The Nature of Tibetan Democracy, by looking at Bhutan

Currently, the Tibetan Diaspora is in the grip of election fever.  The democratic system is being taken advantage, to the fullest I may add, by those vying for power (whether overtly or covertly, if you know what I mean).

There is also a parallel discussion, sometimes serious and at other times shallow, about the nature of Tibetan democracy. People have their own respective interpretation of how the democracy has to act. Oftentimes, western-centric standards are applied to judge the Tibetan system. Similarly, at the other end, age-old cultural and traditional norm are challenges to people in their need to think outside the box.

It is under this atmosphere that I would like to draw your attention to an article in the Bhutanese Newspaper Kuensel, Building democracy from below – The Bhutanese context by Tshering Chophel, which appeared on September 19, 2010. I thought the article touches on several aspects of the nature of democracy in Bhutan and the situation is similar in the Tibetan case at many levels.

The opening sentence will have a familiar ring to Tibetans. “The poor turn-out of candidates registering for the local government elections is not unexpected.”

However, the food for thought is in the second sentence that says, “The reason could be found in the contextual reality of our social and cultural milieu to accommodate such new political openings, rather than attributing it to mere lack of information and awareness of the process with the citizenry.”

In our own discussion on the nature of Tibetan democracy we may want to consider some of the issues raised here.

I am taking the liberty to repost the article here.

Building democracy from below – The Bhutanese context

PERSPECTIVES 19 September, 2010 – The poor turn-out of candidates registering for the local government elections is not unexpected. The reason could be found in the contextual reality of our social and cultural milieu to accommodate such new political openings, rather than attributing it to mere lack of information and awareness of the process with the citizenry.

Decentralisation and democracy is undeniably credited for empowering local governments and enabling citizens to productively and efficiently handle development functions that are not usually performed well by central government. It strengthens local governments’ competitiveness and enhances innovation that increases the efficiency to act towards satisfaction of citizens’ wishes of higher quality service provision. This is possible, as the locally elected leaders know their constituents better than authorities at the national level; while at the same time, physical proximity makes it easier for citizens to hold local officials accountable for their performance.

This argument holds water for a political liberalisation, the impetus for which ‘comes from below’ –the people. The bottom-up clamour from local governments, based on actual needs for certain benefits and efficiency gains of public service delivery, has greater impact than that initiated as top-down central government prerogative. Even if the clamour comes from below, if the policy formulation and design is made by the central government (without involvement of ultimate beneficiaries, i.e., people at the grass-root level), the system remains with its theoretical beauty extravagantly nourished with hypothetical benefits without much impact on the ground.

The clamour from below means people’s ability to not only pin-point the weakness, but also to be in a position to identify best remedial measures to meet social interests. It is an indication of maturity of people’s civic consciousness and social, economic or political readiness to shoulder the responsibilities of governing themselves.

Democracy is essentially a consequence of an authoritarian breakdown, fostered by social movements and clamour from ethnic-based civil organisations desiring for better local governance. For some countries, democracy is instigated by political pressure from other centralised or rising regional parties; external shocks or crises; influence of different ideologies; and, other hidden agendas, such as reducing social spending by devolving responsibilities for social-sector-spending to local governments, while not raising their fiscal base.

Bhutan’s democratic transition is a result of the King’s voluntary devolution of power to the citizens. It is ‘given’ rather than ‘demanded’ by the people, without being pushed by any domestic or external political compulsion for reforms. Such top-down political liberalisation is inspired for people’s interest and wellbeing, the urge for which stemmed from the personal initiative of the central authority. Democracy came as a sequential step of series of political transitions of a welfare state without authoritarian collapse.

Such step-by-step procedure is necessary to set the ‘conditions’ to enable, facilitate and promote democratic trends. Then the ‘agency role’ of actors and institutions must be instituted in the forms of rules, norms or traditions and concrete structures like parliament or political parties. This must be positively complemented by enabling socio-economic conditions, so that politicians will not promise ‘jam today’ at the cost of ‘jam tomorrow’.

The rationale of this kind of political trajectory is found in that national unity outweighs other democratic phases. Certain level of socio-economic development is prerequisite for a sustainable democracy, for which reason some critics say ‘democracy is a luxury that poor countries can ill afford’. This wealth theory of democracy was experienced in some of the East Asian tigers like Taiwan and South Korea, where democracy came later than national unity and economic development.

This is not to say that democracy cannot survive in poor countries, as it proved for countries like India. But certain development would inculcate some civic education in people that make them see themselves more as citizens than just subjects, increasing the acceptance level and demand for democracy. It will instil a political culture with advanced attitudes, beliefs and values that underlie an understanding of a democracy’s technicalities.

Bhutan lacked this. Changes in political systems hitherto were implemented within the centrally-pushed framework, resulting in local governments simply becoming godfather or mere custodian of prescribed rules, but not the legitimate source of change. Such dimensions of democratic transition rather increase the local governments’ dependency with little increase in the autonomy, despite full devolution from the central government.

Implementation deficiencies in local governments entail central government to still take the driver’s seat, resulting in a kind of patrimonial state. This has resulted in path-dependency, in which the historical impetus and mode of political changes tend to set today’s ‘event chains’ that determining the fate of a democracy. The disturbance in the ‘political equilibrium’ has given our people some kinds of an ‘organisational inertia’ making them resist change and defend their previous positions. The previous procedures have become too sanctified and normative for any reorganisation.

This is when we need to properly test our new model of political change with clear plans of benefits. Perhaps, weak response in local elections can take place as a result of abrupt change in rules from the central government, such as the ‘functional literacy’ required for those running for the posts. We recall that, in the past, the post of a gup was not limited for somebody, who knew reading and writing. People preferred their gup to be a village elderly trusted by people in that he was knowledgeable in terms of local context and had practical experiences or exposure in addressing the local issues. This is how functional literacy was defined previously.

Though qualification in formal education might go well with the need of time, when practical skills on accounting, development planning or public administration have emerged as a requisite for modern management, any ‘big-bang’ shots may not work for a country-specific context in historical and as well as political terms. Democracy cannot be generalised and replicated uniformly as ideal and one-size-fits all kind of political measures, for it is not measured by whether it right or wrong approach, but whether it is successful or not.

Our country is going through a ‘learning-by-doing’ phase, in which many things are carried out in some kind of trial and error experiment. Our decentralisation has not matured, both for lack of capacity in local functionaries, as well as limited resources with the central government. When most of what is decentralised are more of responsibilities than authority of resources, we have rather overloaded local functionaries with administrative burdens than social benefits. Without providing equivalent remuneration, improving election criteria by requiring formal education will not attract the literate lot. If we mean to attract better qualified people to run the local governments, we should create an environment compatible with what the literate lot would want.

Until such measures are in place, we will have people, who are attracted for status or perks, take the post of our parliamentary as well as local governments. We will have people craving for the sacred democratic posts, merely out of no other choice to have a job. As a result, we will come across issues that are beyond the teething problems of a new system.

By Tshering Chophel


5 thoughts on “The Nature of Tibetan Democracy, by looking at Bhutan

  1. I can see some parallels between the sorts of problems that Bhutan faces in being able to transition to a more dynamic and informed democracy, and the Tibetan experience, but I’m afraid Bhutan needs to confront a problem of its own making first, that is even a larger obstacle to becoming a more enlightened and self actualized society. It needs to come out of the state of denial and paranoia about having anything to do with Tibet and Tibetan culture. Tibetan history and culture is is being denied and deformed by a foreign oppressor, but it is only the Bhutanese who are doing it to themselves. Even as refugees, Tibetans have the grace and confidence to be proud of the philosophical and cultural influences that came from India 1200 years ago, and yet our Bhutanese friends talk of gross national happiness while at the same time, feigning a case of national amnesia on the source of so many philosophical and cultural influences from Tibet that help make Bhutan the relatively happy society it is today. The Bhutanese are a wonderful people, and I hope some day they’ll be allowed to understand their own culture more honestly.

    1. You have touched on an issue that societies, like Bhutan, which share the same culture with Tibet has to confront with. Somehow it seems these societies have had a psychological scar on account of the loss of Tibetan nationhood, because it was the Tibetan people to whom they looked up to for inspiration. When those very Tibetans became refugees overnight denizens of these societies have not been able to adjust to the new situation.

  2. Bhuchungla, Great article and thanks for the reference to Bhutan.
    @Gyatsho, you make a valid point. I think that the “paranoia and amnesia” stems from Bhutan’s historical relationship with Tibet during which it had to fend off many intrusive attacks before the 19 C. If there is any denial it may also be so because Bhutan does not have to deal with a Tibet per se but with a China instead. Many have asked “Why” Bhutan does not take a stand or support the Tibetan cause publicly and I think Tibetan’s should be sympathetic to Bhutan’s cause at the same time – we are still negotiating our own boundaries with China and our hands are tied.
    On the other hand I also think this so called “paranoia and amnesia” may actually be a need to create our own identity. Because it is so interlocked with Tibets and there is the danger of a perceived threat of China breathing down on us (for not only being close in proximity geographically, but also in culture) it perhaps makes those in the govt more wary about feeling affiliated in any way.
    Bhutan and Tibet’s historical relationships (even until very recently) have not been the smoothest. However, I hope you come to understand that when it comes to the people they have nothing but commiseration for your struggle and cause; that they have nothing but utter respect for HH Dalai Lama – even if they can’t invite him to Bhutan; and that if they were given the choice to make these decisions it would be different had it not been for China.

    1. Sonam Ongmo la,

      Kuzu Zangpo la. Your comments are topical, particularly coming at a time when there is this development in Nepal. We all need to understand our respective situations and find creative ways to protect and promote our historical relationship. We need to find ways to make history triumph over politics.

  3. Tashi Dele Bhuchung la,

    Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that we should not leave things up to the governments but rather the people to protect and promote our relationships whether they be between Bhutan and Tibet, Tibet and Nepal, Nepal and Bhutan.

    I also wanted to say to Gyatso la that while some Bhutanese may be “paranoid” about having Bhutanese history affiliated with Tibet, it is not what most or all Bhutanese agree with. Facts speak for themselves in that our histories, culture, language and script are intricately intertwined. there is no denying that and anyone who does is deluding himself to rewrite history.

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