The Bhutanese Constitution represents the culimination of decades of reform. On July 18, 2008 in the presence of His Majesty the King and His Majesty the Fourth King, Members of the 1st Parliament under the Democratic Constitutional Monarchy appended their signatures and thereby, adopted the Bhutanese constitution.
The reforms captured in history in the few but critical changes initiated by our benevolent third King, referred to with affection by all Bhutanese as the father of modern Bhutan, was to be the beginning of unraveling of a self-imposed isolation policy of the tiny himalyan kingdom which had served its purpose of keeping Bhutan as an independent nation state by our wise leaders in the past.
Under the enlightened leadership of the fourth King major reforms were undertaken in the structure of governance. Bhutan saw unprecedented socio-economic development. There was a slow and deliberate transfer of power crystalizing into the total devolution of power from the monarch to an executive body and a parliament comprising primarily of elected representatives of the people in 1998. Empowerment of the grassroots through decentralization to local governments is seen today as another milestone reform. Policies received very clear push towards conservation of environment, preservation of culture, equitable socio-economic development and good governance. With hindsight, all these reforms clearly appear to be planned progressing towards a democratic Bhutan. The nation-wide consultation of the draft constitution with the public by the King and the Trongsa penlop, short of calling it a referrendum, saw discussion of range of concerns from the people. This gave the public ample opportunity to raise concerns and contribute to the constitution drafting. A prominent and repeatitive appeal from the public during these consultations was the desire to continue with monarchy. However, as can be seen now with hindsight, the fourth King had decided that a transition to democracy was in the best interest of the people and the country.
So it would be correct to say that the Bhutanese constitution has captured decades of reforms rather than directing major reforms that would have lead to a demand for democracy by the public. Many provisions in the constitution are a re-iteration of the commitment from the state to the citizens. However, reflective of modern political sphere, a few new and important provisions have completed this long democratization process.
Enhancing Good Governance
Referring to Bhutan’s increasingly growing popular development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) where good governance is set out as one of the four pillars or guiding principles, it is also increasingly resonated in the sphere of public debate that governance is cross-cutting and is quintessenatial to ensuring growth of the other 3 pillars of GNH. Therefore, to enhance and ensure good governance practices would be to move towards a more effective and efficient system. In order to help achieve that, there are provisions regarding institutional requirements, policy pre-requisites and legislative instruments which this paper will try and take up in the following paragraphs.
Legal and Institutional set-up
i. Bicameral Parliament
ii. Independent Judiciary
iii.The Royal Audit Authority of Bhutan
iv. The Anti Corruption Commission of Bhutan
v. Free Press
The Bhutanese Parliament comprises of the institution of Monarchy, the National Assembly and the National Council. However, a different aspect of the Bhutanese Parliament is the constitution of one of the Houses of Parliament. The National Council, also referred to as the House of Review, comprises of members elected directly by the people from the districts in addition to 5 emiment citizens as nominees by the Monarch. This House is mandated and functions with no political party inclination or biases and therefore, is expected to shoulder the responsibility of an in-built assured check and balance within the Parliamentary process in addition to the institution of Monarchy. This structure has been built into the Bhutanese constitution with the objective of ensuring growth in good governance.
The Bhutanese Judiciary enjoys independence as written in the constitution. This has already been put to test in the verdict passed by the Judiciary declaring the executive’s decision related to a tax increase as invalid. The decision was honoured and has had no fall out as a consequence, attesting the independence the Bhutanese Judiciary enjoys today.
Constitutional bodies mandated specifically to monitor ‘resource stewardship’ like the Royal Audit Authority of Bhutan and the Anti Corruption Commission operate and report on inconsistencies and corruption in their reports. These institutions continue to discharge their functions independently and are responsible for many initiatives geared towards enhancing transparency and accountability. Thematic reports and strategy papers drawn with other functionaries to enhance good governance continue to be the primary basis for monitoring of legislative intends in the various laws.
The Bhutanese constitution guarantees freedom of press and other media and the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act 2005 (BICMA) was enacted. It deals with information in the country at the moment.
There are currently 11 newspapers, 4 radio stations, 1 television channel, some magazines with a few on the waiting list. The news media fraternity very recently elected office bearers and now have a Journalist Association of Bhutan (JAB). There are also a growing number of Bhutanese bloggers and users of other types of social media in Bhutan, led by facebook as the favourate. Consumption of information has seen phenomenal growth within the literate group. This enabling environment has led to debate on policies and legislations within this short time span. It would not be wrong to also understand that although the platform for news consumption for rural Bhutanese remain the same, the level may certainly have increased. All this has been encouraging and is indicative of the desire of the Bhutanese State and the Royal Government to see a true spirit of democracy with its people at the heart emerge from this peaceful transition.
While most of these developments have been encouraging, given parallelly important priorities of the Royal Government, it is imperative that it continue its efforts in enhancing transparency and accountability in all spheres in governance recognizing that what little resources we have, we must use them effectively and efficiently.
A largely sidelined and most times misunderstood potential legislative intervention has been the Right to Information Act (RTI). I say sidelined because it has not been able to make it to the legislative priroity of the Royal Government even as the 1st Parliament nears the conclusion of its 5 year tenure. Most times misunderstood because it has been associated with freedom of press more than with the individual right of every Bhutanese citizen.
Article 7 of our Constitution adopted by the Parliament on July 18, 2008, guarantees every Bhutanese access to information as a fundamental right. Freedom of press and other forms of media is also explicitly enshrined in the Bhutanese constitution under different clauses.
The drafting of a Right to Information legislation had begun as far back as in 2007 much like the Anti-Corruption legislation, before the 2008 national elections. The first sensitization conference on RTI was also organized by the Royal Government in 2009 after it came into power. Since then the Ministry of Inforomation and Communication has made several public statements about the Royal Government’s the draft RTI Bill. We know today that it has now been with the cabinet for sometime. With only two sessions of parliament left before the 1st parliament completes tenure, its been less than satisfactory with it still not featuring in on the list of legislative priority of the Royal Government.
While discussing the Bhutanese experience of public access to information in the absence of a RTI legislation in its 4 year old democracy, it would be only fair to acknowledge the Royal Government’s interest in advocating transparency. At the same time, understand the state of the users of these information to me appears equally pertinent.
[Continued in part 2 of this post]