My country should have no street protests: Bhutan PM

Bhutan`s first democratic PM has completed three years in office.

Thimphu: Bhutan`s first democratic Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley, who has completed three years in office, said the primary focus of his government was to evolve a culture where the people would never have to protest in the streets.

"I would like to see a country where there are no demonstrations. Not because the authorities are able to control law and order but because there is no desire for it and there is no need for it," Thinley said in an interview.

Public views and opinions could be addressed and responded to in a peaceful and fully democratic way, said Thinley, seated on a sofa in a knee-length wraparound known as the `gho`, the national dress for Bhutanese men.

"It`s a small country, we can do this."

With roughly 700,000 people, Bhutan is the second least populated country in South Asia, after the Maldives. One of the most isolated countries in the world until recent years, this Himalayan nation allowed tourists in 1971, and the television and the Internet in 1999.

Thinley said when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck pronounced Bhutan`s transition to democracy in December 2005, "the word democracy conjured all kinds of illusions and images in the minds of the Bhutanese at the time".

The Prime Minister was seated facing a large framed picture of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Singye`s son, on the wall.

"Politics is a dirty word and politicians are not associated with high morality and ethics in our part of the world, and in much of the world. So people asked why, your majesty? We are very happy with you as the ruler," he added.

The Bhutanese did not want democracy, he said. "Democracy was failing in many developing countries around the world, including in the neighbourhood. But the Bhutanese are highly adaptable. It amazes me all the time to discover how the Bhutanese can adapt to change so very quickly."

Now, they have become "very demanding and very mindful of their rights", he added, alluding the urban youth, most of whom go to India, Thailand and the West to study.

Last month, a young Buddhist monk was sentenced to three years in prison under the Tobacco Control Act of 2010 for smuggling a few packets of chewing tobacco from India. A few protested using a popular social media website, a first of its kind in the country`s history, asking for an amendment in the law.

Some bloggers called for a demonstration at the capital`s Clock Tower Square, to emulate the recent Tahrir Square protests in Egypt.

Though part of the restive South Asia region, Bhutan has never witnessed a public protest except in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when sections of the ethnic Nepalese population rebelled against then king`s cultural unification programme and tightening of citizenship laws.

The government`s crackdown led to a mass exodus of the Nepalese to Nepal.

Thinley condemned the "attempts to create hysteria" over the tobacco law.

"Street demonstrations and movements... are necessary only in countries, where the rule of law is undermined by authorities, where democracy has failed and where there is no other way to draw the attention of those in power," Thinley stated, calling such means "foreign to Bhutan".

Asked how he viewed the use of social media, Thinley said he and his cabinet also wanted to use it but had time constraints.

"We think it`s useful... But because of our inability to participate actively, we are normally the victims of the social media," he added, laughing out loud.

The Prime Minister said his party refused to hold a rally even during the election campaign though the Election Commission called for it.

The opposition party, which has only two of the 47 seats in the lower house of parliament, was ready to hold a march but eventually abstained from it.

"It could lead to starting a new culture, and this culture will not only be confined to elections; it will spread to other domains as well," Thinley said.

"Can you imagine what could have happened? This is a small society. I am leading a march and I call all the people to join me. Who wants to be seen in my group opposing the other group who are also members of the family and friends, people that you respect? It divides society."

Asked if the stress on domestic peace was due to a sense of geopolitical vulnerability given Bhutan`s location between India and China, Thinley said, "Not at all. We have good relations with both the countries. We see only opportunities. People say you are a small country, you are a landlocked country. We say `no`. Do you realise that our country is located between the two most rapidly prospering economies in the world today."

The Prime Minister added that India supported Bhutan`s entry into the United Nations and is its biggest development partner.

"Development is all about one`s social, economic, cultural and sovereign political capacity."

In the next 10 years, Bhutan would not need any development aid, a large chunk of which comes from India, thanks to its potential in green power generation, organic food products, IT and ITES services and tourism, Thinley said.

"We are not looking outside the region (for market); we are looking only at India."

This, he said, would be achieved in a sustainable way in compliance with Gross National Happiness, an alternative to purely economic yardsticks for national progress.

Bureau Report

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