I’m sorry

Yesterday, near Tergola

We walked from Sipsoo in Samtse through Sombaykha, and arrived in Dorikha in Haa yesterday. I couldn’t go online during the entire journey, as I couldn’t connect to B-Mobile’s signal. Their cellular signal was generally unavailable and in the few places that I could connect to B-Mobile, their signal was weak, and data transfer impossible.

It wasn’t like this last year. Then, when I traveled through the same villages, I’d been able to connect to B-Mobile and go online through most of the journey. And I’d celebrated their coverage in Connecting Bhutan.

This time I couldn’t blog or tweet or update my Facebook status. I couldn’t even make phone calls. So I’m sorry for not staying in touch. And I’m grateful to the several readers who have kept the discussions on this blog going.

But connectivity in this remote part of Bhutan is actually still very good. The difference is that now it is powered by Tashi Cell, not B-Mobile. So if you go to Sombaykha or Gakiling, remember to carry a Tashi Cell subscription. I certainly will.

I’m in Dorikha enjoying a crisp winter morning, indulging in my aunt’s hospitality, and making full use of the first B-Mobile signal I’m receiving in days.

Am back in Thimphu later today.

Sonam’s lawyer

Sonam Tshering now has legal help. Ritu Raj Chhetri, an accomplished lawyer and ex-PDP candidate, has agreed to represent him free of charge.

Earlier today, I went to the detention center to meet Sonam, and to introduce him to his legal counsel.

I’m hopeful.

Facing the Ban

Kinley Shering, a concerned citizen, has launched “Amend the Tobacco Act”, a group on Facebook. The group is closed but, if you have a Facebook account, you can ask to join the group.

Cee Dee Jamtsho, another concerned citizen, posted this on Kinley’s Facebook group:

Bhutan today

Bhutan Today’s editorial, for readers who do not have access to the newspaper. Their website is woefully inadequate!

Calling concerned citizens

Sonam Tshering is 23 years old. He is charged with smuggling tobacco. And, if convicted, he could be jailed for 3 to 5 years.

If Sonam Tshering did indeed smuggle tobacco, he should be sent to jail. That’s what the Tobacco Control Act sanctions. The laws of the land must prevail.

But think about this law. Think about how draconian the Tobacco Control Act really is. Sonam Tshering could go to jail for 3 years for possessing four packs of Baba chewing tobacco. Each pack has a dozen packets. So he had a total of 48 packets of chewing tobacco.

Each packet of Baba has 10 grams of tobacco. And carries a maximum retail price of Rs 2 per packet. So he was caught with 480 grams of tobacco that has a street value of Rs 96 in India.

Sonam Tshering could be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years for possessing Nu 96 worth of tobacco. Nu 96 is less than the current daily minimum wage.

As of today, Sonam Tshering has already spent three weeks in detention.

I went to see Sonam at the detention center. He was confused. He was distraught. And he was scared. Very scared.

Sonam is being charged for smuggling tobacco. The Thimphu District Court has already begun to hear his case. But he does not have a lawyer. Without one, he will not be able to argue that he was not smuggling tobacco; that 480 grams of tobacco could not be worth much even in a black market; and that he had purchased the tobacco for self-consumption.

Sonam Tshering possessed tobacco. That is against the law. So he should be punished.

But he shouldn’t be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years for possessing a mere 480 grams of chewing tobacco worth less than Nu 100. That would be wrong. Even if it is legally correct, it would still be wrong … and dangerous.

So I’m calling for lawyers. Concerned citizens who will represent Sonam Tshering and somehow convince the courts to dismiss the case, or, at the very least, to lighten the sentence.

And I’m calling for volunteers. I’m calling for concerned citizens who will lead a movement to amend the Tobacco Control Act.

No exams?

The education ministry is reportedly considering doing away with written examinations for students of PP to Class III.

Please take the poll asking if phasing out exams for PP to Class III is a good idea. And please share your thoughts on this important issue.

Happy Losar

Lopen Tshewang Tenzin, a lharip instructor at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu, tells the story behind the Thuenpa Puenshi:

A golden era it was for the kingdom of Varanasi. The king, his prime minister and the people all claimed the credit. In the end, they sought the wisdom of the reclusive hermit.

“The golden era has been brought about by the four friends in the forest,” said the hermit. The bird, the rabbit, the monkey and the elephant had devoted their lives to propagating good deeds.

The king and his entourage went into the forest to see the four friends. They sat atop each other beside a large fruit tree. The bird was on top because it had sown the seed. The rabbit was next as it had forsaken the sapling as food and protected it. Under it, the monkey had seen the sapling grow limb and leaves. At the bottom was the elephant who first saw the tree at about the same height as itself.

Their merit translated into Varanasi’s good fortune.

The image of the Thuenpa Punshi is ubiquitous in Bhutanese houses. It is believed that the goodwill emanating from the image in a house will benefit the village. Likewise, images in a village will benefit the kingdom and the world at large.

Lopen Tshewang Tenzin has composed a thangka to illustrate the story of the Thuenpa Puenshi. He has allowed me to use it to wish you a happy and prosperous Iron Female Rabbit Year.

Losar Tashi Delek!

Lopen Tshewang can be reached at +975-1768-3152.

Devika Darjee

A winner

Almost 200 of you took part in the poll to decide who would be our sportsperson of the year. Thank you for voting. And thank you for your many comments. I closed the poll at midnight on the last day of January.

The race was close. Ugyen Yoeser (cycling) and Devika Darjee (cricket) ran neck and neck in our informal competition. Eventually Devika won, but by barely a whisker – she secured 55 votes against Ugyen’s 53.

Devika Darjee was the only lady among my nominees for the sportsperson of 2010. She beat nine men to the top spot. Congratulations.

Devika wins Nu 25,000. She should contact me by email to claim her prize.

The prize money comes from the Nu 200,000 I collected for completing the Tour of the Dragon, a bicycle race from Bumthang to Thimphu. All of it is being spent on social work, especially to promote sports.

 Photo credit: Kuensel

Bhutan by Bhutanese

Learning to express

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” a photo-exhibition by students of the Bhutan Institute of Media is being hosted by the city of Baar in Switzerland. The exhibition, which will continue for the next three weeks, was innaugurated on the 29th of January.

The banner features a photograph by Dorji Yuden, a student at BIM. I’ve uploaded a few more photos in the Gallery.

Excerpts of my speech during the innauguration follow:

We are gathered together as friends – friends of Bhutan. Some of you have visited my country. Some of you have worked there.

But  all of you – whether you’ve been to Bhutan or not – all of you would have some impressions about Bhutan.

Think about those impressions. What images come to your mind? What is the story of Bhutan?

  • The mighty Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountains – gigantic, awesome, magical
  • Pristine forests, glacial lakes, clear rivers
  • Monks, monasteries and mask dances
  • Fortresses (we call them Dzongs) – fortresses, farmhouses and lush paddy fields.
  • Prayer flags
  • People in colorful attire, sporting short hair, warm smiles, and an insatiable appetite for ema-datshi, a hot, spicy dish prepared from chili and cheese.
  • Benevolent kings. Kings who are loved – genuinely and deeply loved by their people. A king who abdicated his powers and resigned his throne … voluntarily. A king who started democracy … forcefully and against the very will of his people.
  • Gross National Happiness. A development philosophy that the world is talking about.

This story of Bhutan – medieval, magical, romantic – is a story about a Shangrila. And this story has been told and retold, hundreds of times, in postcards, magazines and coffee-table books.

Is this story of Bhutan correct? Is it accurate? I think so. I hope so.

But no matter, it is not complete story. It is not complete as this story – picture-perfect as it is – has been painted almost exclusively by foreigners. They are people who visited Bhutan, fell in love with our country and our people, and, as friends of Bhutan, decided to share their story with the rest of the world.

The story of Bhutan will be more complete – more accurate and more real – only when we, Bhutanese, express how we see our own country. When we, Bhutanese, tell our own story. But what is that story that we, Bhutanese, see in our own country?

Unfortunately we don’t know. Actually, that’s not correct – we do know! Obviously we know how we perceive our own country. It’s just that we haven’t yet begun to tell that story as we see it, through our eyes, and using the camera to transform what we see and feel into pictures.

But this is changing. Changing slowly but surely as demonstrated by today’s exhibition, “Bhutan by Bhutanese”.

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” showcases Bhutan as we, Bhutanese, see our own country. It is the story of Bhutan – our past, our present and our future – as seen by our own people. It is a story of Bhutan, as seen by the Bhutanese, and narrated by the Bhutanese.

But that’s not all – Bhutan by Bhutanese is the story of Bhutan as seen by the youth of Bhutan. They are the ones who are born and bred in Bhutan, who feel and breathe Bhutan, and who are confronted with the many changes taking place in our country.

Their stories also celebrate the wonders of Bhutan – our mountains and rivers, monasteries and monks, culture and people. But, as Bhutanese, they are able to view our country from the “inside” as it were, and so they bring an additional perspective.

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” is about that perspective. No doubt it is about the grandeur, the pomp, and the colors of Bhutan. But it also provides an insight into the real people and the real lives that thrive beneath the powerful veneer of pomp and colorful ceremony.

So “Bhutan by Bhutanese” is a story about Bhutan as our youth see it. It is a story about the hopes and joys, the fears and anxieties, the dreams and ambitions of our young people.

I’ve met some of these young people. Barely one year ago, none of them knew how to even hold a camera. And already, their photographs tell a compelling story about Bhutan. I hope you’ll enjoy their story.

Many photographers still depict Bhutan as a Shangrila. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Bhutan is changing. And changing fast. It’s important to recognize these changes. And to record them … preferably by our own people. Bhutan by Bhutanese.

In this regard, I’m happy that, because of BIM, Bhutan by Bhutanese is now possible. In fact it is already a reality.

Election lessons

Congratulations to the newly elected thrompons of Gelephu, Phuentsholing, Samdrupjongkhar and Thimphu thromdes. Congratulations also to the elected tshogpas of the four thromdes.

The elections of the four thromde tshogdes (city councils) represent the first local government elections held under the auspices of the Constitution. So, the elections also underscore Bhutan’s determined journey to a democracy.

Congratulations are also in order to the Chief Election Commissioner and his staff. The ECB team conducted another round of efficient elections – methodically and meticulously – notwithstanding the protest on their decision to waive off the rule requiring candidates to be registered in their constituency for a minimum of one year.

Here’s a summary of the votes cast – drawn from ECB’s announcements – in the elections for the four thrompons:

And here are three things I’ve picked up from the voting patterns:

One, hardly 50% of the registered voters actually voted. That’s not bad by international standards. But it’s a far cry from the almost 80% voter turnout that the first general elections enjoyed. And, local government elections, in which residents vote for candidates to address their immediate concerns, not vague national issues, should actually generate a bigger turnout.

This does not bode well for our democratic culture. A strong democracy begins with a healthy voter turnout. And declining numbers at the polling station may indicate that we don’t understand democracy; or that we are unwilling to participate in the democratic process; or that we don’t have faith in the system; or that we are simply not interested.

Any of these reasons is dangerous. So we must be careful. We must become more aware of the principles of our democracy. We must stand ready to safeguard the ideals of our democracy. And we must be willing to participate in the democratic process. Otherwise, rest assured, democracy will fail us. And we will have only ourselves to blame.

Two, the elections saw only 26 postal ballots – 24 in Thimphu, 2 in Gelephu and none in Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar. This means that public servants from these constituencies work in their own constituencies; or that public servants from these constituencies went home to vote; or that these constituencies have very few public servants; or, and most likely, that most of the public servants did not vote.

And three, a disproportionately low number of residents of the thromdes were eligible to vote. In 2005, Thimphu had a population of almost 80,000 people. Since then, Thimphu’s boundaries have expanded and its population has increased to 108,000. But it had only 6,300 registered voters for the thromde elections. That means less than 6% of the population were eligible to chose their local government. Of them, only half voted. The three other thromdes also tell similar stories.

This is obviously because the Constitution and electoral laws permit only those whose census is registered in a constituency to vote in that constituency. But since voting is the most powerful way of holding elected leaders to account, the inability of most residents to take part in an election does not augur well for democracy. So we need to reconsider our laws. Or better still, we need to reconsider where we register our censuses, in order to make better use of our franchise.

The banner showcases our new thrompons. I wish them, and the winning tshogpas, a successful tenure.