Tashi Delek!

Yesterday, Changlimethang Stadium
His Majesty the King addressing his people during the Centenary National Day. (Portrait from www.bbs.com.bt)

I offer my congratulations to the recipients of the Druk Gyalpo’s National Day medals.

His Majesty the King awarded Druk Thuksey to:

1. Dasho Kunzang Wangdi
2. Aum Neten Zam
3. Dasho Pema Wangchuk
4. Dasho Pema Wangchen

His Majesty the King awarded the Druk Wangyel to:

1. Lyonchen Jigme Y. Thinley
2. Thrimche Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye

My heartiest Tashi Delek! to all of them.

The constitution of our nation

Today, we celebrate our 101st National Day. Today will also mark the culmination of the year-long celebrations commemorating a century of peace, prosperity and happiness under our beloved monarchs.

As we conclude the historic celebrations of 100 years of monarchy, we have many reasons to be deeply thankful: a secure and sovereign homeland, a vibrant culture and religion, a largely pristine environment, free healthcare and education, a unique democracy, and a growing economy. Simply put, we live longer, better and happier lives.

And as we enter the next 100 years as a unified nation, we must uphold our two most important assets to ensure that we and future generations continue to enjoy peace, prosperity and happiness. The first asset is our monarchy. This important institution, which is the essence and very basis of our kingdom, must be protected, nurtured and cherished by all Bhutanese – in body, speech and mind – so that future generations can enjoy what we today take for granted.

The second is our Constitution. This sacred document, gifted to us from the Golden Throne, must be defended – rights enjoyed and duties fulfilled – by all Bhutanese, for all time.


Our Constitution came into effect on 18 July, 2008. 152 days have already passed since the historic signing of this sacred document, and it has still not been properly distributed. Forget farmers, none of the gups I’ve met have received a copy of the Constitution.

Saving industries

I applaud Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk’s tour to Pasakha to assess the crisis gripping the steel factories. And factory owners welcomed his visit as signs of possible government support for an industry which is seriously affected by the global financial crisis.

The government should support the steel industry, but provided it is of strategic importance to our country. That is to say that the industry should be socially, politically or economically too important to our country to allow it to collapse. So if, due to a failure in the steel industry, many jobs for nationals would be lost, or national security or self sufficiency be compromised, or revenue would drop drastically, then, the government must intervene in full force. Otherwise, it should reconsider.

One strategically important industry that does need the government’s attention is tourism. Our tourism industry has endured the SARS epidemic, Asian financial crisis, avian flu outbreak, and other external shocks only to be seriously threatened now by the global financial crisis. And we cannot allow tourism to take a beating for three reasons: it generates jobs, it distributes money, and it generates foreign currency.

Tourism is a big employer. At last count there were 1,300 licensed guides. And this represents only a fraction of the jobs which are dependent on the tourism industry – thousands of cooks, waiters, housekeepers, drivers, craftsmen, retailers and entertainers depend, directly or indirectly, on tourism.

We all know that tourism is our country’s largest foreign currency earner. But we forget how effectively it circulates money through our economy. All the different types of workers I just mentioned, working in different parts of the country take home pay checks.

For example, consider this: Pem Tazi, about 43 years old, from Tshojo in Lunana, is a “yak contractor”; he organizes yaks for the famous Snowman Trek. This year, Yangphel used him on one trek – he worked 47 yaks for 14 trekkers for 14 days (Laya to Marothang) and charged Nu 500 per yak per day. So he recently collected almost Nu 330,000 for his services. He keeps 10% of this. The rest he divides among the other 18 yak owners. Yangphel also had to hire a similar number of horses and yaks for other segments of the same trek: Paro to Jangothang; Jangothang to Laya; and Marothang to Nikachu.

This is serious money circulating effectively through our economy. Strategically important stuff.

So our steel industries may or may not be strategically important, and the government may or may not help them. But tourism is strategically very important, and the government should address the possible impacts that the global financial crisis may soon have on this industry.

A bigger (and better?) hospital

In the fall of 1974 the brand new 60-bed Thimphu Referral Hospital was inaugurated to commemorate the coronation of His Majesty the Fourth King. The hospital has served Thimphu and all of Bhutan faithfully for the last 34 years.

Yesterday, Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck inaugurated the brand new 350-bed Jigme Dorji Wanchuck National Referral Hospital to commemorate the coronation of His Majesty the King and 100 years of monarchy. Our new hospital comes equipped with central heating and cooling, 8 OTs, 64 ICUs, central oxygen supply, 48 cabins, ward cubicles, digital x-ray, telemedicine facilities and satellite links to the best hospitals in India. State-of-the-art stuff priced at almost Nu 1 billion and financed mainly through GOI assistance.

The aim is to develop the JDWNRH into a tertiary hospital capable of providing high-end diagnostic and curative services for all Bhutanese. This makes good sense considering the number of Bhutanese traveling to India and Thailand for medical treatment. There’s even talk of medical tourism!

To achieve this lofty aim, however, the hospital will first have to be staffed with enough doctors, nurses and technicians. This will be difficult and expensive, especially since we already have a severe shortage of health professionals. Many foreign doctors will have to be recruited, and his is okay both as a stop gap measure and means to promote transfer to knowledge.

But don’t forget our existing health professionals – too many of them are unsatisfied, many are contemplating resignation, and some have already submitted their resignations. We cannot afford this. If we want the new JDWNR Hospital to serve Bhutan as faithfully as the old General Hospital, we need to take care, first and foremost, of our own health professionals, especially doctors. So, the inauguration of our new hospital may be a good time to review and overhaul their service conditions and their career prospects. Otherwise we’ll end up with a bigger hospital that’s not necessarily better.

And what will become of the old hospital? It will be razed to make way for the new medical college. Excellent!

By the way, the Thimphu Menkha, located in Langjophakha, served as Thimphu’s hospital from the early 1960’s till it was relocated in 1974. That hospital had only two doctors – the Late Lyonpo (Dr) Tobgyel and Dasho (Dr) Samdrup. Those medical poineers worked with no internal plubming, no electricity, and no telephones. By all accounts they did a good job.

And the Thimphu Menkha in Langjophakha? It’s now used as family quarters for the Tashichodzong police.

Good heads make good schools

More than 150 educationists attended a three-day seminar this week to examine our education system. Participants agreed on a range of problems frustrating education in our country ranging from inadequate infrastructure to ineffective teaching methodologies.

The seminar was an excellent idea. And recommendations were good. But nothing is new. Education workshops and seminars have time and again identified the same problems and agreed on similar strategies to improve education. Why? Because no matter how many times we met, we hardly ever followed through on the important decisions. So the quality of education, let’s face it, remains poor.

It wasn’t always so. In the early 1980s, some schools were widely regarded as education powerhouses. Punakha, Yangchuenphug and Khaling were the dominant schools at that time – they produced some of the finest students, many of who have gone on to do well in life.

Today, I’m afraid, it is difficult to point out any school that performs consistently well. All our schools seem to be equally mediocre, at best. What’s going on? Why have even our top schools gone bad? The problems and their cures have been extensively catalogued through countless seminars and workshops, but we are yet to see a noticeable improvement in the education system.

So while we wait for across the board improvements, consider Punakha, Khaling and Yangchenphug. Can we improve these three schools at least? Or for that matter any three schools? And make them into centres of education excellence?

True, a lot of work would need to done. Even for just three schools. But think about what Punakha, Khaling and Yangchenphug had in common in the 80’s. All three had very good principals – Father Coffey in Punakha; Father Mackey in Khaling, and Mr Tyson in Yangchuenphug. Some say that those principals were good because they had a lot of power. And that’s the point. Good principals need authority and autonomy to do a good job.

So can we identify three capable principals? Or a dozen, perhaps? And give them the challenge of improving their respective schools? They’ll need some amount of power and autonomy to get the job done. But they will succeed, even with minimal extra support.

Difficult, you say? I agree. We’ve corrupted our system so much that it’s difficult to spot potential, ability and commitment. That’s why all our good principals go unnoticed. When we do, its difficult to acknowledge, cultivate and reward them. That’s why our good principals don’t feel appreciated. Most importantly, we find it extrememly diffcicult to devolve real power and authority to schools. And that’s why our principals find it so hard to deliver.

But that’s no reason for inaction. Our children’s future is at stake.

Folks, a festival

No less than 350 farmers are participating in the Folk Life Festival in Punakha. The three-day festival, which is organized jointly by Tourism Council and ABTO, was inaugurated yesterday by HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck.

Though the festival was originally planned in 2005, it is said to resemble, in content and style, the hugely successful Smithsonian Folk Life Festival featuring Bhutan in Washington D.C earlier this year.

I like the idea. We need to diversify our products for tourists. And we need to expand the tourist “season” to include the sunny winter months. This festival helps in both fronts. Plus it allows Bhutanese to learn, enjoy and celebrate our culture.

I like the venue. The weather in Punakha is balmy at this time of the year – perfect conditions for the wide range of outdoor activities required for the festival. A big plus is the support to the local economy. The festival cost Nu 1.5 million, most of it would have been spent locally.

I’m not sure about the turnout. I counted only 11 tourists yesterday. That’s bad. But if the festival is marketed well, and in advance, there’s potential to attract big numbers.

I’m disappointed. Only 12 tour operators showed up yesterday. That’s 12 out of about 400 registered operators, most of who complain about the scarcity of tourism products. The festival is a viable product. Go check it out.

I’m happy. The farmers did not just put on a show. They genuinely enjoyed themselves. Whether they were cooking or playing archery, dancing or weaving, pounding rice or extracting oil, they had fun. And that is important.

I’m hopeful. The festival was done well. I hope it’s organized every year. Tourists and farmers would enjoy that. I certainly will.

Ap Gyengye and Bhutan

Yesterday, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and members of the Royal Family took part in the consecration ceremony at the completion of major rehabilitation carried out at Dechenphug. The rehabilitation was commanded by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the greatest Dharma King in the world.

I was barely 5 years old when my mother introduced me to Ap Gyengye in Dechenphug Monastery. Since then I’ve visited Dechenphug several times a year to honour Him and to offer prayers for His support. And during the last four decades I’ve seen increasing numbers of people make the pilgrimage to Dechenphug.

Ap Gyengye has served our King, our country, and our people exceptionally well. And our sacred relationship continues to flourish. Gyengye Jagpa Milen Kheno!

Tower in Trongsa

“I’m returning after 48 years!” exclaimed Dr Jagar Dorji, MP.

The Ta Dzong, which was constructed more than 350 years ago as a watch tower above Trongsa Dzong, was used a as a make-shift dormitory for students of Chokorling School in 1961. Dr Jagar was among the 13 students who lived in Ta Dzong for a year.

We were in attendance when His Majesty the King inaugurated the Ta Dzong as the Tower of Trongsa Museum on 10 December. The conversion of the dzong to a state-of-the-art museum took over three years and Nu 120 million. That’s a lot of money, but well worth it.

Worth it because the Tower of Trongsa shows off our history and heritage, and art and culture magnificently. Well worth it because the museum will attract tourists and much needed jobs to Trongsa.

I asked Dr Jagar what he thought of the conversion of Ta Dzong. “Nice, very nice”, he beamed. Naturally. He hails from Trongsa.

The Tower marks the completion of three interrelated projects assisted by the Government of Austria. Through the projects the Trongsa Dzong was partly renovated, the historical baa zam (traditional cantilever wooden bridge) across the Mangde-chu was rebuilt, and the Ta Dzong was converted to a world class museum.

The projects have finally made Trongsa a tourist destination. And that will allow the local economy to grow while also promoting our rich culture and heritage. Such projects must be encouraged.

Well done.

Local Government elections – update

His Majesty the King commanded that Local Government elections shall be conducted after the ECB completes the delimitation process and after the relevant acts under which elections are to be held have been revised in accordance with the Constitution.

His Majesty the King commanded that Local Government elections conducted under Acts that had been repealed and which are contrary to the provisions of the Constitution would lake legitimacy even as an interim measure. And that the cost of conducting elections again after a few months would cause financial burden to the exchequer and enormous inconvenience to the general public and the bureaucracy.

The terms of incumbent gups have been extended till the ECB conducts the elections next year.

Running against corruption

As I left for Trongsa this morning, I drove by runners participating in World Anticorruption Day. The turnout was impressive – hundreds of people, young and old, women and children, businesswomen and men, and bureaucrats and politicians had turned out to show their resolve to fight corruption.

Today’s run was important, and it was especially significant that some politicians participated. I didn’t run. So instead, I’m writing.

Shortly after the first parliamentary session ended, the ACC organized a presentation for MPs. Our Honourable MPs rose, one after the other, denouncing corruption, vowing to fight it, and promising full, unconditional support for ACC.

The clear determination of my colleagues impressed me. But I reminded my fellow MPs of three truths: one, that throughout the world, politicians are perceived to be the most corrupt; two, that we, as elected MPs, are politicians; and three, that unless we, politicians, are, first and foremost, incorruptible ourselves, we would have already lost the fight against corruption.

Easier said than done, I’ve been told. But, much more honest and effective than all the grandstanding and rhetoric that we, politicians, readily dish out when called upon to fight corruption.

We’ve started democracy. Start it right. Start by demanding that our politicians – ministers, MPs and party workers – don’t just talk of anticorruption, but are themselves not corrupt; that they do not smell of the nepotism, cronyism, patronage, graft, bribery and embezzlement that todays runners ran hard against.