Wangduephodrang Dzong

Image of hope

I was in Wangduephodrang on Saturday. I’d gone there to visit the De-Suung training program. After meeting the De-Suups, I stopped by the Wangduephodrang Dzong to see the massive renovation that the dzong was receiving.

While returning to Thimphu, I stopped briefly on the other side of Punatsangchhu to take in at the grandeur of the Wangdue Dzong, and, as usual, marveled at the brilliance of Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel. He had chosen the site personally, on a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dangchhu rivers, to defend His newly unified Drukyul against intruders from the South. He had succeeded beyond measure: the dzong, which straddled the high, narrow ridge, was impenetrable and dominated the Wangdue skyline for centuries.

Today, I was back in Wangduephodrang. But this time to join the nation in mourning. The mighty Wangdue Dzong, which stood magnificently for 374 continuous years, was no more. It had been gutted by fire yesterday evening. The fire reportedly started near the entrance of the dzong, and within hours, strong winds had fanned the fire through all buildings completing the destruction in a matter of hours.

Tragically, the very strength of the dzong – that it was virtually impenetrable – prevented all efforts from suppressing the inferno. The entrance was on fire, and the rest of the fortress was inaccessible.

So soldiers, under the personal command and supervision of His Majesty the King who himself had rushed from Thimphu, scaled the southern walls, broke into the monasteries, and rescued the many sacred relics that were in the dzong.

An entire nation is in mourning.

We have lost an important part of our history – a living, breathing monument that until yesterday served, as intended and without interruption, both the civil administration and the monk body. Yesterday evening, almost four centuries of continuous and daily offerings of butterlamps and prayers came to a sudden halt.

We are in mourning. But, miraculously, and against all hopes and expectations, we have, in our possession, the real essence of the Wangdue Dzong. Most of scriptures and statues and artifacts would have been consumed by the fire, but relics – the sacred treasures, many of which had been built and installed by the Zhabdrung himself – are safe. And that’s what really matters.

What also matters is that we begin the process of rebuilding the once mighty dzong immediately. We can rebuild our dzong, as in moments of national tragedy, our people, all of us, come together, easily and naturally, to think and act as one, under the command of His Majesty the King, the source of all our hopes and inspiration.

So there’s no doubt that the Wangdue Dzong will be rebuilt – bigger, better and stronger – and that it will once again, in a few years, dominate our western skylines.

Insurance claims

It’s been seven whole months since the 18th September earthquake. But many of the earthquake victims, including all the victims in my constituency, have still not receive their insurance claims in spite of the Home Minister’s assurances during the eighth session of the Parliament. So I felt compelled to send this letter yesterday.




Last week, I reported to the National Assembly that, even four months after the September 18 earthquake, the victims of the earthquake still didn’t know what assistance to expect from the government. The government had, to be sure, provided corrugated iron sheets to some of the victims. And more importantly, the army, at His Majesty the King’s command, had built temporary houses for the victims.

But the victims have not been able to start working on their houses. Most of them have not begun to repair the damages, or to rebuild their houses. They have not been able to do so, because the government’s assessment of the damages has been slow and inconsistent. As a result, most of the victims have not received their insurance claims, and none of them seem to know if they can expect further assistance from the government.

So I questioned the government for not having a proper system in place to respond to natural disasters, a system that provides meaningful relief and offers adequate support for reconstruction.

And I criticized them for distributing “dignity bags” when it was quite clear that the victims didn’t need them. The earthquake had damaged thousands of houses. But thankfully, virtually none of them were razed to the ground. As such, the victims could enter their houses to retrieve their belongings as and when they wished. That’s why they didn’t really need the blankets, clothes, pots and pans, and plates and mugs that the dignity bags provided. What they desperately wanted is proper assessment of the damages, timely insurance payments, and a go-ahead to rebuild their houses.

The Home Minister, naturally, claimed that the government’s response to the disaster had been adequate, and that they were doing enough to help the earthquake victims. He also claimed that the dignity bags were useful.

But if the dignity bags are useful, if that’s what the victims need, why has the government not collected them from the RENEW offices? In fact, why did the government ask for them in the first place?

I can think of one reason: the government does not have a proper understanding of the ground realities. Given the nature of the disaster, the victims of the earthquake don’t need dignity bags. What they desperately need is the government to finalise its assessment – they want to receive their insurance claims; they want to know if the government will provide any additional support; and they want to start rebuilding their houses.

Screaming for answers

The picture above, taken by Bhutan Today, shows victims of the recent Chamkhar fire huddling around their possessions.

Look at that picture. It should make you feel grateful. The picture shows that the residents were able to save at least some of their belongings from the fire that engulfed entire houses. They seem to have rescued clothes, mattresses, blankets, tables, carpets, pots, cupboards and even a bukhari from the fire that destroyed 33 houses. Given the tragic circumstances, we should be grateful for that.

Look at that picture again. It should now make you feel frustrated. The picture shows that the fire could not be controlled even though so many people had the time to rescue so many of their belongings.

Most of the houses in Chamkhar town stand in a line along the main street. So it would have taken time for the fire to spread from one house to the next. It did – that’s why the residents could save so many of their possessions. And yet the fire could not be controlled, not until it reached a three-storied stone structure that prevented it from spreading further.

So why couldn’t the fire be put out earlier? Because Bumthang has only one fire-engine, a second-hand truck manufactured in 1998. What’s worse is that that fire-engine can carry only 10 minutes supply of water. In fact, at full blast, that fire engine uses up all its water in just 5 minutes.

The fire fighters actually almost bought the fire under control during its early stages. But their water ran out. And, because Chamkhar town has no fire hydrants, they had to leave to replenish their small stock of water. That’s when the fire went out of control.

Look at that picture one more time. It should make you angry. The picture shows that, in spite of the two earlier fires, we were not at all prepared to fight this fire.

About a year ago, in the Parliament, during last year’s budget discussions, and before the first Chamkhar fire, I had requested the government to increase funding for our fire fighting programmes. I had argued that our fire fighters need more and better fire-engines. But I had also proposed that, if the government could not buy new fire engines immediately, they should at least buy water tankers to support the existing fleet of fire engines.

Bumthang’s aging fire engine was no match for the three Chamkhar fires. But with support from a simple 9,000 litre water tanker they would have probably been able to control the fires before they wrecked so much damage and suffering to the people of Chamkhar.

Today, the government is trying to find out who caused the fire. The residents are convinced that the fire was not an accident. So they want to catch the person who set their town on fire. The perpetrator must be caught. And be bought to justice.

But the government has so far ignored another, perhaps more important, investigation. They need to find out why, after repeated warnings and fires, they had still not equipped our fire fighters adequately.

Look at that picture. It’s screaming for answers.

Forest fire

Lopa village

Saved ... phew!

The people of Lopa village in Haa, Samar Gewog, did not sleep last night. They stayed up to guard their village – a cluster of mostly old farmhouses at the edge of a pine forest – from wild fires that was spreading through the woodland above their village.

The fire had started yesterday afternoon. And the Haa Dzongdag had quickly mobilized forestry officials, civil servants and community volunteers to fight the blaze. But the fire, which was fanned by strong winds, would not be contained. And by nightfall, the dzongdag wisely called off the fire fighting efforts as boulders, set loose from the rocky outcrop above the village, came hurling down the hillside.

But by the crack of dawn today, dzongkhag officials and volunteers were already battling the fires. This time they were joined by almost a hundred RBA soldiers. And this time they were successful. They bought the fire under control.

Had it not been for the quick response of the dzongkhag and forestry officials, and the help of the army, the fire would have razed Lopa and spread through the neighbouring village of Nobgang to the dense pine forests above Puduna. And the fire would still be raging.

Featured in the banner are the remains of the recent snow that put out a big forest fire in Katsho, and helped contain another one today.

Disaster relief

Chamkhar fire

At 2:00 am yesterday morning, even as fire raged through Chamkhar town, the Galpoi Zimpoen’s office was already coordinating efforts to control the disaster. Three hours later, together with the Dzongdag, Royal Bhutan Police, civil servants, monks, students and local residents, His Majesty the King’s representatives in Bumthang were able to contain the fire from spreading throughout the town.

By then, the inferno had left behind a trail of destruction – two men lost their lives, 42 houses were razed to the ground, 66 shops were destroyed, and 267 people were left homeless.

But, at the command of His Majesty the King, who is in India, the Zimpoen’s office was already busy arranging food and temporary shelter for the shocked victims. And by the afternoon, His Majesty the Fourth King had reached Chamkhar to personally oversee the relief and recovery efforts.

Most of the victims in Chamkhar have lost their entire life savings. And their road to recovery will be long and difficult. I hope that their plight will move the Parliament to establish the Relief Fund as soon as possible.

Photo credit: BBS

Another disaster!

Today, on True Bap the blessed rainy day – I join the nation in offering my prayers and support for the victims of the deadly earthquake that struck our eastern dzongkhags yesterday afternoon. BBS and Kuensel have reported loss of lives and extensive damage. The international media has also expressed concern.

Government officials are already at work, contacting the gewogs and accessing the damage. The full extent of the earthquake’s destruction will not be known for sometime. But there’s one important sign of hope: since yesterday evening, no more deaths have been reported.

I am in Dehi, en route to New York, to attend the UN General Assembly.

Coping with disaster

white water rescue

To the rescue

On 27 July 1996, six boys from Begana went on a picnic to Tango. They lost their way in the thick forests, and despite the best efforts of the rescue teams – soldiers had literally combed the jungles – the students could not be found. 12 harrowing days later, police stumbled upon four of the boys in the forests above Punakha. The mountains had, by then, claimed the lives of two boys.

That shocking incident led Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, who was the education secretary at that time, to formalize, improve and expand scouting in Bhutan. He believed that the Begana students would not have had to go through hell had they had some basic survival skills. And he looked to the scouting movement to provide these and other important skills to our students.

Thirteen years later, on 27 July 2009, eight boys from Tshimasham went on a picnic by the Wangchu. Only one made it back home.

The scouting movement has spread to every corner of Bhutan. And, its contributions to the education of our children – by giving them leadership, life and survival skills, and by teaching them teamwork and discipline – can never be measured.

But we need to do more. A lot more.

Our last poll asking if we are prepared to cope with disaster is telling. 97% of the participants think that we are not prepared at all. 3% feel that we are sufficiently prepared. And not one person thinks that we are very well prepared to cope with disasters.

All of us know that we’ll have many more disasters. Storms, floods, mud slides, fires and earthquakes: we expect them all. So let’s prepare for them, as best as we can. There’s no doubt that our government is working to improve the disaster preparedness and disaster management levels in the kingdom. And that our government is already developing the ability to carry out rescue during disasters.

Rescue operations are complicated and dangerous. And they require expertise. All the more reason to prepare immediately, in earnest.

Consider whitewater rescue, the type that would be deployed in all our fast flowing rivers. Whitewater rescue teams would need training in safety, kayaking, swimming, ropework, rescue gear and first aid. They would also require a thorough understanding of our rivers and river systems.

The good news is that such trainings are conducted regularly in many parts of the world. The Red Cross Society may be a good place to start. The other good news is that many of us – teachers, monks, soldiers, guides, politicians, officials, businesswomen – would be willing to volunteer to learn and to apply rescue skills. We should use these advantages.

We expect our children to return home after a picnic. But, if and when an innocent outing turns dangerous, we need to know that we are prepared to render all possible help. That is our duty.

This week’s poll is about Dzongkha, our national language.

Lobxang’s anger

Dangerous fun

Dangerous fun

The following letter, from Lobxang, deserves attention. Lobxang works in New York. He keeps a blog. And is on Facebook.

Dear OL,

I was much pained to read in the news the tragic loss of seven promising kids in the Wangchuck River. My deepest respect and prayers goes to the lost souls and the bereaved family. I read again and over again every piece of information that I could find on the net. I am deeply pained at first, and now I am angry, very angry.

Seven lives are lost. This is a national loss. His Majesty the fourth King always said; “Our children are the future of the country.”  Now here we are, mourning the loss of our future, our own kids.

From what I read in the news on that tragic night, I picture some perfect chaos with nobody knowing what to do. It’s my understanding that the river did not just ‘swell up’ and swallowed the innocent victims. There was enough time to save every one of them.

Let’s question ourselves. Do we always have to learn the hard way? Why can’t we be smart and act proactively? Why do we still not have some well trained rescue team?

Kuensel editorial rightly pointed out; We have helicopters flying in and out to rescue a single tourist who is sick. Let me add, we even have guides who are well trained to perform CPR or give out SOS signals in case of a mishap. Now there was a whole team of police and officials watching the kids drown that night. No body seemed to have known what to do. This is madness. They could pass on a mobile phone but they could not send in a single expert swimmer to secure the ropes around the kids. Where were the helicopters? Do we even have a single life jacket in the whole country? How about some life savers or floaters? We know very well our rivers are fast and good for hydropower but we also know it’s threats. It’s not for the first time a life has been lost into those torrential rivers. Watch my words, many more tragic events will follow if we do no wake up now.

Whom do we blame? What do a young active kid do on a sunny sunday afternoon? How long will he line up at the lone basketball court in school? Swimming is not just game and fun. It’s a survival skill. How many swimming pools do we have in the country?

Mourning alone is not enough. Let’s pay a tribute to the lost lives. Let’s have rescue teams in every community. Let’s have diverse recreational facilities in schools. Let’s be aware and learn how to act in tragic calls of mother nature.

Do something please. I lay my thoughts.

In Grief,

New York

A big problem

We have a problem. In our last poll, 94% of you claimed to either know or think that drug abuse is already a problem in Bhutan. On the other hand, only 5% of you said that drug abuse is not a problem in our country. 1% admitted that they don’t have a clue.

I suspected that substance abuse was growing, especially among out youth. But, I had no reason to think that it was already a problem. The poll results have forced me to rethink my views – that’s why I kept the poll up for so long. Next week, I plan to discuss this issue with the government including the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency. I’ve also arranged to meet some youth.

This week’s poll asks: “how prepared are we to cope with disaster?”