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

Keeping watch

Today’s issue ofThe Bhutanesehas only three announcements (one each by BOB, CBS and TCB), and one felicitation message (by Lhaki Group).

Public resources control media?

About four months ago, on 28 April, The Bhutanese complained in their editorial that the government was increasingly “using their advertisement revenue to ‘fix’ critical papers …”

Last Saturday, Business Bhutan published a copy of a circular, marked “confidential”, directing all departments within the Ministry of Information and Communication “not to provide any advertisement, announcement, notification, circular, etc” to The Bhutanese. The letter, dated 2 April, was issued at the instruction of the Minister.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, the minister of information and communications, has clarified that the circular was a result of miscommunication; that he had meant “Bhutanese media”, not “The Bhutanese”; and that he had withdrawn the circular as soon as he had seen the error.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai’s clarification is welcome. But it seems unlikely. And, anyway, it is not sufficient. He should answer why he would have wanted to issue a blanket ban on all advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in all the media houses – print, radio and television – in the first place.

He should produce the office order withdrawing the circular in question.

And he should explain why government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in The Bhutanese have fallen, and fallen drastically, since April.

The latest issue of The Bhutanese, for example, printed on Saturday, 11 August, carried just three notifications (two by Bank of Bhutan; one by Bhutan Power Corporation) and one message (by DHI). There was nothing – no advertisement, no announcement, no notification, no circular – by any of the government agencies.

Compare that with the Saturday, 11 August issue of Kuensel which carried more than 10 notifications (by National Assembly, ECB, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, RBP, Ministry of Agriculture, Tsirang Dzongkhang Administration, Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag Administration, Samdrupjongkhar Thromde and STCB) and more than 10 announcements (by Druk Air, RAA, BNB, DGPC, NPPF, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Mangdechhu Hydropower Project and RBP). Most of these notifications and announcements were made by government agencies.

In terms of content, The Bhutanese wrote 15 articles and, for comparison, Kuensel wrote 17 articles in their 11 August issues.

But Kuensel enjoys a wider and bigger reader base – yes. Plus Kuensel is older, more established and would have a better marketing division – yes, yes and yes. Yet, the huge difference in advertisements between the two newspapers is too big to be explained just by these factors, especially since The Bhutanese also enjoyed much bigger government advertisements only a few months ago.

Is the government misusing public resources to control the media? It certainly looks like it. And if that is the case, we cannot allow it. But what can we do? To start with, we can take a closer look at the newspapers. We can study the contents of the newspapers, and scrutinize all government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars.

That way, the government will know that we know if and when they misuse public resources to control the media.

Here’s a copy of the MOIC circular that appeared in Business Bhutan:

Acting late

Four years ago the prime minister pledged to enact a right to information law. The prime minister didn’t give a definite time frame, but he promised that it would be done “soon”.

It’s already been four years since the government made that promise. And we are still waiting for them to keep their word. Now, however, finally, there seems to be some movement: the Department of Media and Information has conducted an RTI awareness workshop, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has distributed a draft RTI Bill for public comments and feedback.

But all this is for nothing. The government has been inactive for so long that whatever they do now will be too little, too late. Parliament has only one session left. And we need at least two sessions to pass a law. So, in spite of any assurances from the government, and any last minute flurry of activity, we might as well accept that the government will not fulfill their promise to give us an RTI Act.

We, the people, will not have an RTI Act during this government’s term in office. But what we have is the Constitution. And Article 7 Section 3 of the Constitution declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. So in the absence of a law regulating the right to information, we, the people, can continue to enjoy unqualified and unconditional right to information as an important fundamental right.

Expensive talk

The Ministry of Agriculture says that the prices of local vegetables is increasing. They are right. In fact, the prices of local vegetables have not just increased; they have skyrocketed.

Between this time last year and now, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the price for local cabbages increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75. That’s an increase of 30.25%. The price of local chillies increased from Nu 270 to Nu 300 or by 11.11%. And the prices of potatoes and beans have jumped by a massive 47.22% and  39.40% respectively.

So what’s driving the prices of local vegetables?  The Ministry of Agriculture has blamed inflation, the seasons and the rupee crisis.

Yes, inflation would have caused price increases. The last quarter recorded inflation at 13.53%. That’s the highest rate we’ve seen in years. But that’s nowhere near the 47% increase in the price of local potatoes. By comparison, the price of imported potatoes, which was Nu 17.83 per kg last year, increased only slightly, to Nu 20 per kg this year. We import most of what we consume from India. So inflation rates here follow those in India. And since the price of imported potatoes (and other vegetables) went up only marginally, inflation cannot be blamed for the huge increase in the cost of local potatoes (and local vegetables).

Nor can we blame the seasons. In their report, the government compared vegetables prices between two years but at the same season. So when they say that the price of local cabbages have increased from Nu 37.43 to Nu 48.75 per kg, they are talking about  prices in June last year, versus prices in June this year. More significantly, the government has found out that production of local vegetables have gone up. All this means that we can’t pin the blame on the season.

The third excuse that the Ministry of Agriculture has offered for increasing vegetable prices is the rupee crisis. I agree, the rupee crisis is to blame. But not for the reasons that the Ministry of Agriculture thinks; not because the ngultrum is fetching fewer Indian rupees at the informal exchange market.

The rupee crisis did indeed cause a sudden hike in vegetable prices. But they went up due to an unlikely event. On 12 April the prime minister went on national TV to talk about the rupee crisis. During that talk, the prime minister announced that the government would no longer permit vegetables to be imported from India. Prices of local vegetables went up immediately. And haven’t come down since.

Studying pedestrian day

On pedestrian day, the number of vehicles driven is halved, and the number of people walking is doubled. At least, that’s what a study by the National Environment Commission says. Good.

But what would be better, essential in fact, is for the government to study the impact that pedestrian day has on the quality of our lives. And the impact that it has on doing business in Bhutan.

Royal Grandmother

My last post was about Dr Aubrey Leatham, a leading pioneer in cardiology and the development of pacemakers. Dr Leatham, along with others, like Dr Albert Craig, had been invited to Bhutan by Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, to care for His Majesty the Third King.

Between then and now, Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother has also spearheaded innumerable programs to care for the health of the people. They include, among many others, the introduction of, for the first time in Bhutan, drugs to fight leprosy and tuberculosis.

What’s more, Her Majesty, now in her eighties, continues to work to improve healthcare and alleviate the sufferings of our people. Just last week, Professor Ian Frazer, the scientist credited with developing the HPV vaccine, was in Thimphu at the invitation of Her Majesty.

The human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer, a leading cause of death among Bhutanese women. So Professor Frazer’s work and the HPV vaccine have contributed immensely to improving the quality and length of the lives of our women.

But the vaccines are expensive. They currently sell for US$ 120 per shot in the market, and a full course, consisting of three doses, costs a whopping US$ 360. Luckily, under Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother’s patronage, the Ministry of Health’s extended program of immunization has received US$ 32 million worth of HPV vaccines from the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation.

The program to prevent cervical cancer began three years ago. That is when girls, throughout the country, started getting the HPV vaccines. The idea is to cover all women … and to put an end to cervical cancer.

For this, and for much more – for introducing modern healthcare in Bhutan, for eradicating leprosy among our people, for controlling tuberculosis – I humbly thank Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother.