Druk Journal Conversation: Sherubtse College

Civil society and Democracy

On April 17 and 18 we organised two Conversations at Sherubtse College in Kanglung, one with the Political Science students and one with Media students. The Conversations covered two issues of The Druk Journal – civil society and democracy.

We discussed the concept and role of civil society in democratic governance, governance meaning the functioning of society and civil society referring to all citizens, not just CSOs. Bhutanese people have to make the transition from being loyal subjects to being responsible citizens. Sherubtse students take civil society and gender as courses in the political science programme. Students volunteer in a number of activities on and around the campus. For example, they were then cleaning up the mess from the Thuja trees that were cut down.

In their feedback all the participants found the Conversation to be useful in enhancing their understanding of civil society and CSOs.

On democracy, we invited views on the democratisation process in Bhutan. The observations and issues raised during the Conversation were not different from the issues that are being discussed around the country. The emphasis was the need for Bhutanese citizens, both urban and rural, to understand the democratic process better. The approach to democracy and the electoral process was not very different form the real life experiences of the students within their families and communities.

Views and observations that were highlighted:

  • CSOs are non-governments organisations that have an important role in national governance. But we, as citizens, can do our own part in everything and help society to grow, and in doing so, grow ourselves.
  • CSOs provide services that governments do not. Government should outsource activities and support CSOs. It is about people taking action. A democracy can’t function without a strong civil society.
  • Students noted that so CSOs are now needed because communities that used to help one another are not doing so and society is breaking down. Kanglung has Draktso working with people with disability, giving them vocational training and the ability to be independent. Students helped Draktso build a kitchen and dining hall, gave lunches and distributed clothes.
  • One participant shared the emotions of wanting to start a home for the old people and the “guilt and shame” of not doing it. She could not manage the paperwork, an experience shared by many others, including existing CSOs.
  • Perhaps civil society can do what the government has not been able to do… reverse trends like rural-urban migration.
  • There is duplication among the CSOs in their mandates. For example, different CSOs working for women and children and for media. Is it an example of the herd mentality of the Bhutanese people? For example, when someone succeeds in a business, everyone emulates.
  • CSOs have agreed to work more closely with the government. CSOs and government should sit together – develop a new modality. CSOs also need to act as a watchdog on government. Media is considered CS in some societies but not others because media houses are mostly commercial.
  • Sustainability is an issue for CSOs. But CSOs being non-profit does not mean it is kidu. They have expenses – salaries and office expenses. CSO staffs are not just volunteers. They are professionals. They work from the heart, fulfilling society’s real needs. People do not understand non-profits. An example – when BAOWE helped Nubi gewog develop massage oil from black pepper, farmers complained that a non-profit organisation was taking a cut.
  • The CSO Act. Many CSO heads complain that the Act is stifling. It restricts initiative and activities.


What is Bhutanese democracy? “Democracy is a gift from the throne, the vote is a jewel (nob). Democracy is a culture of governance that goes beyond elections. It’s about values.

  • A political party is a group of people who come together in a shared ideology. Our parties don’t have ideology.
  • We don’t have enough discourse on dialogue and debate. What we are discussing is just the tip of the iceberg – the outer layer. How can we change this? Address issues to lead to bigger change.
  • Gender is a big discussion. A woman candidate at a CSO retreat said that women don’t support women candidates. Women don’t get elected into office. We need mechanisms to encourage women in politics.
  • One participant shared that his mother was independent enough to speak her own mind on issues. She was branded as a “kachara” (Blacksheep) woman. She has been struggling.
  • We need women in decision-making positions. Example of Sherubtse sports club. The presence of a woman member is making a difference.
  • The idea of a quota for women parliamentarians can be a transitionary step. It is also important to respect meritocracy in both men and women.
  • For those studying Political Science – from a feminine perspective, men are not seen as the enemy. Include the men so they can collaboratively build the notion that men and women are equal and can develop with each other.
  • Such a conversation has to be started with youth. We have to talk about how to create an equal platform for debate – for both men and women. How do we change this in youth? Change the mindset of the youth? It is difficult for us to change the mindset of older people. Change the upcoming generation, we would see better a field for both women and men.
  • We don’t understand the value of democracy. It is the lack of education and awareness.
  • Family situation. Some students know who their parents voted for but most do not. Family members pressure each other to vote for a particular candidate. They are reminded “Do you remember when we had this problem, who helped us?” Some discuss it within a family but keep it a secret. Some are trying to prevent the family being divided by party affiliation.
  • Some vote for friends, for example, school friends and college friends.

Not looking at the larger picture, looking at our own personal interests.

  • Ideologies and pledges don’t work. The ground reality is different. (A former politician) When we describe our ideas and manifestos they don’t understand. Even as a disadvantaged candidate, I won by providing what they most wanted (tobacco – baba diplomacy). Exploiting the power of people’s addiction.
  • Bhutan developed a distrust of NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s. NGOs were seen as being synonymous with corruption and violence. It was in South Asia. Our government was worried. To many officials, non-government was interpreted as anti-government.
  • Now the term CSO is more acceptable. His Majesty even awarded the Gold medal to CSOs. Recognition at the highest level here. And CSOs are now encouraged and getting more actively. But do CSOs risk the same fate as NGOs?
  • There is a shift in students’ mentality with change. More market driven and money oriented. For example, a student artist would paint for the sake of art. But they now ask for money.
  • The example is, in some ways, set by the government… civil servants asking for DSA to do anything including training themselves.
  • Thromde elections – a big issue. Shouldn’t all residents be allowed to vote?
  • I voted for the person looking at experience, qualifications. My mother’s rationale for voting. If a candidate speaks good Dzongkha he/she will be effective in parliamentary discussions and debate.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt said: Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

Where are we? The unanimous view was that Bhutan is at the third level.

  • In the past student, captains were appointed by teachers based on their height or size. No elections. No voice of majority or voting system. Some participants agreed with this system because teachers know who will make a good leader. And today, students vote for their friends and not for the best candidate.
  • But the system is changing. Students do campaign and stand for elections. It is a better system but we have not reached the professional culture of voting.
  • We have the culture of playing safe in a small community. It is difficult to say ‘no’. Take things too personal. That’s the reality.
  • Skeptics: Some people believe that we only vote for people who serve our interests.

Power tends to corrupt. So whoever comes to power tends to do so for self-interest. Once in power they become more greedy and corrupt. And we don’t trust the younger ones. We have a negative view of democracy. Democracy is misused.

  • How important is a civil society in a small country like ours? We don’t need so many CSOs. The government can do it all.
  • Democracy is not necessary for Bhutan. We have tha damtshi ley judre. In a democracy, we don’t respect our elected leaders.
  • Criteria for democracy to be successful is education. But a majority of our population is illiterate. So ideology and vision and policy don’t work. Only “Baba” diplomacy works for this electorate.
  • Need for advocacy in far-flung areas. Educate them on the significance and importance of their votes – what kind of leaders we need.
  • One dilemma? Do I trust that, with time, they’ll gain experience? So do I trust that the older ones will remain true to what they say or the younger ones who are supposedly educated? I go home and talk to my father. He’s never gone to school but he’s very wise and also I talk to friends and colleagues. And that’s how I will make my decision.
  • We are not well informed. We only have access to public debates. ECB stops media doing stories on candidates.
  • In the absence of good coverage by the mainstream media, we all depend on the social media, which is very risky. Whether it’s credible or not, we get it faster. Mainstream media are biased.

Question to students: When you hear the word democracy – what comes to mind? The answers:

  • System of governance
  • Rule by the people, for the people
  • People have the right to express opinion and views
  • Gives power to the people
  • Rule by a majority – we consider things for a majority but tend to ignore minority?
  • People’s government.
  • Democracy is freedom
  • Right has given to people to choose their government and leaders.
  • The tyranny of the majority
  • Freedom of speech with power
  • People have the right to speak but not to undermine the sovereignty of our country
  • Right to vote
  • Freedom of the people
  • People’s participation to bring effective changes
  • To elect leaders
  • Freedom with rules, which limits freedom
  • With intentions for the betterment of the country
  • Involving the people in making decisions on the welfare of the country
  • Democracy is “I want to bother you but don’t bother me.”
  • Freedom and responsibility
  • People with ideas to bring change