“We have emerged stronger”

Kuensel recently interviewed me. Their piece is reproduced below:

 How have you grown since the time you became the country’s first opposition leader and today as you exit your first five-year term?

It’s not for me to say whether I’ve grown or not in the past five years. I certainly hope I’ve grown. But that’s for my family and, more importantly, the people to judge. What I can say is that I have learnt a lot in the past five years. I have had the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life – the poor and the rich, the young and old, farmers and businessmen, monks and students, soldiers, teachers and countless other public servants. I have been able to listen to them and to learn of their deepest hopes and aspirations. And that has been an extremely enriching experience. On democracy, I have learnt that it is hard work, that it is not free, and that the most difficult part of democracy is the exercise of checks and balances. In this context, PDP has had the difficult yet distinguished responsibility of serving as the Kingdom’s first opposition party.

You have been very critical of the government’s performance in a number of areas. Any area you feel the government did do well and deserves credit?

The transition to democracy has largely been stable and peaceful. For this, the government must be given due credit. However, this transition would never have been possible without the complete support and constant guidance of His Majesty the King. Furthermore, the government could have done a better job in strengthening democratic institutions and in minimizing the anxiety levels that our people have sometimes been subjected to.

One area in which the government failed badly?

The government has failed to inculcate a healthy respect for the rule of law. Some times, the government threatened to amend laws, including the Constitution, to suit their narrow, immediate purposes. At other times, they themselves blatantly violated the rule of law, like when they imposed taxes unconstitutionally. That led to the first constitutional case which they eventually lost. What followed was unprecedented – the government was made to return the taxes that they had collected unlawfully.

Another important area where the government failed is the economy. The economy has become extremely vulnerable with debts rising and short-term Rupee borrowings spiralling out of control. At this rate, we are heading towards an economic crisis, a crisis that will undo the benefits of decades of hardwork and subject the country and people to unimaginable hardship.

Some political pundits indicated 2013 election is more about who will become the opposition…

I hope the political pundits are wrong. If the pundits are right, and if the 2013 elections is only about who will become the opposition, it would mean that DPT is invincible and will form the government again. Such a foregone conclusion would also mean that democratic choice would be undermined. Therefore, it becomes crucial for all of us, including the political pundits themselves, to support the other parties so that they can offer credible alternatives and healthy competition.

Some former PDP candidates and members said they were hardly consulted while opposition played its role and that the party should have been regrouped years ago than now. What happened?

The opposition party has just two members in the Parliament. As such, we have had to work extremely hard during the past five years, especially since the very idea of an opposition was nonexistent until then. It is hard to imagine that anyone associated with PDP, including our former candidates, would be upset if the opposition were able to play its role successfully. As far as the two opposition party members are concerned, we have actively sought to consult any and everyone available, both inside and outside the party.

All of us agree that PDP should have regrouped years ago. But that is easier said than done. Our party was in shambles. The president had resigned taking moral responsibility for the 2008 loss, and the party was burdened with huge financial debts. Added to that, many candidates resigned, some for professional reasons, some to form a new political party. It was testing time for the party, but we have not just overcome our difficulties, we have emerged stronger and are now well-positioned for the coming elections.

You made many remarks on the Rupee issue the country continues to reel under. Had your role reversed to play the government, how would you address the issue?

I raised the Rupee issue way back in 2009. Since then, the opposition party has consistently raised the issue in the Parliament. Today, even though we have a full-blown Rupee crisis, one that is holding our economy at ransom, the government still has not admitted that we have a problem. Any other government would have understood that our economy is small, that imports exceed exports, and that, as such, foreign currency, Especially the Rupee, must be managed very carefully. Past governments, in which many of the current ministers also served, were acutely aware of this and ensured that shortfall of Rupee never assumed critical proportions. So I, like many others, am extremely disappointed that the DPT government has failed to prevent this crisis.

What would we have done if we were in the government? We would have exercised caution right from the start. We would have monitored the economy carefully and ensured that trade imbalances did not spiral out of control. We would have reined in exessive government spending, while making sure that agriculture, services, manufacturing and small businesses thrived throughout the length and breadth of our country. In short, we would have made doing business in Bhutan easy and enjoyable. So a Rupee crisis would never have occurred under our watch. But if it did, we would have accepted the problem, studied it, and addressed it head on.

Five political parties this year. Where does PDP stand?

That is for the people to decide. On our part, we will work hard and work honestly; we will leave no stone unturned to provide a credible alternative; we will serve to fulfill the promise of democracy and the hopes and aspirations of our people.

Your priorities if PDP came to power…

If PDP comes to power, our first priority, like that of any other party that comes to power, would be to undo the damages done by DPT. Government expenditure has been excessive. Our economy is in a mess. Doing business is cumbersome. Youth unemployment is rife. Poverty is still very visible. Agricultural production is dismal. Education quality is an issue. Roads, especially farm roads, are in urgent need of repair and reconstruction. Corruption hasn’t been tackled boldly. Private media has been weakened.

Given the opportunity, PDP would strengthen democratic institutions, and devolve power and authority from the centre so people can enjoy the blessings of liberty, equality and prosperity. That’s what PDP’s ideology, Wangtse-Chhirphel, is all about. That’s why PDP promises Power to the People.

Dr Sanga Dorji

Lighting candles

Lighting candles

Dr Sanga Dorji, Chief Physiotherapist, JDWNR Hospital, on 3 December 2009, at Hotel Taj addressing his guests who had come together to celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities:

Honorable Tshogpon, Honorable Lyonpos, Honorable leader of the Opposition, Honorable Thrizin of the National Council, Honorable members of the Parliament, Representatives of the International Organizations, Dashos, Leaders of the Business communities, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen …

Dr Sanga’s introductory words were ordinary – this, in fact, is how almost every speech for almost every official occasion in Thimphu begins. But he said it with passion, and great satisfaction.  For him, every one of those words was profound. The words meant that he and the growing community of people with disabilities had come a long way in the twelve months since they celebrated International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 2008.

During the celebrations last year, the Government was noticeably absent. But this year’s event was well attended. Ministers, civil servants, parliamentarians, private businesses, NGOs and international organisations had turned up in full force to celebrate the lives of people with disabilities.

This week’s banner celebrates people with disabilities. It features our special people showing of their abilities, from embroidery and cakes by Draktsho to demonstrations and lessons on how the blind and the deaf communicate.

Now back to Dr Sanga. Many of us wondered if he’d ever get married. He did, in 2008, after completing a master’s degree in Rehab Medicine. Dr Sanga is a loving husband and a proud father of a four-month old daughter. He is also an accomplished professional.

I interviewed Dr Sanga recently.

Dr Sanga, please me a little about yourself.

Well … I grew up in Bemji, my village in Trongsa. When I was six years old I remember helping my parents in our farm and looking after our cattle. I had no problems with my vision, and like all other boys was enjoying life in Bemji. Those days most parents didn’t send their children to school, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to leave my home for a long time.

But when I turned eight, I started losing my sight, and in a matter of six months I became completely blind. I was confused and in shock. When I turned ten, my mother bought me to Thimphu Hospital to see if I could be cured.

The doctors in Thimphu told me that I had become blind because I did not have enough Vitamin A. They also told me that I would never regain my sight. Dr Samdrup, who was the Superintendent of the hospital then, reported my case to HRH Prince Namgyel Wangchuck who sent me to the Blind School in Khaling.

So, actually, I would not have attended school if I did not become blind! In many ways becoming blind was a blessing in disguise. Of course, there are many disadvantages in being blind, but then, a lot of good has come out of it too.

You are Bhutan’s foremost physiotherapist. How did you choose this profession?

By the time I reached Class 6, I started thinking about a career. I may have been blind, but I was wanted to become a professional and to be independent. So I asked my principal, Mr Philip Holmberg, what blind people did in the West. He told me that the three most successful careers for blind people were lawyers, professors and physiotherapists. I immediately knew what I wanted to become. You see, as a child, I used to suffer from frequent toothaches, and I had to go to the hospital a lot. So, at quite an early age, I wanted to work in a hospital, and I realized that physiotherapy would allow me to do just that.

I studied till Class 8 in the Blind School. Then I studied for two years in Khaling High School. After that I worked in the Department of Education, mostly attending to telephone calls. I would also go to the hospital to observe the physiotherapist, a Burmese doctor, at work.

In 1989, I got a scholarship from the Royal Government to study in London. I studied for two years, and then trained as a physiotherapist for four years.

As Bhutan’s first physiotherapist, did you build the whole programme yourself?

In some ways, I suppose I did. But I also got a lot of support from my colleagues, especially from physio-technicians, some of who were very helpful. Also, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup was the health minister at that time. Lyonpo Sangay gave me a lot of practical support, and was very helpful in expanding the physiotherapy services to the districts.

Are you happy with your work?

Oh, I’m very happy. I find my work enjoyable. I mainly do clinical work, but I also teach regularly. And, since I am the head of the physiotherapy department, I have to do some management work too.

I meet a lot of people in my line of work. And I enjoy that. I get to meet people from different professions and different backgrounds. And, when you interact with them you get to know the good things in their lives, but also their personal difficulties.

Who are your role models?

I have many role models. But, as a visually impaired person, the person who has inspired me the most, and who I look up to is Helen Keller. Although Helen Keller was born with multi-disabilities (she was blind, deaf and dumb) she received an education and succeeded in life. She authored many books that have inspired countless people, especially people with disabilities.

Helen Keller has given us many proverbs. I enjoy them a lot. My favourite proverb is “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. I agree with that completely. Cursing the dark will give us no light. But lighting a candle will surely provide us an alternative.

I hear you like to trek. Tell me how you trek, with whom, where and how often.

Yes, I love trekking. I trek with a good group of friends including doctors, physio-technicians and civil servants. I coordinate the treks. We generally do about two treks a year, one in the spring and one in the autumn.

Of course, I need a “sighted guide” to lend me an elbow. I just follow the guide and my friends.

I enjoy being in the forests, and in our mountains. I love to sit by the bon fire, free of all other noises in the wild. I feel at peace and enjoy the freshness in the mountains.

My most adventurous trek was the pilgrimage to Singye Dzong in 2004. We walked for three days to get there, and three days to get back. We camped for five days in Singye Dzong visiting all the sacred sites.

My favourite trek is to Dagala. It’s not too tough and there are plenty of lovely lakes. I went in October, so the weather was perfect at that time.

What are your other interests?

I enjoy listening to every thing – radio, TV, cassette player and the like. Mostly, I listen to news and current affairs. I also listen to stories.

What do you think about support for people with disabilities in Bhutan?

Things have improved, but a lot more needs to be done. Infrastructure and services have to be made more accessible, especially for people in wheel chairs.

We had to have the International Day for People with Disabilities in Hotel Taj. It was expensive, but it is the only hotel that was accessible for people in wheel chairs. We explored many hotels, but they were either too small or were not accessible for wheel chairs.

Our hotels as business must look into it, not just for people with disabilities, but for other people as well. For instance, many tourists visit Bhutan, and some of them are old people who may have difficulty in climbing stairs or may even need wheel chairs. Making the hotels accessible will benefit such tourists as well as local disabled persons.

Also, our policies should not be to develop something just for disabled people. Whatever we build, we must build for the use of all people, disabled and non-disabled.

Have you considered joining politics?

[Laughing] I’m so happy with my current life that I don’t think of anything else.