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Asia

Burma and Bhutan: A Tale of Two Top-down Democracies

Both countries pedal their own models of democracy from above. Will they prosper?


What do Burma and Bhutan have in common? They are the two Asian countries that have imposed democracy from above not long ago. Both are Buddhist nations. Burma turned democratic in March 2010 with the general election that was rigged and widely condemned. However, a quick remedy—an open and verified by-election in April 2011—has helped Burma pave the way to democracy. Since then the country has embarked on dramatic political and economic reforms that took the global community by surprise. It used to be one the world’s most disreputable rogue states. Now it has turned its status around from zero to hero although some serious problems remain related to human rights and fierce fighting with key minority groups.

On the other side of India’s Assam region from Burma lies Bhutan. The kingdom, known as Shangri-La to the outside world, moved away from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 2008, when the first election was held to choose a new government. Before the democracy actually came, the popular monarch began numerous education programs to raise understanding and awareness of new political developments, especially the duties and responsibilities of Bhutanese citizens. Bhutan’s democratic transformation is the world’s smoothest without any of the bloodletting often witnessed in other emerging democracies around the world.

U Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.
Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.
Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.

Burma has now become a rather exceptional case in the annals of democratic development when it comes to top-down democracy. Naypyidaw calls its political system “disciplined democracy,” with strong guidance from the state apparatus, especially the military, which comprises 25 percent of the national and regional parliaments in the country.

So far, the economic and political reforms have gone in tandem—a rare practice in this part of world. Most reforms are mainly on economic liberalization. For instance, three decades ago both Vietnam and Laos adopted market-oriented policies to improve their moribund economies. Political reforms in both countries have been sluggish. Burma, which began economic and political reforms two years ago, has made tangible progress on the civil rights issues that both Vietnam and Laos have been avoiding so far. Last year, it set up a national human right commission, freed up the media and recognized the role of civil society organizations.

In a similar vein, Bhutan has been unprecedented when it comes to top-down democracy. Now Bhutan is playing a high-profile role in promoting the idea of using Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an index to measure the well being of a country instead of wealth alone. Former King Jigme Wangchung Namgyal was the person who thought of this concept some three decades ago. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, Bhutan promoted this idea at the United Nations in 2012. The GNH has now been picked up and discussed around the world, especially among leading economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz.

The first five years of Bhutan’s top-down democratic experiment have gone through numerous successes and errors. A new general election has been slated for June with the new faces of young politicians. Bhutanese-style democracy began with only two parties comprised of senior and junior civil servant officials. Now three additional parties have registered and will contest in the election. All parties are now learning the dos and don’ts of political campaigning with economic and social platforms. The candidates, both veterans and rookies, are using a small but vibrant local media, especially daily and weekly newspapers, to reach urban and rural voters. Radios and TVs are popular means. But given the country’s high and mountainous terrain, the six radio stations are doing their best to add more political news. The Bhutan Public Service remains the only station to provide political aspirants with air time to express their views and engage in debates.

Consequently, both countries have continuously taken dramatic reforms to deepen their style of democracy. Foreign assistance in terms of capacity building and human resource development has played an important role in promoting and improving their democratic institutions. Both countries want international acceptance and to join in the wave of democratization throughout the world. The jury is still out on whether top-down democracy as opposed to bottom-up democracy will be able to bring about the kind of benefits and freedoms seen in liberal democracies.