For a sign of things to come with isolated Bhutan’s young democracy, look no further than a draconian smoking law, some bar talk, and a Facebook page.
For decades, Bhutan has been the world’s most reclusive kingdom, with conservative villagers living under an absolute monarch. The introduction of parliamentary democracy in 2008 by the then-king was forced on many reluctant subjects who still look to the monarch as the final arbiter of justice.
But earlier this year Kinley Tshering, then a media consultant in the capital, Thimphu, discussed with friends over drinks the jailing of a Buddhist monk for three years for possessing $3 worth of tobacco, one of the first to be prosecuted under a new law banning public smoking.
More than 50 people have been jailed over the law, which allows police with sniffer dogs to raid homes in search of illegally imported tobacco and makes holding as much as a carton of 200 cigarettes a jailable offence.
Angry, Tshering decided to form a Facebook page, a digital protest unheard of in this Himalayan kingdom of 700,000 people wedged in between India and China.
Within months, the page had several thousand followers and was the talk of the town, signaling how a younger generation is embracing social media and democratic rights, confidently challenging an established order of elderly and mostly conservative leaders.
“Facebook was important. It opened the floodgates for open criticism of the government,” said opposition leader Tshering Tobgay. “People feel the need to be more vocal. Only two years ago, criticism - constructive or not - was quite anonymous.”
It is not just social media but traditional newspapers - the first private ones appeared in 2006 - that are becoming increasingly aggressive in probes into the government.
No one expects any revolution in Bhutan, where the king is revered. There is broad support for the kingdom’s cautious embrace of globalization and its philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), the idea that personal well-being and the environment are as important as GDP.
ALIENATED YOUNGER GENERATION
But, tentatively, Bhutan is becoming a country where its first-ever democratic government - elected in 2008 - may have to increasingly take into account its people, especially its younger and modern, urban and wired generation.
For decades, criticism and grievances were aired among families and close friends.
“There are a lot of speeches about GNH. It sounds like we are doing a lot,” said Tashi Choden, a senior researcher at the Center for Bhutan Studies in Thimphu. “But there is a different reality on the ground. The youth are increasingly alienated. We could lose what we have if we are not careful.”
The predominantly Buddhist Bhutanese are mindful of the fate of other Himalayan kingdoms: the monarchy in Nepal was abolished after a civil war, Sikkim was absorbed by India and Tibet by China.
The marriage of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck on October 13 to a young student may cement the future of the popular monarchy that acts as the checks and balances on an unsure democracy, funneling grievances through the ancient rights of subjects to appeal to the king.
But there is far more skepticism about its elected leaders.
“The next election (in 2013) will be fascinating,” said Francoise Pommaret, a French anthropologist and historian who has lived in Bhutan for three decades. “I have no idea what will happen, but there are profound social changes. Our leaders will have to listen to a new generation.”
Bhutan’s government faces a slew of challenges.
Most glaringly, there is a massive generation gap between an elderly conservative elite and young people who pose problems for the government that range from unemployment, urban gangs and drug abuse.
There is also a growing disparity in wealth. Bhutan is not one of the world’s poorest countries - its GDP per head puts it in the league of lower middle-income nations - and yet more than a fifth of the population lives on less than $0.70 a day.
Increasing expectations of better lives are fed by television, which was only introduced to the country in 1999, as well as the ever-more-frequent sight of expensive land cruisers plying Bhutan’s roads.
“Is there is one thing that keeps leaders awake at night, it’s the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots,” said one senior government official, who asked to remain anonymous.
TIDE TURNING SLOWLY
It is a change that goes to the far reaches of a kingdom roughly the size of Switzerland.
In the south, lower-caste villagers with historical Hindu roots are suing their upper-caste neighbors for discrimination, saying it is illegal under the new constitution. Pommaret calls it “a landmark in Bhutan’s history.”
In Thimphu, some 200 people carried out Bhutan’s first-ever street protest in 2009 against the slow official reaction to the drowning of seven youngsters in a monsoon-swollen river.
A highway through a national park connecting eastern Bhutan with the central part of the country has sparked national debate on television, and protests to the prime minister.
The new taste for popular debate is not restricted to an urban, educated elite: village migrants studying in college towns are embracing Facebook. And the government is smoothing the way, setting up computer centers in many rural areas.
Dupthob Tashiyangtse, a lawmaker from a remote rural region in the east, recounted how, after he was elected, villagers started making all kinds of demands including asking him to charge their mobile phones or pick up their groceries.
“When we campaigned we told them we were here to help them,” Tashiyangtse said. “They took us literally. People are now coming forward. They are more demanding.”
And everyone talks about the Facebook page.
“People are coming out,” said Tshering, who is now managing editor of Business Bhutan, a newspaper that has spearheaded investigations into the government. “We were really surprised by the reaction, quite scared actually. We were unsure what the government would do.”
In fact, the prime minister signed up on the Facebook page, a signal that the leaders of this country may see the tide cannot be turned.
But it is not without tension and fear.
Organizers say the street protest was photographed by plain clothes police. A normally assured prime minister angrily accused a newspaper of playing to foreign interests over an investigation into a state lottery scandal.
There is a long way to go. Many people are still reluctant to talk openly. Change will probably come hesitantly.
Asked if he had any more plans for protests, Tshering smiled, and said: “That was enough, for now.”
By Alistair Scrutton