Bhutan is gearing up to become the world's newest democracy with the country's first-ever national elections on Monday. The elections are a bold step for this isolated and traditionally Buddhist Himalayan kingdom toward the 21st century. Raymond Thibodeaux has this report for VOA from Phuentsholing on Bhutan's border with India.
Here, on the Bhutan side of the border, it is quiet. The streets are clean and the air is clear, a far cry from conditions just beyond Bhutan Gate in Phuentsholing on the border with India. By contrast, the Indian side is crowded, filthy and loud. Children in tattered clothes beg in the streets as buses and trucks rumble by spewing exhaust in the air.
It is as if the Bhutan Gate is a portal into a land that time forgot. This tiny Himalayan kingdom, wedged between the emerging superpowers of India and China, has been largely isolated from the rest of the world. But that is starting to change.
Ruled by monarchs for more than a hundred years, Bhutan is holding its first-ever election on Monday to choose members of parliament who will have real power, not just serve as advisors to the king. In a political model similar to Thailand's, the king will serve as a figurehead.
Ramgay Wangchuck manages a hotel in Phuentsholing. He says some people are reluctant to embrace democracy.
"Even the people have requested of the King, when he announced about democracy and the decentralization of the government, that [they] don't want to do that," said Wangchuck. "But the King himself has given that power to the people. And people are trying to fulfill the King's desire."
Bhutan has two main political parties. There is the People's Democratic Party with its symbol of a white horse. And there is the Bhutan Prosperity and Unity Party with its symbol, three black-necked cranes.
Aside from their symbols, there is not much difference between the two parties. And not much campaigning, for that matter. Both are running a simple theme of what people here call "Gross National Happiness". It is this country's measure of civic success with four pillars: environmental protection, cultural preservation, sustainable growth and good governance.
But editorials in newspapers across Bhutan reflect the country's skepticism of democracy in a country that has been largely peaceful under a succession of five kings.
Part of that skepticism comes as people here look toward its southern neighbor, India, with its democracy rife with corruption and chaos.
Jit Tshering is a lecturer on democratic politics at the Royal Institute of Management in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital.
"We do not have any dazzling or fantastic examples of democracy in the surrounding areas," said Jit. "And it doesn't help us, actually, because we are so conscious of our past and our roots and that we have been doing so well so far. We are asking, Is the new thing we are going in for going to spoil our successes that we've attained so fast? And that is the issues actually and that is why there is concern for the future."
It was Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who nearly two decades ago vowed to surrender the throne in favor of a constitutional democracy. His 29-year-old, Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namguel Wangchuck, the current king, is seeing that vision through.
Dolmo Choso runs a travel agency. Like many here, she is happy with the status quo. She says there is no need to fix something that is not broken.
"We would still love our King to be our leader, but he has handed this down to the public to choose their leaders," said Choso. "So we should be good citizens and vote. I think we all have mixed emotions. We don't want [to vote], but we have to. It's for the future of Bhutan, I guess."
The biggest challenge for most people in Bhutan is the vast distances many of them must travel to cast their ballots in their home villages. For some, the journey back home can take up to three days by car, bus and on foot. But it is a journey they appear eager to make for their king.