Chief Justice Lyonpo Tshering Wangchuk in his chambers. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
Chief Justice Lyonpo Tshering Wangchuk in his chambers. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

Bhutan’s Chief Justice Lyonpo Tshering Wangchuk studied law in the United States and India before rising to the top legal job in the Himalayan kingdom at the end of 2014. He and four other justices, known as drangpons, form the Supreme Court in a country that is evolving into a constitutional monarchy.

The 800,000 Bhutanese are said to revere King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who reigns over a tiny country sandwiched between China and India. The king is managing a process of modernization started by his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, started earlier this century. Here, the chief justice speaks to Julie L. Kessler, who is a Los Angeles attorney, freelance writer and the author of the book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.

Do you believe that Bhutan was ready for democracy in the mid-2000s when people were protesting against King Singye’s proposals to transition to democracy?

At the time, due to low literacy rates, I did not believe the population was ready. The king said then, “We will make some mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we should not start. Things are good now, but what if there’s a bad king in the future?” Looking back, it was the right time.

Did you find it difficult to reconcile the adversarial nature of legal practice in the US when Buddhism, for example, is central to Bhutan’s legal system?

We have a unique amalgam of traditional, continental and common law. The basis of Bhutan’s system is Buddhist, which includes the 16 acts of social piety, Chudrug, as well as The Zhabdrung’s Code [spelling out the relationship between Buddhist monks and laypeople]. But we’ve adopted elements from several systems, including the US federal rules of civil procedure and criminal procedure. The symbol of Bhutan’s judiciary is a golden yolk and silken knot. It is an appropriate symbol for our system.

Will the number of women in government and the law grow significantly in the foreseeable future?

Yes, things are changing. Before, women remained housewives. Now women are becoming career-oriented with nuclear families.

The first 25 students will be accepted into the new law school in Thimphu later this year. Bhutan’s legal professionals had previously been trained in Western, adversarial principles. Does training young lawyers in Bhutan change jurisprudence here?

I don’t think so. However, we want them to be well-versed in the values, traditions and culture of Bhutan’s legal background. Also, study of environmental law will be required as a priority since Article 5 of our constitution mandates that Bhutan maintain 60 percent forestation at all times.

Polyandry, wedding multiple husbands, and polygamy still exist in Bhutan. Indeed, King Singye has four wives, all sisters. Do you think polyandry and polygamy will decline as Bhutan modernizes?

In the long term it should but one aspect behind taking multiple spouses is to keep land familial. It may take some time. Land is a major issue. It is said “A Tibetan man who makes money will increase his business, but a Bhutanese will build another house.”

How will basic services be delivered to the more than 60 percent of Bhutanese that live in rural areas?

It is happening but it needs to be prioritized. It becomes a political issue, since fulfilling social needs will be required if politicians wish to get re-elected at elections held every five years.

Kidu, the duty to care for people, is fundamental to Bhutanese social structure. How can Kidu be reconciled with the changes that are necessary in order to modernize?

We need the Kidu system because of the safety valve it provides. This is the basis for our humanity, coming from Buddhist compassion. Kidu is becoming institutionalized and will likely be with us forever. That our king constantly travels throughout the country to speak with the populace and evaluate their needs comes from Kidu.

The exterior of the Chief Justice’s chambers and administrative offices in Thimphu. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
The exterior of the Chief Justice’s chambers and administrative offices in Thimphu. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

How do you reconcile your upbringing in Bhutan under an absolute monarchy with your travel, education and knowledge of the rule of law?

It has not been difficult, since even under the absolute monarchy we had the rule of law. And our kings have always been careful not to abuse their power. As a society, we need to mature by understanding that our rights are not absolute. They come with corresponding duties.

What are the biggest ethical challenges facing Bhutan’s Supreme Court justices?

The perceptions that people have. I used to think that having a clear conscience was enough but in a small society like Bhutan, there are many restrictions. One grows up knowing everyone and it’s often difficult to separate needs. However, we must make difficult decisions. We have an old saying that “Even if it’s stone, you must chew it.”

What are the country’s greatest legal challenges?

As a UN member, we sometimes sign treaties that are not required and that we lack the resources to fulfill. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Child Care and Protection Act. We have limited resources and must have the political will to implement them, otherwise those laws will remain white elephants.

Bhutan was never colonized. What impact do you think that has on maintaining the public’s reverence for the royal family?

Bhutan’s isolation was one reason, that and our location between China and India. The third is that our monarchy has done so much for our people. Our kings, unlike others, have been wholly benevolent and have led very humble lives. Hence the Bhutanese believe the king can do no wrong. Finally, what transpired in Sikkim [India’s annexation] and Tibet [China’s annexation] further strengthened our resolve.

Does respect for the king and the fact that many officials are linked to the monarchy have a chilling effect on the public when it comes to publicly airing their grievances?

I don’t think so. Perhaps 10 years ago, yes, but not today, since things have changed. With social media, people are free to air their grievances. It’s complicated because of Bhutan’s small size, and young Bhutanese, mainly the Z Generation, are the most vulnerable and sometimes suffer from a “fear of missing out.”

Is it possible to be devoted to the king and push for progressive civil rights?

Yes, because our monarchy has always promoted this. Civil rights are championed by our royal family. People have the opportunity to raise grievances but it’s different than in the US. The media here does not self-censor. If something will harm the national interest, then the media should self-control but the media here is still in its infancy. Our national interest trumps all, especially because of our size. Here things are magnified, not dissipated as in a large country like the US or India. We are still progressing. We are still in the process of instilling pride in our national flag.

If you could immediately change something in Bhutanese law, what would that be?

As a democracy, I would like to see Bhutanese people think more of the national interest; and more respect for the judiciary, like in the US.

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