Bhutanese civil society is receiving some attention with the Civil Society Organistions (CSO) Bill tabled for amendment in Parliament. This is a critical debate because CSOs represent civil society with the mandate to ensure the wellbeing of society by fulfilling the needs of people that the government and business sector do not reach. 

But the discussions are predominantly about the concerns and lack the coherence that this important sector deserves. Media coverage has mostly echoed the perceived fears about civic space in Bhutan.  One writer believes that CSOs are adequate in numbers for a small country but that quality is an issue. Kuensel quoted an MP saying that civil society organisations should serve society and not themselves. 

These concerns reflect Bhutan’s caution about non-government activities that are too often synonymous with corruption and sometimes violence in the South Asian region and elsewhere. The caution has served Bhutan well with the result that CSOS in Bhutan have been steered towards services that are essential.

The real issue, which is being overlooked, is the relevance of the mandates of CSOs and their service to society. Are CSOs serving their purpose in Bhutan’s democracy? A question that Parliament also needs to debate is this: are Bhutanese CSOs being overregulated? Can Bhutan consider ways of co-regulation to enable citizen’s participation to grow?

The COVID pandemic has reminded us that society is changing and must, in fact, respond to the challenging times. Bhutan is seeing the emergence of civic space in the volunteers patrolling our streets, safeguarding our borders, serving communities, schools, and people. Many of them are young Guardians of the Peace ( De-Suups), taxi drivers, Red Cross volunteers, as well as the CSO network handling a surge in social and economic disruptions due to the pandemic. 

In Bhutan’s rural communities people came together to support one another in the spirit of interdependence. Civil society was the strength of community development and resilience over the centuries and, today, CSOs embody the ethos of this tradition as society changes with the times. 

CSOs play a critical role in the gaps between officialdom and the business sector. Bhutanese CSOs emerged to address animal welfare, cancer patients, women and youth issues, stroke patients, children with special needs, media, transparency and accountability and civic education. The list is as diverse as the increasing demands of a society in rapid transformation. In the process, we see the community, society, and nation grow stronger.

International development agencies recognise civil society for their critical role in development, democracy, and governance. Global observers like CIVICUS – which publishes an annual State of Civil Society Report – ranked Bhutan’s civil society as being an “obstructed” space alongside 12 other Asian countries like Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mongolia. CIVICUS warns of a general decline in democratic space, polarising politics, and divided societies globally. While this is not an optimistic picture, we have seen in Bhutan, in recent years, the emergence of a new atmosphere of community and volunteerism that gives us hope for the future. A vibrant civil society enables citizens to become effective participants in the country’s development. This creates the civic space that allows people to engage in governance and the social life of communities.

While Bhutan maintains a reasoned approach to CSOs it is time now to enable more people – young and older – to develop agency and find meaningful ways to contribute to society, and the country. 

Despite the liberties granted by the Constitution, current legislation does not encourage the development of contemporary civil society. Studies have indicated that the level of compliance required and oversight regulations is discouraging peoples’ initiatives. 

There needs to be more seats for civil society on the CSO Authority’s board to co-regulate civic space alongside government representatives, accountability structures that are practical, and simpler registration and reporting formalities. 

Civil society facilitates social, cultural, economic governance even as Bhutan continues to weather a global pandemic and prepares for a lower middle income status in 2023. Civil society is the place where citizens learn outgrow a “ recipient” mentality dependent on development aid and services. 

The review of the CSO legislation is an opportunity to make CSOs a part of the country’s eco-system by making legislation more facilitative than restrictive. It is an opportunity to co-envision a future where citizens can contribute to Bhutan’s democracy and development as a trusted partner of the government and the State. 

We count on our MPs, as direct representatives of the people, to continue seeking the views of all members of society to come up with an enabling review of the CSO Act. It is time to expand civic space and build trust in the ability of citizens to participate in the creation of a stronger, more resilient Bhutan. 

Contributed by

Siok Sian Dorji