Ill conceived and misguided policy

My statement to the press yesterday:

Yesterday the UN General Assembly voted to elect non-permanent members to the UN Security Council. Bhutan, along with Cambodia and South Korea, competed for a single vacancy for the Asia Pacific Group of countries.

Bhutan secured only 20 of the 192 votes cast and was eliminated in the first round of elections itself. South Korea beat Cambodia in the second round of voting, and was elected to the Security Council.

The Government has expended considerable time and resources trying to secure a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Our Mission to the UN at New York has been enlarged; Special Envoys of the Prime Minister have traveled far and wide; Ministers have traveled extensively and held bilateral meetings at the sidelines of the many multilateral conferences that they attended; and the Prime Minister himself has spent a disproportionate amount of time outside the country, campaigning for a berth in the UN Security Council.  It also appears that Bhutan may have established diplomatic relations with several countries solely for the purpose of securing their vote for our Security Council candidature.

The Opposition Party has always believed that the Government’s bid for Security Council membership was ill conceived and misguided. Moreover, we believed that even if we were somehow elected to the Security Council, we would have exposed our country to more harm than to good. As a young democracy, our focus should be at home, within the country, addressing issues of national importance, rather than craving for the international limelight.

The Opposition Party, however, chose to remain silent until now as we believe that in important foreign policy matters, we must present a united front to the international community, and Bhutan’s bid to join the Security Council was this government’s most significant foreign policy initiative. With the elections having concluded, however, we would be failing in our duty, as the Opposition Party, if we did not express our concern over the current government’s misguided attempt to secure a UN Security Council seat. Our concerns do not stem from the fact that we lost the election, but from having contested for the seat in the first place.

We also feel compelled to voice our deep concern over the overall direction of Bhutan’s foreign policy under the current government. Bhutan has always followed a prudent and far-sighted foreign policy befitting a small country located in a geo-politically sensitive region. The current government’s international priorities can be described as irresponsible at best, and undermine a foreign policy that has served Bhutan well over that last century.

As such, the Opposition Party calls on the Government to reconsider its foreign policy priorities, and devote its attention and scarce resources to pressing issues within the country.

The Opposition Party also calls on the Government to provide a complete and public account of the expenses incurred to campaign for the UN Security Council seat, and to explain why so much resources were allocated to an undertaking that we had no chance of winning in the first place.

19 October 2012

Weather service

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Waiting for the sun

I woke up to a glorious morning today. The skies were clear. And the heavens promised a warm, sunny day.

That’s how it’s supposed to be at this time of the year – warm, sunny and bright: perfect weather for harvesting paddy. And that’s why some of our farmers, prompted by BBS’s forecast for sunny weather, have begun to harvest their crop.

But the farmers who harvested their paddy a few days ago and, as is required, left them to dry in their fields were in for some anxious moments yesterday. It had rained the previous day and almost all of yesterday. And they feared that another day of rain would destroy their crop and an entire year’s worth of hard labour. So, naturally, they are delighted at the possibility that today’s sun will quickly dry their rain soaked paddy.

This happened last year too. And the year before. Our farmers had to deal with unseasonal rain and were left literally praying for the sun to come out so that the paddy they had harvested would not rot in the rain.

Our farmers forecast weather at this time of the year by expecting the previous week’s weather to continue for the next two to three days. Some of them combine that estimate with BBS TV’s weather forecast. But BBS’s predictions, which are based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture’s meteorological center, can be notoriously unreliable. So every year, at this time of the year, our farmers spend many anxious days trying to guess the best time to harvest their crop.

Much of this anxiety is unnecessary. Many websites – AccuWeather and BBC, for example – provide free satellite images and weather forecasts for Bhutan. Their forecasts are also not accurate. But at least they provide satellite images and show weather patterns. And gewog administration officers, RNR extension workers and the farmers themselves could use that information to develop a clearer picture of the weather pattern.

But we can do a better job; we can go much further to reduce the anxiety among our farmers. That would be possible by purchasing professional weather forecasting services, and distributing that information, as and when needed, through TV or other media, to our farmers. That wouldn’t cost much. But that would help our farmers immensely. And that’s what the government should be doing.

The art of politics

Dasho Gado Tshering is taking the art of politics to new heights. The former health secretary resigned last year “… on moral grounds after an ACC investigation revealed serious lapses in the procurement of GOI-funded medical equipment before 2008.” A few months later he announced that he would join politics. He has said that his decision to join politics was at the behest of the people of Haa. And he has insisted, consistently, that the people of his constituency will decide which party he will join.

Dasho Gado Tshering is popular in Haa. So most people believe that he will win from his constituency, regardless of which party he joins. That has led to a spate of rumors about him joining DMT, DNT, and, most recently, Druk Chirwang Tshogpa. But last week, he put the rumors to rest. He announced that the people of upper Haa want him to join the ruling party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa. “… as of now, people of upper Haa have DPT in their mind,” he told Kuensel.

If Dasho Gado wants to join DPT, that’s his business. And if DPT wants to give him a ticket for 2013, or has already promised one, that’s their business. Never mind that they still have a serving member of parliament. The art of politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

But Dasho Gado should not blame the people of Haa for his decision to join DPT. He should not put words in their mouths. And he should not make it seem that the people of Haa have decided to continue supporting the ruling party.

The people of Haa have not yet decided. But they will do so soon enough, in the elections next year. In the meantime no one should preempt that decision merely for the purposes of political advantage.

Report cards

Here’s some fun, on another gloomy Pedestrian Day, courtesy “Bhutanomics”, a website many have been frequenting recently. I’m tempted to run a poll to see whose report card is the funniest (i.e., the most accurate).

 

Amazing social media

Social animal

Social media is amazing. Click on a few buttons, like a page, follow a friend, and, voila!, you know everything that’s going on around you.

To politicians, that knowledge is invaluable. It allows them to hear the people, to listen to them, to feel their pulse.

But social media has an even bigger gift for politicians. It facilitates communication. It allows politicians to interact continuously with people, easily and directly.

Yes, social media is amazing. That’s why I, as a politician, am active on Twitter and Facebook. That’s also why I’m on Youtube and Bambuser and Linkedin and Instagram. And that’s why I maintain this blog.

Over the years, I’ve received many messages, mainly on Facebook. Many of them have carried good wishes and words of encouragement … and criticism

But I’ve received many other types of messages as well: some giving me advice, some complaining about public policy, some explaining their personal problems, some asking for help with their school research, some asking for money, some asking if I know their long lost friend, and some simply to say “hi!”

Of the thousands of messages I’ve received, my all time favorite came from a young boy. He sent me this desperate message last week:

“Uncle, I have a cute little pug dog who I love very much. Last time, my mummy has given to your brother as he has a female pug. And my mummy cannot remember his no. Please ask him to bring back my pug. I miss him very much. Please uncle!!!”

I had to attend to his request immediately. I tracked down my brother, then went back on Facebook. But before I could tell him the good news, this message was waiting for me:

“Thank you uncle. He brought it back. Me and my sister are very happy now. Mummy wanted to send him with Aunty but we didn’t let her send him. Please tell other uncle, he can bring his dog to our home to meet my dog sometime. We will also send our dog to his home. Again, thank you uncle.”

Social media is amazing.

Democratic parties

Bhutan joined the world in celebrating International Democracy Day over the weekend. In Thimphu, a panel discussion was held to promote a better understanding of democracy, and to talk about why it is especially important for citizens to enjoy their rights but also to fulfill their responsibilities in a young democratic country.

There’s no doubt that such discussions are important. They will go a long way in educating our people; in building strong foundations for our democracy; and in making sure that, through democracy, the promises of peace, liberty and prosperity are fulfilled. So we must have more of these discussions.

But whenever we talk about democracy, one important aspect of it does not get much attention: political parties, and, in particular, the fact that they may not themselves be run democratically. This is strange. Political parties exist for and because of democracy. Yet, the parties themselves often lack a culture of democracy. Political parties contest elections and, through the democratic process, acquire political power to influence public policy. Yet, powers within parties are often distributed and exercised without regard to even the most basic of democratic principles.

Our democracy is young. So we must nurture it. We must strengthen every one of its instruments, from majority rule and minority rights to the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rule of law. And yes, we must understand our rights and responsibilities.

But we must also demand that political parties themselves are democratic. We must insist that they too respect and abide by democratic principles when, for example, they select their leaders and candidates, or when they determine their policies, or, for that matter, when they run all their other affairs.

For the long-term success of democracy it is crucial that political parties themselves practice democracy. After all, if political parties are themselves not democratic, how can we expect them to strengthen and spread the ideals of democracy? How can we expect them to deliver the promises of democracy?

Clear to run(?)

About 6 weeks ago, at a press conference, the prime minister claimed that the Election Commission of Bhutan should disqualify the opposition party from taking part in the next round of elections for failing to clear its debts by the 30 June deadline.

Remarkably, the prime minister also suggested that the two members in opposition should not be permitted to run in the next elections … not as members of their current party, not by starting a new party, not by joining another party.

As it turned out, the election commission, having reviewed the status of the two existing parties, decided that both PDP and DPT continue to enjoy their status as registered political parties. That means that PDP will be able to participate in next year’s elections. That also means that the two members in the opposition will be able to run in the next elections.

Okay, that’s clear.

But what’s not clear is if the prime minister, some of the other DPT ministers, and the speaker will be allowed to take part in the 2013 elections?

The prime minister, the speaker and other ministers have all been implicated in the Gyelpozhing “land grab” case. The Anticorruption Commission investigated the case and concluded that 67 of the 99 plots allotted in Gyelpozhing were “illegal”.

The ACC has already issued a “freeze notice” forbidding any transactions on 75 of the plots.  And they have forwarded the case to the Office of the Attorney General in keeping with the Anticorruption Act, Section 128 of which states that OAG “… shall undertake prosecution of persons on the basis of the findings of the Commission for adjudication by a Court.”

But can OAG prosecute members of the government? Chapter 3, Section 12(a) of the OAG Act states that OAG shall “… represent the Government in civil litigation and criminal prosecution before the Courts of Law …”. Furthermore, Chapter 4, Section 20 of the OAG Act declares that, “The Attorney General shall be accountable to the Prime Minister”.

In fact, the OAG Act does not prevent the attorney general from prosecuting the persons charged in this case, as they are being charged as private individuals, and not as members of the government.

But what if OAG is unwilling to prosecute? What if they feel intimidated? And what if they drag their feet? Then what?

That should not happen. But in the unlikely event that it does, ACC is empowered to conduct its own prosecution. According to Section 128(3) of the Anticorruption Act, the ACC may “… carry out its own prosecution of a person charged with an offense under this Act or take over the prosecution process from the Office of Attorney General when the case is:  (a) delayed without valid reason; (b) manipulated; or (c) hampered by interference.”

So whether it’s by OAG or by ACC, the persons implicated in the Gyelpozhing case will be charged.

But that’s not all. According to Section 167(2) of the Anticorruption Act, “ A public servant who is charged with an offense under this Act shall be suspended with effect from the date of the charge till pending the outcome of any appeals.”

That means that once the prime minister, speaker and other the ministers involved are charged in a court of law, they must be suspended.

But even that is not all. Section 179(g) of the Election Act provides that “A person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under the Constitution, if he/she: has been accused of felony in a pending case and the competent Court has taken cognizance and charges have been framed against him/her.”

That means that once they are charged, and if they are accused of felony, they must be disqualified from their offices, not just suspended.

That also means that, unless they are acquitted by the courts of law, they cannot take part in next year’s elections.

The first Parliament will complete its term in April 2013. And according to the Constitution, elections must be conducted within the next 90 days. That means that elections must be conducted by July, at the latest. And that means that, to take part in the elections, the accused must be acquitted by June 2013.

That’s just nine months from now. Nine months for the speaker to prove that he didn’t break the law in the way he allotted land to influential people. And nine months for the prime minister, the minister for works and human settlement and the minister of finance to prove that they did not break the law in applying for and accepting large tracks of land in Gyelpozhing.

Aiming for gold

Getting ready … finally

Our population base is small. And we lack the resources. That’s why it’s almost impossible to bring home medals in any sport from any recognized international competition.

But what if we had about 1500 sportsmen, spread across the country, all using the latest equipment, and all putting in long training hours to compete in one national tournament? If that were to happen, we would then surely achieve the best international standards at that sport.

In fact, that did happen, very recently. A record-breaking 260 teams, consisting of 1,560 archers, took part in the Yangphel Open Archery Tournament. The tournament, which was conducted in 10 different venues over 7 whole weeks, saw Jigme Norbu of Blue Poppy Tours hit an incredible 46 kareys in his 45 league rounds.

Yangphel’s archery tournament is big. But it is just one, among many tournaments and matches held continuously throughout the country.

Now, surely, that sort of enthusiasm should produce sportsmen capable of competing with the best archers any where in the world. The answer, unfortunately, is a “no”. We may produce a disproportionately large number of archers, and the may use the world’s best equipment, but we can’t compete outside the country for one simple reason: the way we play archery is different from the way the rest of the world plays it.

But that’s about to change.

The Bhutan Archery Federation, in collaboration with Yangphel Archery, is conducting a seminar on international style compound bow archery. With over 80 of our best archers undergoing the intensive training program, interest in international style archery using compound bows has been sudden and overwhelming.

Interest in the new archery format is so big that Michael Peart, the archery coach, who is an accomplished archer himself, tweeted: “Probably my best seminar ever, 100 archers, 10 days & they want to learn World Archery style compound shooting!”

The seminar will conclude with Bhutan’s first ever international style compound bow archery tournament during which our finest archers will be ranked, in accordance with international standards.

In general, we don’t have a viable population base, and we don’t have the resources, so it will be difficult to produce world-class athletes.

But in compound bow archery, international style, we do have the numbers, and they already carry the best equipment. Plus they’re being trained. And, most importantly, they are enthusiastic.

At this rate, we will produce world-class archers. And they will bring home medals from major international tournaments; they will bring glory to our national sport.

Comments rule

This blog has enjoyed tremendous success. That success – measured by the number of readers who visit this blog every day – is not just because of my posts. Instead, it’s driven mainly by your comments.

Many of your comments are informative. They are thoughtful. And they are insightful. In fact, many of them are better than the original post. That’s why they generate so much attention. And that’s why there’s such vibrant debate.

So naturally, I am deeply grateful for your comments.

That said, some of the comments have also been spiteful. They’ve been written with the sole intention of lobbing personal attacks at other people. Such comments distract our readers from the main issues; they compromise healthy discussions, and they suffocate constructive debate.

The prime minister and other public officials, including yours truly, have all been victims of abusive comments and personal attacks. Other prominent people and some commentators have also suffered. But, so far, I have not intervened; I have not moderated the comments. That’s because I did not wish to risk stifling any one’s views in any way. Plus, I strongly believe that, in the overall analysis, a free-for-all discussion space generates more good than harm.

However, the number of malicious comments intended to discredit people has increased sharply. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been discussing many more controversial issues. But then again, perhaps it’s the looming elections that is spawning the vitriol.

So I’ve decided to moderate this blog, more carefully, and more attentively. I am aware that I risk interfering in your views and how you express them. But I am also keenly aware that, left unchecked, personal attacks and vicious comments will crowd out other useful comments. And that the fruitful discussions we enjoy now will degenerate to meaningless noise.

That’s why I have decided to moderate all comments. But I will do so reluctantly. And with great hesitation.

Starting with this post itself, I will remove any comment that I think is abusive; that I consider to be a personal attack; or that is not directly relevant to the issue that I have raised.

On my part, I commit to actively engage in the discussions by interacting with you instead of just listening to you. If you would like to raise issues that are not directly relevant to my post, you may do so by emailing them to me – I’ll consider posting them as separate entries.

Thanks to your active participation, this blog has enjoyed tremendous success. Let’s work together, with dignity and mutual respect, to strengthen and build on that success.

 

Hejo vs Denchi

Denchi: relatively expensive

About two years ago, I’d written about a group of residents in Hejo, Thimphu. Their land had been taken over by the government. But they had not accepted the government’s compensation for their land. They claimed that the government’s compensation rate – set by the Property Assessment and Valuation Agency, PAVA – was too low. They protested that their land, located adjacent to Thimphu’s dzong and close to the capital’s business center, fetched much higher prices in the market. And they pointed out that even PAVA’s rates were considerably higher for land that is located further away from the center of Thimphu.

The residents of Hejo have still not been able to resolve their case. They agree that the government can acquire their land for “public purpose”. But they know that the Constitution says that the government can do so only “on payment of fair compensation”. And since the current compensation not “fair”, they have been fighting for a better compensation rate.

Further afield, in Denchi, Pema Gatshel, the government has acquired land to develop a new township. But in this case, the government – the cabinet, no less – has granted compensation rates in excess of PAVA’s rates. The cabinet’s approved rate of Nu 9,000 per decimal more than doubles PAVA’s rate, calculated at Nu 3,952.42 per decimal for Denchi. In fact, the cabinet’s rate is 128% more than PAVA’s rate.

It’s obvious that the landowners in Denchi stand to benefit. And what has now become obvious is that a certain Aum Dechen, who happens to be the prime minister’s aunty, stands to benefit the most. She gets a cool Nu 21.60 million for her land. That’s a whopping Nu 12.12 million above PAVA’s rate of Nu 9.48 million.

The residents of Hejo are still fighting for”fair compensation”for their land. But those in distant Denchi have been given more than their fair share – thanks to the cabinet’s intervention.

To resolve the Hejo case, PAVA should revise the compensation rates, as they must, once every three years.

And to resolve the Denchi case, ACC should investigate the cabinet’s involvement for possible corruption.

Photo credit: The Bhutanese