Bhutan: Foreign policy

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How policy (including foreign policy) is made in Bhutan

A fledgling democracy’s flaws shouldn’t hit ties

Tandi Dorji

The Times of India 2013/07/12

In a democracy, consultation and consensus are needed on issues. This is provided for in the Constitution [of Bhutan], which says that other than the Cabinet, institutions have a role in policy (particularly in international relations).

Article 20(3) says, “… (Cabinet) shall aid and advise the (King) in the exercise of his functions including international affairs, provided that the (King) may require the (Cabinet) to reconsider such advice, either generally or otherwise.” And Article 20(7) says, “The (Cabinet) shall be collectively responsible to the (King) and Parliament.” Such provisions limit the Cabinet’s authority to take decisions unilaterally.

The Constitution outlines steps for appointing a secretary or head of a district administration, Bill-passing procedures, taxation, etc, combining the need for checks and balance with the procedures culminating in assent by the king. Bhutan decided decades ago to place India as the cornerstone of its foreign policy and combined this with a commitment to refrain from diplomatic ties with the UN Security Council P5. Bhutan wanted stability and predictability in its relations with the world.

It wanted partnership with India as it brought rapid socio-economic growth, political strength and maturity among its people. Bhutan’s foreign policy was the foundation for her development.

How was it that an individual PM, without due process, so easily altered the roots of foreign policy? Is it possible that the Constitution limits the powers of government in appointing heads of district administrations but grants powers to determine issues affecting national security?

2008: The Cabinet’s supremacy is established

The failing can be attributed to the odd start we had to our democracy in 2008, where the new elected Cabinet was dominated by former Cabinet ministers in the King’s council. The system changed, but people remained the same. With the same people in power (now with greater power), institutions (bureaucracy, judiciary, constitutional bodies) were inhibited in establishing a new democratic system of working. Had less overbearing individuals been in the 2008 Cabinet, procedures would have evolved for decision making, implementation and accountability. Instead, the Cabinet’s supremacy saw institutions lose autonomy.

India’s fault: dealing with individuals with limited tenures

It also falls on India which neglected its long-time counterparts in the bureaucracy, army and civil society, choosing to deal with individuals with limited tenures and mollify them. India must wait as we address the fundamental failing in our new democracy.

As long as Bhutanese foreign policy is determined, not by individuals, but by an established system of checks, balances and consultations, there’ll be little room for politicization by any side or country.

Tandi Dorji is founding member of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) Party

See also

Bhutan- India relations

Bhutan- China relations

Bhutan: Foreign policy

Bhutan: Government

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