Democracy starts at school

In the past, Bhutan has been famously isolated from the rest of the world. Despite joining the United Nations in 1971, it remains one of three countries to have no formal diplomatic ties to the United States with North Korea and Iran being the other two. It only allowed international content on its TV channels in 1999 and opened its first internet café in the year 2000. Despite the recent changes, it stayed a monarchy until 2008 until the king transferred his power over to a democratic government. Many have yet to understand the changes that the country has undergone and the government has taken the initiative to teach its future generation first: its children.

Today’s school going children are the first generation to have grown up under the new system. To make this transition smoother, Bhutan’s Election Commission has set up 153 democracy clubs at schools throughout the country where children take part in games and learn skills to help them understand all the changes. Here, they learn practical skills including how to run clean elections and public speaking. In September of last year, they held their own elections to create a ‘Children’s Parliament’ which is run exactly as Bhutan’s government is run except the lack of executives such as a Prime Ministerial position. The 63 member parliament will be able to discuss, debate and put forward proposals to Bhutan’s Prime Minister to submit within their own parliament for future changes. Bhutan’s Election Commissioner Deki Pema says that “The idea is that… we want them to become familiar with the boundaries and also how the constituencies play out, and what are the implications, delimitations. These become clearer as you live through them.”

The added responsibility is no barrier to young children as they aim to make a difference with this opportunity. Kinley Payma, the literary school captain at Kelki Secondary High School wants to “raise a voice for equal facilities for both rural and urban students – because both deserve them” as students in villages often have no hostels. Others such as Chimi Wangmo hopes to bring gender based issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and human trafficking into the light. Many disagree believing a change from a monarchy was unnecessary pointing to the fact that it was the king’s choice rather than the people’s. Nitasha Kaul, of the University of Westminster and a close observer of the transition of power, supports this view as she feels many still believe the king to be the ultimate and permanent source of power while the parliament is transient at best. All in all, the idea is a promising one although there may be scepticism on how much they can influence current proceedings at the moment. If they remain engaged with the political system throughout their lives, the system can be deemed to be a success as understanding issues is the key principle to be taught. Thus, developing Bhutan’s future leaders by integrating them into it from an early age can be a powerful tool in addressing any imbalances in the nation.