Friday, March 28, 2008

A New 'Guided Democracy' made by the King

It will be interesting to hear Bryan Caplan's views on this new experiment in a tiny country.

For Discussion: Who's a genuine Bhutanese Citizen?

Voting on the king's orders;
Yet the king's decrees—formulated into an overarching policy of “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to economic growth at any cost—have not always helped alleviate poverty. Stringent checks on the exploitation of Bhutan's timber, for example, have helped ensure that rapid economic growth has created relatively few jobs. Though furnished with free medicine and education, some 20% of Bhutanese live below the poverty line.

A big minority—Nepali-speakers from the country's south—have deeper grievances. Under pressure in the late 1980s to adopt the culture of the majority, some arose violently. In response, the government drove around 60,000 (including, it says, many illegal immigrants) into Nepal. More than 100,000 still languish there in UN-run camps; America has offered sanctuary to 60,000.

This will not end the worries of the 100,000-odd Nepali-speakers who remain in Bhutan. Thousands have allegedly been denied citizenship because of their association with those in exile. For the southerners, at least, democracy promises something better. Nine of the DPT's winning candidates were Nepali-speakers. Officials in both parties said that resolving the southerners' grievances was a priority.

In general, candidates promised voters more of the benefits the king gave, including roads and electricity. Some villagers quietly complained about the former regime. By tradition, the king gives land to the landless and timber for house-building. Yet in the remote village of Miseytang, a poor landless trader said that after a month spent presenting her petition in Thimpu, a nine-hour drive away, she had received half an acre of protected forestry land. “It's useless to me,” she lamented, standing outside her fine house, facing a school where her three children were educated free, next to a health clinic, also free.

Most Bhutanese applaud the king's rule. But his decision to impose democracy on them looks canny. There is enough social change evident in Bhutan to suggest a political change was in store. In Thimpu, a city of 100,000, unemployment, and disgruntlement, is rising among educated youths. “Bad Boyz!” exclaims graffiti on a Thimpu building-site. The former regime's success in education, and failure to boost Bhutan's tiny private sector, is partly to blame for their frustrations. So is a fresh limit on civil-service hiring; last year around a third of the country's new 1,200 university graduates found no state job.

The new government will have to find jobs for the boyz. In the short term, tourism is the best hope. A plan to double the number of tourists (20,000 last year) aims to create a total of 100,000 jobs in the sector. This will require a new international airport; the current one, at Paro, is shunned by every national carrier except Bhutan's because of its terrifying hilly approach.

More important, to improve the lot of poor peasants, the government will have to lead them out of subsistence farming. To bring their goods to market, alas, many more roads must no doubt be bulldozed through pristine forests. And the last of the hidden kingdom will come into view.

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