Conversation Report: Democracy Today
Volume 8, Issue 1 of The Druk Journal titled Democracy Today was published in May 2022. The Journal has 15 articles that look at the situation of democracy in Bhutan after 14 years of democratisation and three governments. The issue carries three broad themes. There are 700 hard copies of the journal, and more than 200 copies of the issue have been distributed so far to more than 197 different academic institutions, ministries, political parties, constitutional bodies, schools and so on across the country. Distribution is ongoing (check www.druk journal.bt).
Two Conversations of the Druk Journal (TDJ) on “Democracy Today”, was held on 6th May and 1st June, 2022 moderated by the editor of the Journal, Dasho Kinley Dorji. The volume covered topics ranging from democratic culture, electoral processes to the experiences and perspectives of politicians, voters and the media in democratic governance.
- On 6th of May, four speakers who contributed articles to this issue of TDJ presented ideas from their articles on political culture and ideology, the teaching of civics in the Bhutanese Education system, democracy and GNH, and personal experience of a politician. The speakers included Karma Loday, Rinzin Wangmo, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji and Shin Suto.
- The next Conversation on 1st June was held at the Royal Thimphu College. Three other speakers, Gyambo Sithey, Om Nirola and Kencho Pelzom, presented ideas from their articles. The speakers shared their analysis of media and freedom of speech as observed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the apparent paradoxical existence of values of social justice and meritocracy in the civil service and reflection on the electoral processes from a citizen’s perspective.
Entrepreneur and former member of the Kuen-Nyam Party, Karma Loday drew on his experience and highlighted how the “conduct” of politics has created tensions, division, and lack of discourse among politicians and the people. He emphasised the need to improve the “conduct” of politics to make it appealing to young people and shift the prevailing stereotypes of politics as dirty.
Project Formulation Adviser at JICA Bhutan Office, Shin Suto, said that democracy is a means to realise GNH but democracy is facing challenges. The number of women in parliament in Bhutan increased from 8.3% to 15.2%. However, this was far below the global average. Shin questioned if all voices were equally heard?.
Principal Education Monitoring Officer (EMO), Rinzin Wangmo pointed out the need to step up civics education. Students are learning more from social media than from home and school. Civics textbooks focused on “procedures and institutions” and less on Citizenship. Rinzin said that we should “Equip the young to respond to change”. Moderator Kinley Dorji added that, for sections of the society , the word “youth” is linked to “problems” because of the lack of understanding. It is critical to enable youth to become active citizens.
When asked about the irony among civil servants remaining apolitical and also making democracy a way of life, founder and adviser at BCMD, Siok Sian Pek- Dorji stressed the need to maintain neutrality in politics and being non-partisan as public servants, but still get to make your voice count by voting during elections. Politics should be acknowledged as everyday action. Regardless of age, people should be educated more on the idea of politics and how it functions.
Kecho Pelzom, an International Relations Manager at RTC, discussed parallel values, meritocracy and social justice. Meritocracy draws on the idea that we are born equal but it is based on competency. While social justice is the distribution of income and opportunities.
Kencho emphasised the importance of these values cohabiting but being less functional in reality from her analysis. Bhutan’s idea of social justice is distinct, as our welfare schemes mainly focus on uniformity but overlook the vulnerable population. She questioned: “Do you want to look at democracy from a GNH perspective and how can we set up policies and structures that are useful to us?”.
Gumbo Sithey, founder of The Centre for Research Initiatives, shared his views on how during the pandemic some of the world leaders capitalised and entrenched their power. He pointed out the top down approaches to decisions made during the lockdowns as something that people should reflect on. He also touched on the freedom and importance of Media and the effect of digital platforms on news and information shared.
Chief Resource Officer for Bhutan National Bank speaking in his own capacity as contributor, Om Nirola talked about his personal reflection as an active participant in democracy. He shared about democracy at home and the active participation of family and friends. He said that there was high voter turnout over the years but believes that there is still a large population in the country who do not vote. He pointed out the need to create awareness among people about the importance of citizens being able to choose the people who will run their government. He stated “Everyone knows who we should be voting for but no one knows who that everyone is”.
Dasho Kinley, addressed the current concern of the country, as young citizens leaving in search of the “Australian dream” and losing young voters and democrats. The discussion was further expanded, as the audience remarked on their fear and concerns regarding protest and restriction and how this affects the culture of Democracy. The respect for authority eroded with democracy and defying the traditional culture of respect.
Responding to a question from the audience about protests being a part of democracy, Pek Dorji spoke about how manifestation of democracy has to be culturally appropriate. She highlighted the importance of collective action that is not only about protests but in being able to reach out to policy makers to share concerns, as simple as getting in contact with our MPs. Kencho added that there are always other ways, such as signing petitions. Om Nirola stated that democracy has many manifestations and social media is emerging as a platform for citizens to be heard. Dasho Kinley highlightend the centrality of “skillful means” as a way to exercise voice and to bring changes in the society or policies.
A student shared his perspective on Bhutanese citizens not being able to think for themselves and participate in decision making. He talked about the importance of democracy starting at home and how parenting can promote or stifle independence and independent thinking in children. Pointing out the need to translate aspirations into action, Kencho Pelzom remarked that “People want to talk about a lot of things, but won’t take action”.
In a de-briefing on the conversation at the RTC, lecturer Rabilal Dhakal said it was an open, insightful conversation that gave students a clearer picture about democracy in Bhutan. He said the students found it most useful.
- In total the Conversation was attended by 87 participants. 40 participants (20 female, 20 male) joined the first Conversation, including 30 parliamentary researchers who had attended BCMD’s Media and Democracy Literacy workshop, key stakeholders from the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority (BICMA), National Council of Bhutan, National Assembly of Bhutan, representatives from political parties, and the media. The second Conversation had 47 participants (20 female, 27 male) were present at the conversation, including 24 college students, faculty, high school students, teachers and members of civil society organisations
Summary of recommendations and discussions at the conversations:
Role of Media in Democracy
- Need for a level playing field for everyone to have access to platforms for sharing views.
- Clear code of conduct to be accepted by all.
- ECB should have the capacity to monitor.
- Rethinking the freedom of media, are individuals heard enough?.
- Technology is inevitable, and a vital part of the growth of democracy.
- Use social media pragmatically.
- Understand the concepts of privacy v/s public affairs.
- Reformation of the education system to include citizenship education in schools.
- Media to step up their role in a democracy.
- More civic space for citizens to engage.
- Changing the recipient mindset.
- Cultural shift from being a loyal subject to a more responsible and active citizen.
- Civic education should be a collective responsibility of all including civil society organisations and the Election Commission.
- Civic education needs to focus on values and quality rather than the institutions and procedures.
- Civics and citizenship education need to be dynamic.
Electoral Process and Democracy
- Elections were conducted successfully.
- People need to learn about voting as a right and responsibility.
- It is important for people to vote without fear and bias. Important to create awareness among people about the affirmative effect of voting on Democracy.
- Importance of Democracy starting at home by sharing values of democracy in daily action.
- Bhutan started democracy but we have no, or few political scientists. Indirectly a
suggestion to make political science more popular.
- Importance of collective decision making in democracy.
- Balance between democracy and cultural values.
- Finding the right means to be heard in democracy.
- The lack of involvement of civil Society organisations (CSOs) to review policy and contribute to decision-making.
- Defining the “conduct” of politicians.
- Understanding rights, responsibilities and liberty of the individuals.
- The culture of democracy is shifting.