One king has given up his power on his own in Bhutan — but another had it snatched from him in Nepal. An army-backed government has promised to bring democracy in Bangladesh, but another is accused of crushing it in Pakistan. And far away in the Maldives, a ruler described for decades as a dictator says he wants to give his people true democracy.
As South Asia’s heads of state sat down for discussions on Tuesday in New Delhi, five of the member states are going through a landmark churning that will affect the lives of millions across the subcontinent.
“There are different sort of evolutions taking place, but underneath there is a common thread — the search for democracy,” said South Asia analyst S.D.Muni. “People in the region have become far more aware and aspirational. The states are realising this.”
History was made in Nepal two days ago, when enemies of the past decade came together in a coalition government. Leaders of the Maoist militant movement became part of the administration, a year after dislodging their common adversary, King Gyanendra.
Across the Himalayan border in Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk did not let it come to that climax. He surprised his tiny nation by announcing that he was giving up his throne to his son, and would hold national elections in 2008. On April 21, officials will begin a mock drill of the preliminary polls, with four make-believe parties Druk Red, Druk Blue, Druk Green and Druk Yellow. On May 28, the two best parties will take part in the dry run of the final elections.
In the Maldives, the low-lying Indian Ocean island nation, longtime ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — described by his opponents as an autocrat and dictator — has announced a historic democracy roadmap, which, implemented, will transform the nation’s politics.
In a speech on Monday before taking a plane to India, Gayoom did some straight talking: “the hopes that Maldivians have of obtaining freedom, democracy, human rights and a modern, fair and independent system of government have become strengthened.”
Bangladesh offers the other end of the spectrum, where a state of emergency was imposed on January 11 and the country is being governed by former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed, with the strong backing of the military. Bangladeshi authorities are cracking down on corruption and crime and have promised to bring democracy in less than two years. But it is uncertain what shape it could take.