latin America. At least in form, they have been at it for a while and have developed political cultures which—to varying degrees—buy into the ideals.
The second group comprises those countries which, during the course of the 20C, became independent from European (and US) empires and/or which adopted democratic structures usually without much preparation or a well-developed democratic culture. In most such countries, democracy has struggled greatly to go beyond the legal formalities. Bhutan belongs in this second group but with a twist. Most such countries fought for independence and had to establish a nation at the same time that they designed their political structure. Copying/adapting established models was relatively easy. Constructing a political culture of participation, respect for law, and looking out for the common good of the entire country has proved to be much more challenging.
Bhutan is different in that it already had some sense of national cohesion. Its relative isolation until late in the 20C meant that it did not have the other usual accoutrements of modernity, including a commercial epistemology, a robust and educated middle class, and a demarcated state. The bulk of the population, largely agricultural, isolated, and uneducated was, therefore, unpolitical as well.
Among the accomplishments of the fourth King (Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1974-2008), before he abdicated in favor of his son, the current King), was that he accelerated many aspects of modernizing Bhutan, including the shift from a traditional monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The internal discussion process began in 2001 and a Constitution was promulgated in 2008, including many “normal” aspects of parliamentary democracy, with, however, a strong Buddhist influence and the retention of a fair amount of both formal and informal power in the throne (this is no European “performance art” monarchy). Elections to parliament began in 2008 and have occurred every five years (including upcoming in a few months).
There is an adage, which I learned some years ago in the context of managing corporate mergers: “The hard stuff is easy and the soft stuff is hard.” Formal rules, procedures and structures are easy; culture is hard. Western democracy has taken centuries to get to its current state (such as it is!). One of Bhutan’s central challenges is to foster citizens’ engagement with the political process (both parliamentary and local) and develop their sense of shared responsibility for their own actions with the elected officials as vehicles for society’s policy goals.
Fifteen years is not very long to accomplish this goal and cajole a traditional, deferential culture into greater involvement and activism. Having worked to educate students at my university here in SF in the nature and practice of democracy, I was glad to find a group in Bhutan that had taken on this challenge. Locke and Rousseau aside, as the late John Lewis said: “Democracy is an act.” It has to be inhabited and lived out by the full range of citizens. Participation is not instinctual; it has to be culturally nourished.
The Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy has multiple projects working in this direction. Project Mikhung (“Citizenship”) has developed teaching materials and public education programs in both the schools and for local communities to build the culture of engagement. We’ve taken it out, gotten feedback from students, teachers, and community leaders; revised the materials and are ready to take our pilot project across the country. Of course, as with any aspect of education, it’s not “one-and-done.” There are new students every year. Changing culture requires reiteration. So, Mikhung needs not just geographic expansion but also some degree of permanence so that democracy becomes ordinary (likely a generation or so).
One of the main goals of my recent trip was to see the impact of Project Mikhung and get the direct feedback from teachers and community leaders. Their stories were gratifying and inspirational.
As part of my engagement with this process, I got to talk with a group of grad students at the country’s major teacher’s college in Paro. I talked about the importance of engaging students in democratic ideas and practices. One asked how to respond to young students who are frustrated with the ineffectiveness of Bhutan’s young democracy. I responded that democracy isn’t pretty; that such ineffectiveness and frustration is “normal,” and that constructing a democracy is a long-term process. I reminded them (and me) that we teachers are in the business of long-term investment; which is nowhere more true than in the context of helping to change a culture (not just an individual student). It’s still far better than passivity and authoritarian structures. I told them that Bhutan has been extraordinarily lucky in the wisdom and good will of the Fourth King and the current King. That’s still no argument for monarchy, as the people of Thailand (and North Korea!) are currently experiencing. Indeed, generally, the idea that the great-great-grandson of some guy who won a battle is best fitted to lead a country didn’t make much sense in the 17/18C and even less so in the 21C.
Democracy is no panacea. Bhutan faces a host of issues—some unique to it and others shared with the rest of us in these parlous times. Even with its shift from capitalistic epistemology (embodied in the concept of “Gross National Happiness”), Bhutan has to find its way so that its people can express their vision of what that happiness entails. It’s a pretty open-ended exploration and, as so many nascent democracies have demonstrated over the past 250 years, there’s no telling the shape of the path ahead. Democracy’s greatest foe is fear of uncertainty and disorder. It will take Bhutan decades of working on the “soft stuff”: acculturation and practice, to get to the stage of democratic normalcy and stability; and, even then, as widely evidenced around the world today, such an achievement provides no guarantees.
Bhutan’s greatest strength is its people’s willingness to try to craft their own modernity. I’m glad to be a part of an effort to keep democracy in the mix.