Monday, December 16, 2002

Q & A: Tek Nath Speaks Out

After a relative calm of over two years following his release from jail, Bhutanese dissident leader Tek Nath Rizal is all set to re-energize the democratic movement in the reclusive Eastern Himalayan Kingdom even as King Jigme Singhe Wanchuk has created considerable amount of political noise by declaring to abdicate his power in favor of a constitutional monarchy. 

Dharma N. Adhikari
Bhutan is once again in the news. As always, the Thimpu regime has added yet another facet to its celebrated news making talent. This time round, the message from the restive, little dragon is this: No more despotism, for democracy is sure to follow. And, according to Bhutanese stalwarts in government and bureaucracy, it is not just democracy rather it is a ‘substantive’ democracy and a constitutional monarchy that is to be adopted.

Democracy in Bhutan may be sure to follow, but it is not clear from the media cacophony what it is about to follow and how substantive it could be. Nothing follows from a following. What the purported people’s rule may embody is at best hazy. Come the National Day of Bhutan on Tuesday, December 17, a draft of the Kingdom’s constitution will be presented to King Jigme Singhe Wanchuk.

Conjectures abound though that the extensive re-write of 1953 Royal Decree may be given the form of the first written Constitution of the Kingdom, whatever its implications for democracy and popular rule. Without any transparent and representative deliberation on the draft of the constitution, skepticism as to whether and how Bhutan may be on the path to substantive democracy pervades the opinions of observers, particularly among dissidents in Nepal.

The international media, as known Bhutan-maniacs, have time and again applauded the arrival of ‘modernity’ in the hermit kingdom, and now the advent of democracy. Again, less clear is what the said modernity or democracy constitutes and wherefrom it is arriving.

After the delayed and resisted adoption of television and the Internet, and of course, the ethnic cleansing of more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking citizens who have been languishing in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal for more than a decade, and a continued political repression of dissidents and pro-democracy activists, Wanchuk, the 46-year old absolute King of the Druk Yul, has baffled analysts; first, by announcing that he is not power-hungry and could even abdicate the throne, and then declaring that he desires to be a constitutional monarch. Yet the honesty and seriousness of his articulations would not always match in action.

Substantive democracy implies the rule of law, freedom of expression, of association, of movement and belief as well as civil guarantees of justice, representativeness, popular participation and deliberation in the affairs of the state. However, one wonders how the exclusion of dissention, party-politics and the rights of minorities--- elements Bhutanese officials are tight-lipped about, may bring about substantive democracy in Bhutan. Three of Bhutan’s most prominent dissidents—Tek Nath Rizal, a Lhotshampa of Nepali origin, Rongthong Kuenley Dorji, a Sharchop, and Shabdrung Rimpoche, a descendent of Bhutan’s dharma-raja or monk-king until 1907—remain in exile or virtual house arrest.

Although they may represent, in their pro-democratic and human rights struggle, the interests of many Bhutanese citizens and large sections of minorities in an ethnically and linguistically diverse country, King Wangchuk’s widely publicized democratic turnabout does not reflect an honest concern for representativeness, a requisites for genuine democracy. Democracy could at best be described as legitimizing and administering disagreements. By even refusing to acknowledge differences of opinion and disagreements—a trademark of the ruling Ngalops or Drukpas— reclusive Bhutan appears to be headed ultimately toward a polity of conflicts.

Tek Nath’s Ordeal
A glaring example of intolerance and disregard for reconciliation is the plight of Rizal, 54, a pro-democracy leader and a human rights activist. Since his release from jail on 18 December 1999, after 10 years of imprisonment, he remains in virtual confinement in the Himalaya Hotel of Phuentsholing, a town in the Southwestern part of the country. The exclusion of the veteran human rights activist from the constitutional drafting committee and the King’s repeated denial to see him has sent a strong message from the Bhutanese regime to the dissidents: Democracy in Bhutan is what the King and his durbar define it is, not necessarily what the people and their popular representatives think it could be.

In an hour-long conversation, Rizal talked candidly about the recent political developments in his country and their implications for the future of democracy and human rights in Bhutan.

His personal narratives shed light into the ordeals of a man who was hailed as the Nelson Mandela of South Asia while in prison, only to be forgotten soon. His service to the country—over 12 years of active cabinet membership, a close alliance with the King, and a devotion to the suffering Bhutanese—has cost him his freedom, family and health. Rizal’s call for justice for the wrongfully persecuted and blatantly discriminated Bhutanese of Nepali origin had landed him in jail on charges of treason. For the first time since 1988, the family of five got together only this past Dashain at Phuentsholing.

But to Rizal, the dubious freedom outside of prison has been a painful experience. “Life is far worse than when I used to be inside the jail. At least, there was security, regular food, and shelter.” Today, he lives in a hotel. Any person related to the refugees in the camps of Nepal is not granted permission to work. And having no NOC (No objection certificate), he is not authorized to work. His freedom of movement has also been suspended. He is not authorized to visit hospitals in Bhutan, so he often has to come down to Silliguri, a city in the Indian province of West Bengal. “All my property has been confiscated and I have learnt that it was handed over to Namgel Wanchuk, the King’s uncle,” Rizal said.

Rizal suffers from diabetics. Owing to conditions during the long imprisonment, he is physically paralyzed. “They wish I were out of Bhutan,” he says matter-of-factly. But he is determined to live in his own country. Though without work and income, he has been able to pay his hotel bills thanks to the generous help from human rights organizations such as the London-based Amnesty International, European non-governmental organizations, and Bhutanese expatriates living in North America and Europe.

The Bhutanese regime gained benevolent headlines around the world upon Rizal’s release, but once he was dumped in the open in virtual confinement, stripped of all his citizenship rights, news people had another beguiling story in their plate—the King would even abdicate his throne, if the people desired so. And now, another seemingly gigantic PR move, with all the talk of constitutional monarchy.

“I have not been able to meet the king since 1988 when was put into prison. I have petitioned several times since my release two years ago but all in vain.” Rizal said. The latest attempt for an audience with the king was this past August 17, but his aides said the King does not want to see him now, but would do so, “if needed, at an appropriate time.” As of now there are no indications from the Bhutanese government that this discarded old guard is ‘needed,’ and one wonders whether there would be a more appropriate time than now when the king would be better off seeking to accommodate an array of voices for his debut democratic Constitution, even if dissenting ones.

Yet, after a relative calm of over two years following his release from jail, Tek Nath Rizal is all set to reenergize the democratic movement in the reclusive Eastern Himalayan Kingdom even as the Bhutanese King has created considerable amount of political noise by declaring to abdicate his power in favor of a constitutional monarchy.

“Committed to human rights as ever,” as Rizal puts it, the 54-year old former cabinet member is working with several political parties in exile and other human rights organizations to develop a blueprint for an organized campaign aimed at democracy, social justice and human rights in Bhutan. “We are waiting how and to what extent the new constitution will lay out the roadmap for a truly democratic Bhutanese society. Unless the government takes concrete steps toward these ends, we will launch a people’s movement on December 17, coinciding with the National Day of the Kingdom,” he announced.

The new alliance of human rights organizations and political parties under Rizal’s leadership will be based in Phunchelling, Bhutan and it will work both within and outside Bhutan. The initial plans include peaceful demonstrations, strikes and eventually satyagraha. The major demands include repatriation of refugees, democratic freedoms, citizenship rights to all Bhutanese, and respect for human rights etc.

Bhutanese Reforms
Rizal perceives the recently announced moves towards democratization “not reliable.”

“I am skeptical,” he said in a Silliguir-based hospital in West Bengal province of India, “How can this constitution be genuinely democratic without a fair representation of a large section of the country’s population?”

“How can there be democracy without a just representation of the people in the said constitution under consideration? There are three ethnic groups in the country— Ngalops, Sharchops, and Lhotshampas. They have tried to show representation of southerners but that is only a show,” Rizal said.

According to him, the southern Bhutanese of Nepali-origin have not been accorded genuine representation. “The south has been grossly neglected despite the fact that the government has used the region as a bait for foreign investments and donations. Since the Nepalis were evicted in the early 1990s and their homes demolished and property confiscated, the region remains without hospitals, without schools. The armed forces continue to rule the region.”

Rizal does not see the Bhutanese slogan of substantive democracy, or parliamentary democracy as sincere, because, as he says the regime is continuing its feudal reign. “Southerners are subjected to gross human rights abuses, they are treated unjustly. They are forced to serve the newly settling Drukpas who have moved to the properties of the exiled and evicted Nepalis. They are forced to work for free to serve them from 8 to 4, forced to keep vigilance all nights in the name of security. Forced to work as porters for the government without wages and compensations. It is as if we are still living in the medieval world where justice is hijacked for the comfort of the few, and the ordeal of the many.”

He says that he cannot describe the plight of the Nepali people in Bhutan at the moment. “Their voices are suppressed, their contribution to the development of the country have been ignored. The current parliament does not have a single representative of the Nepali-speaking people. There were 8 representatives before 1990.”

The Bhutanese regime’s misadventure with ethnic cleansing of Nepalis has done more harm to the regime itself. The peace that prevailed in Bhutan has been broken, and dissention is not limited to Nepali-speaking population. Rizal says that the majority of Bhutanese people support his cause.

He said: “I have received support from inside Bhutan--- from all ethnic communities. If only a genuine, open democratic system were in place, I would get majority vote in an election. I have always voiced my concern for democracy and human rights and worked toward those ends, and my cause is the cause of Bhutan, and all Bhutanese, not a particular ethnic group. I had been supported by the Drukpas for over a decade before 1988, and still majority of them support the path I have taken.” There is little doubt though that the King would tolerate a Lhotshampa as a Prime Minister of the Bhutanese constitutional monarchy.

According to Rizal, the purported changes in the system cannot be evaluated at the moment, because so many things are shrouded in secrecy. “Democracy is a system of transparency, and we don’t have it. What type of parliamentary democracy will it be? Will it be representative enough to be called a democracy? This brings us to the question of freedom of opinion, of assembly, of organization and of movement. Which means democracy also entails the people’s right to choose their political parties or their representatives.” He doubts that the purported political changes are genuine.

Despite’s King Wangchuk’s apparently hostile pose, Rizal emphasizes on the significance and relevance of monarchy in Bhutan. “Bhutan is a diverse country comprising of three major ethnic communities. The King is irreplaceable for the unity of the country.” However, the king has neglected his own people. Bhutan’s donors and the international community are largely listless about the gross injustices meted out against the Bhutanese.

Beyond the Borders
The failure of democracies, or rather their reversals in neighboring Nepal and Pakistan, for instance, have provided Bhutan an opportunity to make a difference, hence its resolve to democratize, no matter how elusive its motives are. Yet, some of the examples of Nepali democracy these past few years do not seem to serve the dissidents well.

Rizal’s cautious comments on the political developments in Nepal in recent years apparently underscore this reality. “It is sad to see that brothers are killing brothers in Nepal. I hope that the Nepali leadership will be able to sort out the problem through peaceful dialogues. One could hope that the democratic system that came into place after the late King Birendra’s switch to constitutional monarchy would enable the people of Nepal to lead a life of peace and prosperity.”

Rizal also called on India’s involvement in sorting out the refugee problem. “India’s role is indispensable. The Nepalis were lured into Bhutan and Sikkim during British India to work in areas of infrastructure and development. As a regional power and because of this historical reality, India has to speak up.”

He lashed on the propaganda in India and Bhutan about the so-called “Greater Nepal” scheme of the Nepalis in Nepal and the diaspora. The King of Bhutan had justified the ethnic cleansing of Nepali-speaking people in a letter to the United States government some four years ago. The king had argued that Nepali majority in Bhutan meant that Bhutan would be just like another Sikkim, where in 1971 the majority Nepalis of the independent state voted to join the Indian republic. “The Nepalis have lived in Bhutan for over a century. No ethnic cleansing, no injustice anywhere in the world can be justified on the ground that one ethic group is perceived to be a majority.” Nepalis constitute one-third of Bhutan’s debated population of nearly half a million.

Rizal also noted the barriers to the free flow of information and ideas concerning Bhutan. He said the press in Bhutan is controlled by the government and journalists are not able to provide perspectives on the ground realities. “The Indian press, in order to appease the King, is self-censoring information about Bhutan, although for some time it carried critical and informed perspectives.”

Asked how the U.S. war on terrorism has affected the local politics, especially the eviction of Assamese rebels hiding in the jungles of Southern Bhutan, Rizal said that it was sad that even as a member of the U.N. Bhutan was terrorizing its own people and the world was largely ignoring it. He called on the world community to be fair in their dealings, and to urge the Bhutanese government to respect human rights of its people. “The government is ambivalent about miscreants and terrorists from outside, allowing them to make Bhutan their base, while at the same terrifying and evicting its own people.”

Several separatist Indian groups from Assam state of India have made bases in the jungles of Southern Bhutan.

A Shared Predicament?
Both Bhutan and Nepal have witnessed in recent years momentous political and societal developments in their history. Both live under the overbearing shadow of the regional power that is India. Misunderstandings between the two countries at the official level owe much to the lack of direct, sustained and formal diplomatic relationship between these countries. None of the countries maintain an embassy in the other’s capital despite the fact that both are historically, and culturally joined at the loins and live next-door to the other.

The need to preserve national sovereignty and independence as well as cultural identity is a shared predicament of both countries. However, Bhutan’s fear that the Gurkha expansionist legacy may reverberate in Bhutan, manifesting in Nepali dominance that may lead to the extinction of the Drukpa race or an emergence of a bloody rebellion, a la Sikkim and Darjeeling, has blinded her to the fact that its Nepali-speaking population, too, deserves the humane rights of freedom, and identity and respect.

What Bhutan does not seem to realize from the developments in Nepal is that when a government denies voice to a large section of its own population, it provokes agitation and dissent, rather than a dialogue. Democracy may have become a diplomatic shield to legitimize the continuance of feudal power in the form of constitutional monarchy in the Himalayas at the turn of the century, but it is also a door to a flood of grievances, protests, and often irreconcilable differences that plague the whole of society as the Nepali experience shows.

Given its political posture, Bhutan’s case could hardly be different in the long run, if not in the immediate future. Her dissidents have a choice, though, to make a difference. And the Druk Yul could not be an exception to this task. The age-old wisdom seems relevant to the current Himalayan experiences-- divided, you fall., 16,Dec 2002