Even though there is no domestic pro-democracy movement and no discernible outside pressure, Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has surprised everyone by putting forward a proposal to devolve power to a constitutional monarchy and a two-party parliamentary system. Although the 100,000 Bhutani refugees have described the move as an effort to distract world attention from their plight. It has gained is wide support. In the 100 years of monarchy, it seems Bhutanis believe that the people will get reform only if the king decides to give it. It remains to be seen what final shape the constitution will take. The proposal will be sent out to Bhutan's 534,000 people considered citizens. After that there will be a referendum at end-2005. It also remains to be seen how many people in Bhutan, where the literacy rate is only 30 percent, will be able to read and understand the new draft constitution. And there is speculation that in a country steeped in unquestioned loyalty to royalty, the people may reject the king's devolution plan. King Jigme has not just offered to become a constitutional monarch, but said he will step down after he reaches 65 and if he or any other king doesn't behave properly there is a provision for parliament to pass a no-trust vote. The draft gives full sovereignty to the people and keeps the monarchy as a symbol of national unity. King Jigme, a student of international diplomacy became king at 16 in 1972 and at age 49 there was a blot on his reign with the 'ethnic cleansing' of people of Nepali origin for which he has been condemned internationally. But the rare gesture of giving up power voluntarily has increased the chances that he will now be considered a statesman. "This is throwing dust in the eyes of foreigners," says refugee leader, Teknath Rizal, "the king is still above the law and the people will not be able to exercise real democracy." Indeed, the draft resolution makes no effort to resolve the refugee question. Instead it tries to entrench the move by making 1958 the cut-off year for citizenship. The conditions for new citizenship is so severe (those accused of being critical of the king aren't eligible) so there is no question of the refugees ever being considered Bhutanis again.
Other than that, the draft resolution is more progressive than Nepal's constitution on issues like women's rights, for example on inheritance. Although it was crafted with help from Indian experts, the draft reflects Bhutani realities: for instance the army chief's nomination is the responsibility of the king. In addition, up to 75 members of the house and 25 members of the upper house will be answerable to the king. Although 85 percent of its people make their living on agriculture and its development parameters are poor, Bhutan has a per capita income of $ 660 which is one of the highest in South Asia. Although a 1947 treaty makes Bhutan an Indian protectorate, the draft constitution skirts the issue of international recognition and treaties as well as international diplomatic relations. But it does make every Bhutani a 'trustee' to guard the country's natural resources, especially hydropower. The constitution emphasises raising literacy rate and spreading health care.
Under the two party system, the party that gets most votes in election makes the government while the other one is in the opposition. Parties can lose their political recognition if they are not transparent in their financial dealings. They can't use extra-legal means to take advantage of being in government. There is strong punishment against a party taking money from private, NGOs or foreign sources. There is also a provision for declaration of emergency but for that the prime minister has to request it in writing to the king. Its duration can only last 21 days and will affect press freedom and civil liberties. Bhutan will be a Buddhist kingdom but the state will conserve other religions. The king will be a the supreme commander of the army and all citizens will have to get militia training.
Despite these provisions, the Association of Press Freedom Activities (Bhutan) is not satisfied. Chairman IP Adhikari says: "Bhutan has lied and tricked it way through many international conferences about its democracy and freedom. This draft is just another of those tricks."
The coming years will show if the king is sincere in his democratic dealings. If he is, his international stature will improve. If he doesn't his new constitution will be seen as a smear. As far the Bhutani refugees are concerned, the bottom line is that it will be easier for them to deal with a democratic Thimphu than an autocratic one.