Right to information

Article 7 of the Constitution is about our fundamental rights.

Section 3 of that important article declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. By this provision, any citizen has the right – a fundamental right – to ask the government for any information. And the government must provide that information, whatever it may be. That is because the fundamental right of the citizen to government information, as granted by the Constitution, is unqualified. And it is unconditional. “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information” – that’s all the Constitution says, simple and straightforward.

But what if a citizen applies for information and the government refuses to provide it? The Bhutanese, a newspaper, was denied some information that they had requested. The newspaper, or whoever filed the right to information application, was denied the right to information, a fundamental right.

Now what?

The journalist who filed the right to information application, and whose fundamental right was violated could take the matter to the courts in accordance with Article 7 Section 23 of the Constitution which states that, “All persons in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Article, subject to section 22 of this Article and procedures prescribed by law.”

That means that that journalist could seek judicial intervention to demand the information that was requested. In other words, the judiciary must ensure that that journalist’s fundamental right is not violated, and so must force the government to provide whatever information was requested.

But what about Section 22 of Article 7? What does that section say? It says that:

“Notwithstanding the rights conferred by this Constitution, nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from subjecting reasonable restrictions by law, when it concerns:

(a)     The interests of the sovereignty, security, unity and integrity of Bhutan;
(b)     The interests of peace, stability and well-being of the nation;
(c)     The interests of friendly relations with foreign States;
(d)     Incitement to an offense on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion or region;
(e)     The disclosure of information received in regard to the affairs of the State or in discharge of official duties; or
(f)     The rights and freedom of others”

The Constitution allows the State to subject certain restrictions, within reason, on our fundamental rights. So if the information that that journalist had requested is a state secret, or risks undermining some national interest, that journalist cannot demand that information as a fundamental right. But such restrictions on our fundamental rights can only be made and applied “by law”. And in the case of our fundamental right to information, that law would be the right to information act.

But we don’t have a right to information act. Therefore, that journalist must be provided with whatever information was requested, even if that information is, in the unlikely event, against the national interest.

The prime minister had promised a right to information act. He’s done a U-turn now. He’s now said that a right to information act is not needed at the moment. He should reconsider.

The Constitution guarantees us with the right to information. So we, the citizens at large, and the media in particular, do not need any further legislation to enjoy that fundamental right.

In fact, it is the government that needs a right to information act. The act would protect the government. The act would identify and define the nature and scope of important and sensitive information that cannot be made public in the broader interests of the nation. And the act would permit the government to apply legal restrictions to safeguard and protect such information.

A RTI act is necessary and important. And the prime minister should work on it with a sense of urgency. Otherwise he should support Hon Sangay Khandu’s bold initiative to introduce a right to information bill as a private bill in the next session of the Parliament.

 

On ECB’s side

Elections are the single most important part of a democracy. They allow people to participate in the democratic process by directly choosing who they want as their representatives in the parliament. And they provide political legitimacy to elected representatives and to democratic governments. That’s why it’s important to allow as many people as possible to take part in elections.

So, naturally, I’m happy to hear that the Election Commission has decided to allow Bhutanese citizens living in America to use postal ballots in the next elections. They were not allowed to do so in the past, and, as such, most of them could not exercise their right to vote. I applaud the ECB’s decision, and am fully committed to supporting any initiative that makes it easier for even more of our people to take part in the democratic process.

But I am alarmed at the ECB’s justification for their decision. The chief election commissioner has gone on record to state that the ECB’s decision was “the result of the commitment prime minister made during one of his visits as the head of the government.”

The prime minister cannot alter the electoral system; only parliament can.

What ECB can do, and must do, as long as it is within the framework of our electoral laws, is improve the system to encourage and allow more of our people to exercise the their franchise. But what ECB does, they must do because they feel it is in the best interest of democracy, and not as a “result of the commitment” that a politician may have made.

Otherwise, ECB may be seen to be taking sides. And that won’t be good for democracy.

Act against corruption

News that certain powerful people, including the prime minister and ministers in the current cabinet, were given large tracks of land, illegally, in Gyelpozhing has shocked our people.

News that that land had originally belonged to poor farmers, many of whom are now destitute, has angered our people.

This is terrible news. It’s alleged that land was taken from the poor and illegally distributed to the powerful. We should be shocked. We should be angry.

Today, we stand at an historic crossroads. We can investigate the “Gyelpozhing land grab case” immediately and completely. And, if laws have been broken, if power has been abused, if crimes were committed against our people, we can hold the perpetrators to full account. We can punish them.

Or we can hesitate. We can dither. We can vacillate about who, how and when to conduct an investigation. And we can risk allowing potential perpetrators to go scot-free – unquestioned and unpunished.

Choose the former course of action and we will have strengthened the rule of law in our country. A serious blow will have been dealt against corruption. And against the abuse of power and authority. And the trust and confidence of our people in democracy and the rule of law will have been justified.

Choose the later and we will have undermined the rule of law. The shock and anger that our people feel will turn to desperation, and that desperation, eventually, to hopelessness and resignation. Corruption will rule. Greed will become even more unrestrained. And our people, who will have lost all faith in democracy and the rule of law, will suffer.

So we must choose carefully. The path we take will have far reaching consequences. The decision we make is crucial.

News that the Anticorruption Commission will look into the Gyelpozhing land grab case is welcomed. But instead of committing to an immediate inquiry, the ACC has said that they are not ready; that they need to first complete some ongoing cases.

The ACC’s hands are full. And there’s no doubt that every one of the cases they are investigating is important. But this case – the Gyalpozhing land grab case – is different. It involves our senior-most public servants, political leaders who still wield considerable power and influence. And, more importantly, this case, unlike many others, has already become a national concern.

But this is not just ACC’s mandate. All of us must play our respective parts. If we love our country, if we love our people, if we want to create a just society, we must fulfill our duty to fight corruption as enshrined in the Constitution, Article 8, Section 9 of which requires that “Every person shall have the duty to uphold justice and to act against corruption.”

That is why, as soon as I get to Thimphu, the opposition party will call on the ACC to urge them to investigate this case, not in the future, but now, immediately, and completely. And that is why we will study the case carefully, we will raise questions, and we will demand answers – inside the Parliament and outside.

Democracy in Bhutan

The people's choice

Uncontested elections are generally walkovers for the lone candidates. That’s why they’re called “uncontested” elections. Since uncontested elections have only one contesting candidate, that candidate is automatically declared the winner.

But not in Bhutan. Our electoral laws allow voters to cast their ballots even if there’s only one candidate is running. According to Sections 575 and 576 of the Election Act:

575.     A poll at any election to Parliament or a Local Government shall be taken in the constituency concerned even if there is only one contesting candidate or political party.

576.     The candidate shall, for the purposes of section 575, be declared elected only if he/she secures in his/her favour a majority of the total valid votes cast at the election.

This feature is unique to Bhutan. Unlike voters in other democracies, our voters can exercise their right to vote even in uncontested elections. That is, our voters have the right to accept or reject a candidate even if that candidate is the only candidate in that constituency.

The whole purpose of democracy is to give people the power to choose their representatives. So the people must enjoy that power – to accept or reject – even if there is only one contesting candidate.

The recent local government elections proved that this unique feature is important. The elections had 535 constituencies having only one candidate. And voters rejected the lone candidates in 31 of those constituencies.

The winning candidates will represent their people for five years. So it’s important that people have the right choose their representatives even when that choice is limited to one candidate.

Naturally, I feel bad for the 31 candidates who lost the uncontested elections. But the results, unfortunate though they may seem, are a celebration of democracy in Bhutan.

Photo credit: BBS

Well done ECB

The Election Commission of Bhutan have now completed seven rounds of elections. Of the seven, last Monday’s local government elections was by far the largest and most complex. It was also the most successful.

ECB officials, including those in the dzongkhags, worked round the clock, for months on end, to organize the elections. They were assisted by about 150 senior civil servants who were on deputation since early April this year to work as observers and returning officers.

And more than 5,500 election officials, most of them teachers, were trained and dispatched to man the 1,103 polling stations located throughout our country.

In addition, thousands of workers contributed their services indirectly. They were the ones who kept our roads open, telephones working, banks running and electricity functioning. Plus countless security personal worked to ensure the safety of the elections.

On poll day, despite the rains, a decent 56% of registered voters turned up to cast their ballots. Of the 2,185 candidates who contested the elections, 1,105 won becoming gups, mangmis, tshogpas and thromde thuemis in accordance with the Constitution.

The mammoth exercise cost the State Nu 225 million. But the election is worth the money. And worth the time. And the huge effort.

Why? Because the Constitution requires “… elected Local Governments to facilitate the direct participation of the people in the development and management of their own social, economic and environmental well-being”. And that, in short, is what our democracy is all about.

Incidentally, the first elections that the ECB conducted was the “mock elections” on 21st April 2007 in which “Druk Yellow Party” and “Druk Red Party” emerged as the two leading parties.

On 28th May 2007, ECB conducted another “mock election” in which the “Druk Yellow Party” trounced the “Druk Red Party” winning 46 of the 47 constituencies.

On 31st December 2007, the ECB conducted the National Council elections, which became the first elections to be conducted under the Constitution. On 29th January 2008, National Council elections were held for the 5 dzongkhags that did not have sufficient candidates earlier.

On 24th March 2008, the first general elections to the National Assembly was conducted in which DPT clobbered the PDP winning 45 of the 47 constituencies.

And on 21st January 2011, Thromde elections were conducted in the four so-called “Class A” thromdes.

The banner, featuring voters in Meewang gewog’s Khasatrapchu polling station, celebrates the successes of the Election Commission of Bhutan.

Facebook strikes

Listen to them!

After several friends suggested it, I’ve added a new page called “News clips”. The idea is to provide links to news articles, especially to critical ones, that talk about what the opposition party and I have been doing.

The first link is to a story by Kuensel. It’s about the growing influence of social media in Bhutan, a discussion that took place during the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival.

Social media has already made remarkable inroads in Bhutan. In past five years, there’s been a proliferation of discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs. And some of them – like Bhutantimes.com, Nopkin, Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog, Kuzu.net and several Facebook groups – have emerged as powerful ways of creating, sharing and discussing information.

Foremost among them is Amend the Tobacco Control Act, a Facebook group created by Kinley Shering, dedicated to discussing the tobacco law. The group’s 2,252 members have already logged 1,417 posts, and both, numbers of members and posts, keep increasing each day.

The tobacco group’s discussions are diverse, vibrant and persistent. And its members readily express their opinions and vent their frustrations. This, however, is not exactly new, as online discussion forums, like Bhutantimes.com, also host lively discussions.

But Amend the Tobacco Group is different in several other ways. One, and most obviously, the group’s members are not anonymous – Facebook profiles generally have real names along with real addresses, photographs, email IDs and even telephone numbers.

Two, the discussions are focused on just one topic, tobacco, and have some order and discipline – members are not unnecessarily nasty, abusive or profane.

And three, the group has organized real measures to back up their virtual demands. First, they collected signatures – online and off – to petition for an amendment to the Tobacco Control Act. That has not worked, so now they have begun to write letters to their respective MPs and to publish those letters on Facebook.

All this is powerful stuff. And potentially dangerous too.

If the group is ignored, if their voices remain unheard, and if frustration grows, emotions could escalate and spill onto Thimphu’s streets. That would not be good. And that must not happen.

So the government would be well advised to take the group seriously. They should join the group and explain their position. They should take part in the discussions, listen to the grievances, and spearhead common solutions.

In a healthy democracy, citizens must be able to express themselves – individually and collectively. Facebook has provided a platform to do so. We can protest, rally, picket and demonstrate online, on Facebook. But for that to work, the government must also take part, and ensure that the voices on Facebook groups are heard.

The government should use Facebook, not ignore it. That’s why I say: “Rather than taking to the streets, take it to Facebook!”

Asking questions

About a month ago, I posted the question on Facebook that asked: “What should the National Assembly discuss during the coming session?”

A whopping 1366 of my “friends” voted on the 73 answers they generated themselves. This morning the situation looked like this:

The top five answers, as you can see, are the Tobacco Act, corruption, disaster management, jobs and sports.

But there are many other suggestions. They include citizenship, social security national security, agriculture, irrigation; health, music, alcohol, FDI, BCSR, PCS and DSA.

One enlightened friend suggested that we discuss “How to liberate people from suffering”. And another suggested that the National Assembly “Discuss on raising their pay again”!

Thank you for your suggestions. We – Dasho Damcho and I – will see how we can incorporate them in our discussions in the Parliament and the National Assembly. We’ll do our best.

But I’d like to invite some more suggestions, this time for the National Assembly’s “question hour”. If you have questions that you’d like us to ask the government, please post them here.

Obviously, I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to attend to all your questions. But I will guarantee that we’ll do our best.

Thanks in advance.

Royal Kasho on LG elections

The Prime Minister, on behalf of the National Council, National Assembly and two political parties, has brought before me the issue of the candidates disqualified from participating in Local Government elections.

The 90 disqualified candidates have also jointly submitted an appeal on the same issue.

The members of the National Council have submitted their concerns on the relaxation of the one-year mitsi requirement for candidates in Local Government elections.

As King, it is my duty at all times, to examine not just the issue at hand, but to also contemplate the long term effect of any decision on the unity, harmony and security of our nation; on the dignity, integrity and strength of the Constitution; on the strength of law and the growth of a successful democracy in Bhutan.

In the interest of unity and harmony, I have always encouraged close consultation and cooperation between different branches and agencies of government; between institutions and the public; and among our people themselves. Bhutan is a small country so we must always seek ways to sit together, face to face in the spirit of brotherhood and with unity of purpose, to resolve all issues. We must take advantage of our strength as a small close-knit society. The submissions made by the Prime Minister on behalf of so many important institutions, reflects this approach of cooperation and consultation. I am very proud and happy to say that this is good democracy at work.

With regard to the Local Government elections, our primary concern should be that the Election Commission of Bhutan is able to replicate, and build upon, the tremendous success of the General Elections of 2008. However, the submissions made by the Prime Minister, the appeal by the disqualified candidates and the National Council’s stand, all indicate that the circumstances are less than conducive for successful Local Government elections. To conduct our first Local Government elections as a young democracy under such circumstances would hinder the growth of a strong vibrant democracy, and undermine the achievements we have made in our democratic transition. It would also tarnish the reputation that the Election Commission has rightly earned as a strong, just and independent institution. Therefore, while the Election Commission has always worked in the interest of the nation, and is striving today to conduct Local Government elections that have already been greatly delayed, it is advisable that they first resolve all issues before proceeding with the ongoing Local Government elections. The desired outcome of our first Local Government elections as a democracy should be that our people in the 205 gewogs of our 20 dzongkhags have faith, confidence and pride in the representatives they have elected to office. This outcome can only be achieved if we are all faithful to the Constitution, the laws of our land and the will of our People.

I hereby issue this Kasho on the 4th of May 2011 in carrying out my sacred Constitutional duty to “protect and uphold this Constitution in the best interest and for the welfare of the People of Bhutan.”

 

Jigme Khesar

King of Bhutan

Breaking the law?

Aspiring candidates

210 candidates have been disqualified from taking part in the local government elections. These candidates, all of whom had been members of a political party, were disqualified as it has not yet been one year since they resigned from their respective political parties.

Actually all of them had resigned from their political parties more than a year ago. All of them were automatically deemed to have resigned as far back as 2008 when they did not renew their memberships with their respective parties.

But Section 206 of the Election Act requires that any resignation or removal from a party “…shall be immediately notified by the concerned party office in the print media with a copy submitted to the Election Commission.” It turns out that both the political parties failed to publish the names of these deregistered members in the print media or to notify the Election Commission as soon as their memberships had expired.

Therefore, the ECB has ruled that the 210 candidates are not eligible to participate in the local government elections. They’ve been disqualified. But they’ve been disqualified through no fault of their own. In fact, the fault – for not announcing their resignations in the print media and for not informing the Election Commission in time – lies with the political parties.

So the ECB should punish the political parties. If electoral laws have been broken, it is because of them, not their ex-members.

And the ECB should allow the 210 candidates to take part in the elections. They have not broken the law.

Photo credit: Kuensel

Be proud

An important conversation that took place on my facebook page recently: