Bhutan is a mystery to many, a small south Asian country tucked between China and India, with a democratic system that is strong and showing few symptoms of erosion. This being said, there have been two notable moments in recent times where Bhutanese government officials have not only broken the laws but created harmful norms to deal with the original infractions.
To understand the current political situation in Bhutan, one must understand its government structure on a basic level. Bhutan operates under a constitutional monarchy and has a Prime Minister and King who work in tandem. The judicial and legislative branches balance out the executive branch. They are composed of supreme and high courts, and parliament, respectively. While this organization of government allows for checks and balances between each branch, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, and more liberties resulting in a strong democracy . While all people should abide by the implicit and explicit rules of democracy, there are some citizens that violate laws with no repercussions.
On December 24th, 2021, Prime Minister Tshering of Bhutan failed to deliver the annual report on the state of the nation. As per Bhutan’s 2008 constitution, the Prime Minister is required to deliver an annual report on the state of the nation to the Drunk Galpo. The Druk Galpo, for clarity, is the King of Bhutan. The PM of Bhutan was underprepared this year and did not create an annual report, leaving government officials without a crucial official report for basing future government actions on during the upcoming year.
While failing to present one report may not seem concerning, the lack of mandates directly from the Prime Minister opens space for aspiring autocrats to bend norms and break laws. This scenario played out when “three former local leaders of Norgaygang gewog … constructed 1.4 kilometres Chungu farm road in 2020 without approval from the dzongkhag and department of Law and Order”. Without directions disseminated from the main government, officials may loosely interpret instructions and methods of carrying out tasks. One of these former leaders who built the road claimed to have verbal confirmation from a planning officer when arguing his case to the court. This claim raises the idea that not all mandates have to be made through writing, which poses an issue for the consistency and truthfulness of relaying conversations and agreements in the future. If accounts of events become hearsay rather than based in writing, the government will struggle to find proof of their occurrences. The PM’s decision to not give an annual state of the nation report will allow for similar situations to this and permit leaders to break laws and attempt to create new norms in the lower government.
For the crime of building roads without formal permission, on February 19, 2022, the builders were charged each with under three-year sentences in prison. Interestingly, the builders were able to pay thrimthue instead of carrying out their sentences. Thrimthue may only be used legally to pay as a “bail” when sentences ordered are under three years. In this case, the payment of thrimthue was acceptable, because the ordered prison sentence was under three years. In a similar case in August 2021, however, the sentence was for over three years of jail time per offender and the offenders were allowed to use thrimthue. What is seen here is inconsistent compliance with the laws of thrimthue. This law, in addition to all others, must be applied more evenly to avoid future disasters and degradation of democracy in Bhutan.
Some may say that this scenario is overblown and that Bhutan’s democracy is not harmed through breaking small laws or changing punishments for smaller infractions. While the situation is manageable, it set a norm of bending rules, making it easier for government officials to justify themselves not following laws in the future. Breaking laws and not being punished adequately or equally by the government sets up the expectation that these officials may offend again and continually evade retribution for their actions. It is through changing norms and breaking laws that authoritarians, who are inherently anti-democratic, rise in power, especially stealth authoritarians .
One might connect this situation to the United States, where former president Donald Trump tampered with the validity of elections, which borders on the line of not normal and unlawful . As the government never punished Trump for this, it set the expectation (norm) that presidents can overreach their explicit powers when it comes to elections. As we can see, in the case of Bhutan, the Prime Minister’s lack of follow-through with creating the annual report has allowed for lower-level officials to also break laws and set norms. It is often thought that breaking old norms and laws is how an authoritarian expands his or her power; through creating new norms, one can see that the same outcome (autocracy) can be achieved. Seemingly minor changes and infringements, therefore, chip away democracy away slowly but surely.
This is not to say that the future of Bhutanese democracy is doomed, but rather that one must be cautious of those who are breaking laws and changing norms. The best plan of recourse for Bhutan at this time is to hold the PM accountable for creating the annual state of the nation report or punish him, which will reinstate the expectation of following democratic laws in Bhutan. Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition / by Robert A. Dahl. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
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