Monarchy to Autocracy

Jigme Y Thinley

In the last five years some physical infrastructure, especially in the rural areas has been strengthened but the same cannot be said for the democratic fabric in Bhutan.

Through a combination of factors, Bhutanese democracy has now become “too unique” to be called a normal democracy, and rather is headed on the path of an Autocracy.

Most dictionaries define autocracy as a form of government where too much political power is concentrated in one person, in which one person has unlimited power over others, or in which the ruler does not take into account others wishes and opinions. Bhutan’s current system of governance meets all these conditions.

Historically, starting from the time of the Zhabdrung, Bhutan has either been ruled by a strong central authority or by local feudal lords in their respective valleys. Therefore, culturally, generations of Bhutanese until recently have been accustomed to being ruled by a strong ruler that enjoys absolute power.

The birth of the Monarchy from 1907 onwards gave rise to the concept of an Enlightened Monarchy which not only united and developed the country, but also for the first time in Bhutanese history gave this power back to the people in stages with the last stage being in March 2008 when Bhutan’s first democratic government was elected.

However, starting from even as early as 2008, instead of using this new space voluntarily vacated by our Kings for strengthening democracy, the ruling government lead by the Prime Minister and the older ministers have instead installed an autocracy over which they reign supreme.

Instead of a fresh start the current regime using a combination of fear tactics, intimidation, people’s inbuilt cultural conditioning, undermining of democratic institutions, ad-hoc decisions and dictatorial governance style, has taken Bhutan back to the past.

In form and structure Bhutan can be called a functioning democracy with elections, elected representatives and democratic institutions, but in terms of practice Bhutan is getting farther away from becoming a genuine democracy.

The joke is on democracy as a group of older ministers in a new system has ensured that the old ways are perpetuated in the new system. The new and younger ministers have also followed suit in their senior colleague’s path.

From the first year itself the government started establishing an Iron grip over various government organisations, individuals and institutions like the DHI, REC, Secretaries, senior civil servants, RCSC, democratic bodies, state owned broadcaster and etc. either by changing the laws or replacing and transferring key people.

At the time, the government through skilful public relations and deft media handling gave the impression that this was all being to bring stubborn institutions and individuals stuck in the past, in line with the new democratic spirit.

The reality, as we now know in the fifth year of democracy was that it was nothing more than a power struggle to control these institutions and individuals, not for the sake of democratic governance but for more power and control. For example some big economic projects that are being given to a connected few use these same structures.

The ruling party itself does not practice the concept of internal party democracy as evinced in the DPT party meetings, where the scene is more akin to a group of young students listening to a strict principal. Many MPs have very less say within their own party. In some ways the ruling party has elevated its Party President to the position of a Mini-monarch who cannot be questioned and all his directions have to be blindly obeyed.

This along with the lack of alternative leaders most of whom are too scared to speak their minds even within the DPT, a weak opposition, the strong personality of the PM and an impressionable media has led to the rise of the personality cult of the Prime Minister.

Statements like, “He is the only one fit to lead the country,” or “there is no one else,” etc., all come from this mass personality cult where the PM even assumes superhuman qualities ignoring his obvious human flaws.

The autocratic government has taken on a “super-paternal” role as the one who will tell everyone else what to eat, drink, smoke, think, when to walk and how to be happy.

The very reason why the Fourth King gave democracy was to avoid this kind of centralised and autocratic leadership, but ironically Bhutanese democracy is being undermined by this very kind of leadership that deals only in absolutes, be it absolute power, absolute control or absolute victory.

Autocracy and the complete power that comes with it inevitably gives rise to an oligarchy and institutionalised corruption.

This can be seen in the numerous corruption cases where the leadership has shown itself to be unaccountable to the masses and instead will do everything to help’s its own, even by breaking laws in broad daylight.

The numerous controversial issues like Education City and mines, and also blatant corruption issues like Trowa, Denchi compensation, Chinese City buses, Gyelpozhing, and other projects indicate the rise of an oligarchy of well connected individuals and families protected and served by this autocracy.

In the absence of a strong opposition and civil society the role of constitutional bodies in checking this autocracy is all the more important. However, the autocracy has taken on the ACC, ECB, judiciary and others and managed to throw a spanner in their works in different ways.

The autocratic system has also successfully subverted the senior levels of the civil service by rewarding the loyal and the connected with plum promotions and postings, while punishing those who do not fall in line.

For the autocratic power structure, the biggest obstacle is a vocal, diverse and critical media. The government using a system of economic sanctions targeted specifically this paper to send a message to all others on the consequences of criticising the government. The fact that the government still continues with the sanctions even after being publicly exposed is additional proof of its autocratic behaviour.

This autocratic government did not even spare the institution of the Monarchy. In a highly dubious and in transparent way the government introduced a new Land Bill that would give Land Kidu powers to the cabinet and remove the Gyalpoi Zimpon along with other government secretaries from the National Land Commission (NLC)in favour of ministers. This legislation was only postponed when there was a public outcry and it was pointed out that it would be unconstitutional.

Another autocratic example of this government was the stubborn refusal of the government to focus on serious domestic economic problems and instead focus on promoting GNH.

This autocratic machinery repeatedly makes use of fear to control people and attack its opponents.

As the very basis of autocracy is based on the suppression of diverging opinions, government critics are attacked using lies, untruths, conspiracy theories and half-baked information. The government has a propaganda machine for this that takes advantage of vulnerable, sycophantic, gullible and unprofessional elements in the media.

For the sake of the nation’s very future and in the interest of growing a healthy democracy, Bhutan cannot mistake autocratic leadership for stability or good leadership. These is because autocracy in Bhutan is visibly giving rise to oligarchy, institutionalised corruption, poor governance, economic problems, the subversion of press freedom, loss of individual rights, and ultimately, the subversion of our young democracy. Far from giving stability it encourages instability and disharmony.

In the international context autocracy and its accompanying features like the political leadership cult have gone horribly wrong for the people as seen in the examples of Maoism, Stalinism, King Jong IL, Mubarak, Gaddafi and etc.


“In order to get power and retain it, it is necessary to love power; but love of power is not connected with goodness but with qualities that are the opposite of goodness, such as pride, cunning and cruelty”

Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoi



From The Bhutanese:



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  1. The author of this piece says “This autocratic machinery repeatedly makes use of fear to control people and attack its opponents.”
    Sure, the bhutanese are such a fearful lot! All that has been done to consistently not cooperate with govt. as well as to attack it and attempt to halt anything that might make it more popular is indisputable proof of how govt uses fear to control the masses and how ‘controllable’ they are.

    And for heavens sake, if there are alternatives to jyt – let the people know. Isn’t it time that he/she is made known to the people so that we can judge for ourselves whether the alternative is good enough or not?. We cant select on the basis your suggestions that there are alternatives.

  2. A well written and thoughtful piece on the true state of affairs in Bhutan. We are still not a democracy but truly an Autocracy or Oligarchy where only a few families are prospering and most of them are linked to the PM. A lot of people in Bhutan now say that it is more dangerous to make the PM your enemy tha the King as the PM is vicious, autocratic, vindictive and intolerant.

  3. Lets battle this phobia in the forthcoming election. We can elect a leader that leads 0.7m Bhutanese instead of preaching GNH to the 7b gullible people of the planet seeking to attract their attention. It will simply result in wasting resources that could be used to build our own society….

  4. Jyt IS The Father of God…the savior which the bible promised.

  5. Tenzin Lamsang sure seem to be suffering from serious mental disease. He doesn’t really seem to know what democracy has given him. He had forgotten that democracy had empowered him to pour on all his bullshit using a vindictive journalism. He doesn’t seem to realize that the democracy had enable him to bash JYT in a perpetual manner through his shitty editorials. Yet he has the audacity to call it an autocracy. Yet he displays his foolishness to fear Oligarchy. He doesn’t really seem to understand what democracy really is, did he forget that the people elect the leaders in democracy?

  6. This is a fine piece of article that has so much of merit. Backing with evidences will only hurt because evidences are too many. After hearing the Chinese buses and education city, I thought JYT is preaching a romantic subject of GNH to international community who are politely attacked for materialism when in his own backyard allegedly himself and his relatives are not far from pursuit of insatiable materialism. “Charity begins at home”. Using the idea of Gandhi, If you want a change in the way the world is pursuing materialism to no limit, be the agent of change yourself.

    GNH is a good philosophy though, but too good to happen in a human world.

    • Sceptic says:

      I really appreciate the author for bringing up such important issues in this forum and specifically making a comparison between the Monarchy and present Democracy. Indeed, it was not in favour of almost all the Bhutanese citizens to go for democracy that early as all the citizens were well looked after, taken care, more happier and prosperous under the selfless leadership of our visionary King. But it was the a heartbreaking news for almost all the Bhutanese people when our King decided to abdicate the throne and devolve the power to the people feeling that Bhutanese citizens may have better chance than ever despite peoples earnest appeal not to do so. However, it is also important for all of us to note that the essence of democracy has paved its way in Bhutan since 1991 onwards when powers were devolved to people through institutions of associations like GYT and DYT.

      However, the official democracy has started in 2008 with the election of present government. Since then, Bhutan as I would recall has gone through the series stages of developmental activities and should say that has prospered under the present government. We also understand that some of the government policies were unpopular and that has let to the public outcry. However, in general we as a responsible citizen must weigh the pros and cons of and understand the reality rather than going by the words of few people who are not satisfied with this government.

      I also really started developing some doubts in my mind behind the credibility and honesty of this particular forum. I may be wrong, but what I feel is that this is run and operated by some anarchist who are trying to undermine the government thorough creating division among the citizens and their very propaganda is to instill the views of anarchy by glorifying the unpopular government plans and policies.

      So, as a responsible citizen, I feel that we need to know the truth and long term effects of such propaganda and if the Sons and Daughters of Palden Drukpa become divided and vulnerable, chances are imminent that even the foreigners may step in to poke their nose or put their hands in our profound democracy.

      Hence, I would appeal all our responsible citizens to remain united and exercise your power to change the course and choose a different leader in whom you find the potential, rather than creating disharmony by deceiving the larger sections of the population.

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