Bhutan takes lead in dialogue on democracy in Asia

Oct 14, 2009

Paro - Asia has the promise of democracy with democratically elected Governments in all of South Asia and in many other parts of the region. Countries in Asia have adopted different systems and models of democracy that have been influenced by their historical past. Countries like Bhutan and Maldives, two of the world’s youngest democracies, have forged new paths, one responding to the vision of its King and the other to the yearning of its people. Democracies in Asia need to grow organically in line with local traditions, cultures and environment.

Inclusive civic participation to expand the base of democracy and empower those without a voice is vital for deepening and sustaining democracy in Asia.

These were among the findings of the three-day dialogue on democracy in which 12 Asian countries participated with a mix of government delegates, parliamentarians, academics, civil society participants and media representatives.

The first Regional Conference on Deepening and Sustaining Democracy in Asia, organized by the Centre for Bhutan Studies on behalf of the Royal Government of Bhutan and the United Nations Development Programme, concluded today in Paro, Bhutan.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Conference, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bhutan, H.E. Jigmi Y. Thinley emphasized that “democracies are seen as the best arrangement for protecting human freedom.” He also stated that: “No sector of the society is irrelevant to a discussion on democracy, for democracy and good governance are not and cannot be the function of governments and politicians alone.”  He underlined the importance of the “capacity of the people to choose their representatives wisely and to hold them responsible and accountable.” He also explored how democracy and democratic societies must take into account the larger interest, which in Bhutan is expressed through the philosophy and goal of Gross National Happiness.

All participants agreed that the basic guiding principles of democracy – such as freedom of expression, inclusive participation and equal access to justice – are common to all. Each country must develop its own tools and mechanisms to put these principles into action. “Because the democracy a nation chooses to develop depends on its history and circumstances, countries will necessarily be “differently democratic”, said Mr. Ajay Chhibber, UN Assistant Secretary General and UNDP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific at the inaugural ceremony. “But in all countries democracy is about much more than a single decision. It requires a deeper process of political development to embed democratic values and culture in all parts of society—a process that by definition must be always renewed… Democracy has a chance to succeed in Asia provided the roots grow deeper”, he added. In this context, several participants echoed the U.S. President Barack Obama who, in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, said: “Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path rooted in the culture of its people and in its past tradition”.

Another facet of democracy that the participants focused on was the move by several countries in Asia to take democracy to the grassroots to widen its base and to make it more inclusive. There was consensus on the need to devolve greater powers to local governments, to provide them with the necessary funds, responsibilities and human resources and to make them more accountable. While some countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines have a tradition of sub-national democracy, others like the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan are re-affirming their commitment to this approach. This forum provided an opportunity to share experiences and to learn from each others’ successes and failures.

In his concluding remarks, the Hon’ble Prime Minister stated that the conference was “a celebration of the spirit of democracy, of the good and enlightened society that it is expected to promote – of the Gross National Happiness that it must help realize”.

The Conference was a first step in the dialogue on democracy, and to carry the momentum forward, it was agreed that it should be pursued. H.E. Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley of Bhutan announced that the Government of Maldives has offered to host the next regional dialogue on democracy next year.

More information: Regional Conference on Deepening and Sustaining Democracy in Asia

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