With thanks

The following is a rough translation of my address yesterday, in the closing session of the parliament.

HM-kengkhar

The People’s King

Today is an auspicious day: it is the closing ceremony of the 10th session of the first parliament. Today is also an historic day: it is the closing session of the first elected parliament after Bhutan became a democratic constitutional monarchy. On behalf of the opposition party, I offer thanks to His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen for gracing the closing session of the parliament.

In the past five years since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, His Majesty the King has worked tirelessly and contributed so much to the nation and the people that it is impossible to recount them all here. In fact, it is difficult to even offer a summary, because no such articulation would do justice to His Majesty’s contributions.

Nevertheless, on behalf of the opposition party, I take the privilege of offering our sincere gratitude to His Majesty the King for the continuing, steadfast and unwavering support and guidance that the country has been blessed with. And so I would like to take the privilege of highlighting just a few areas and projects through which His Majesty has led the country with vision and dynamism.

First, by granting royal kidu, His Majesty the King has changed the lives of countless people. His Majesty has granted land to the landless and the poor. Thousands upon thousands of people in the villages who couldn’t pay for their excess land were granted exemption, and their excess lands were regularized in their name. This went on to address the biggest concern for countless people in the villages and helped them lead a normal life. It gave them hope to continue living in the villages at a time when rural to urban migration has become a grave threat.

His Majesty’s kidu program has been extended to poor students to help them go to school. It has given the rural and poor students an equal opportunity to go to school and shape a career for themselves. His Majesty also supports many elderly, poor and needy citizens all over the country. The Kidu program ensures that no one is left behind and His Majesty has personally met all of the recipients to understand their problem.

Second, it was unfortunate for our country to have suffered from so many disasters in the past five years. We had entire towns and a dzong destroyed by fire. We experienced windstorms, floods and earthquakes posing a lot of hardship for the people. We even had an unfortunate plane crash where some Bhutanese citizens on pilgrimage died in Nepal. But whenever a disaster struck, His Majesty personally and immediately went to comfort the people. While His Majesty’s mere presence gave people hope and comfort, relief funds and support helped them rebuild their homes and lives.

Third, as a deeply religious country, the two great religions of Bhutan have spread even more and taken greater hold. It is because of His Majesty’s personal work and example that the people have even greater faith and belief in our religions. In this context, I would also like to thank His Holiness the Je Khenpo, Trulku Jigme Choida, for his exemplary leadership, and the five lopens, the clergy and the monks, lay monks, and nuns of all faiths for their continuous prayers for the nation.

Fourth, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, His Majesty the King has strengthened the security of the country. His Majesty has guarded our external boundaries and protected the country from all internal threats. In addition, His Majesty initiated the De-Suung program which has strengthened community vitality, patriotism, and volunteerism. The De-Suung volunteers are the first ones to reach any disaster affected area. They seem only eager to help and such positive enthusiasm would not have been possible without His Majesty’s vision and leadership.

Sixth, it is amazing to recount that His Majesty has personally met almost all the people in the country. Despite the busy schedule, His Majesty has given audience to people from all sectors at the Royal Palace. His Majesty invited and personally attended to people from the civil service, corporations, local governments, business community, farmers, musicians, movie industry, media, bloggers and many others. His Majesty listened to them, took stock of their problems, joked with them, advised them and the most important, inspired them to achieve greater heights. In addition to that, His Majesty has been visiting schools constantly. Ever since ascending the throne, His Majesty has graced every graduate orientation program, whether it is university graduates, vocational graduates or teachers, and has been personally giving away the graduation certificates no matter how large a group is. His Majesty has always reiterated that the youth are the future of the country and has always kept them in the loop with constant interaction and in the process advising and supporting them.

Seventh, His Majesty the King has taken Bhutan’s international relations to new heights. His Majesty has generously granted audiences to international visitors to Bhutan, and has visited many countries. Each visit has brought unparalleled goodwill and standing. While making new friends, His Majesty has taken the friendship with India to a new level. [Continue Reading…]

Entitlement urgency

Most of you sided with the government’s proposal to force early elections that I wrote about in Dissolving the government. Thank you for your comments. (For the record, PDP would benefit from early elections too. Unlike the three new parties, we already have a presence in all 20 dzongkhags. And that means that early elections would almost assure us of getting past the primary round.)

By law, the government can recommend the premature dissolution of the National Assembly. So I have no problem with the legality of the government’s proposal. It’s the principle that concerns me. If the government’s proposal to dissolve the National Assembly before the completion of its term is motivated by the national good, I’m all for it. If, on the other hand, the government is motivated by narrow political interests, I’m concerned.

I happen to believe that it’s the latter. I believe that the government is forcing early elections to prevent the new parties from establishing themselves and taking away votes from the ruling party. I believe that the government wants to sweep the elections with little or no opposition. I believe that the government is intent on clinging on to power.

But let’s move on.

In his inaugural address, the speaker also announced that the Parliamentary Entitlement Act would be introduced for amendment during this session.

Now here, we run into trouble, both by law and by principle.

Section 30 of the Parliamentary Entitlement Act states that, “A member of Parliament upon retirement on completion of his term of five years shall be entitled to such amount of gratuity as may be provided for under this Act.”  And according to Section 31, “… No gratuity shall be payable if a member retires before the completion of his term or if his services are terminated.”

If the National Assembly is dissolved before the completion of its term, we, MPs, will not have completed our term of five years, and, as such, will not be entitled to collect gratuity. Hence, the urgency to revise the Parliamentary Entitlement Act.

Amending the Parliamentary Entitlement Act just to benefit ourselves is questionable, on principle. But it is also questionable, again on principle, because the the National Assembly  rejected the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill which was passed by the National Council less than a year ago, in the last session of the Parliament.

And that’s where amending the Parliamentary Entitlement Act in this session could run into trouble with the law.

According to Section 193 of the National Assembly Act, “When a Bill has been passed or has been rejected during a session in any year, no Bill of the same substance may be introduced in the Assembly in that year except by leave of the Assembly.” The Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Act was rejected in the 9th Session, so we should not be allowed to discuss it in the 10th Session. Unless, that is, the Assembly considers this a serious enough matter to merit discussion even though a year has not passed since rejecting the Bill.

But even if the National Assembly goes ahead and amends the Parliamentary Entitlement Act in this session, the amended bill can only be considered by the National Council in the next session of the Parliament. That won’t be possible, as this session is the last session of this Parliament.

If any amendment to the Parliamentary Entitlement Act is to be passed in this session itself, the amendment bill must be introduced as an “urgent bill”. But for that, the question we will need to ask ourselves is this: does the entitlement of members of Parliament amount to a national urgency?

 

Extraordinary

Something extraordinary took place in the National Assembly last Tuesday.

The government introduced the Land Bill 2012 in the Assembly. But they did not move a motion to deliberate the Bill, as was expected. Nor did they move a motion to withdraw the Bill in accordance with legislative procedure. Instead, the government proposed that the next Parliament deliberate the Bill. And the National Assembly endorsed the government’s proposal.

So what’s out of the ordinary?

One, the government introduced a bill that they never intended to discuss. But why would the government go through the trouble of introducing a bill, if they did not want it to be deliberated? Probably because they felt that the National Council would not agree to the main amendments to the Land Act (that the Land Commission is revamped so its members are largely ministers, and that the cabinet is given powers to grant resettlement land). And probably because they felt that the Bill would not pass the joint sitting of the Parliament that would have to be convened because of differences between the two Houses.

Two, the government decided that the next Parliament should deliberate the Land Bill. The current government enjoys a huge majority. And they, most likely, will form the next government. But to plan lawmaking on that assumption is presumptuous. And it is preposterous. I’m not sure it happens anywhere else in the world.

Three, the National Assembly endorsed the government’s proposal, and resolved that the next Parliament would deliberate the Land Bill 2012. That, in spite of the fact that, according to Section 192 of the National Assembly Act: “All Bills before the Assembly or any committee on the last sitting day of a term of the Assembly or when the Assembly is dissolved shall lapse a the end of that day.”And, in spite of the fact that, according to Section 318 of the National Assembly Act: “If the consideration of a matter has not been concluded by the end of a session, it shall be continued in the following session, unless parliamentary elections have been held in the interim …”

It’s clear that discussions on bills cannot be carried over to the next Parliament. Yet that’s exactly what we resolved to do. Extraordinary.

 

 

Responsible government?

“As the Honourable Members are aware, our balance of payments with India has been worsening and the RMA has been facing a severe scarcity of Indian Rupees…” That was the finance minister’s opening line when he introduced the Tax Revision Bill in the National Assembly earlier today.

Yes, our balance of payments with India is in bad shape. And we are facing a severe shortage of Indian currency. In other words, we face a rupee crisis.

We have a crisis in our hands. And it’s no point playing the blame game. We must work together – we must think and act as one – to overcome the current crisis. And we must seize every economic opportunity, old and new, so that we emerge stronger from these difficult times.

Still, we must know who got us into this mess. And we must hold that person to account. That’s if we are serious about good governance. That’s if we are serious about getting out of this mess. Otherwise, with the same person in charge, the situation will just get worse.

So yesterday, during the National Assembly’s Question Hour, I asked the finance minister to tell us who should take responsibility for the rupee crisis. My question was straightforward:

The rupee crisis has caused a great deal of hardship to the people of Bhutan. More importantly, the crisis could compromise the economic sovereignty and security of our country. Will the Hon’ble Minister please explain who will take responsibility for the rupee crisis?

My question was straightforward. But the reply, which offered a detailed account of the causes and solutions of the rupee problem, was long and cumbersome. And the reply did not point out who, specifically, should be held accountable. Instead, the finance minister indicated that the Bhutanese people were both responsible and accountable for the current situation.

So let’s take a poll. Let’s see who we think should assume responsibility for the rupee crisis. Should it be the prime minister? Or should it be the finance minister? Or the RMA governor? Or should it be the people at large who should take responsibility for the economic mess?

Short and sweet

Assembly

The 8th Session of the Parliament concluded last Friday. It was easily our shortest session: we started on 4 January and ended, barely 12 working days later, on 20 January.

But the 8th session was historic. Her Majesty the Queen graced both the opening and closing ceremonies; and the members of Parliament got to offer the Oath of Allegiance to the Throne.

Plus, the joint sitting of the Parliament amended the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act and the Public Finance Act to align them in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution which had been rendered in the first constitutional case (Incidentally, the amendments had actually been proposed by the ruling party in the 6th session to give the government sweeping powers to introduce, increase and revise all taxes); the Parliament amended the Tobacco Control Act, responding to public outcry that the law was flawed and draconian; the National Council passed the first-ever private bill, the National Flag Bill, introduced by NC MP from Wangduephodrang; and the Speaker invoked special powers granted to him in the Legislative Procedure Rules to block the Parliament from voting on the Election (Amendment) Bill that mainly sought to permit state funding for political parties.

The 8th session was also quite productive. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, the National Assembly passed five bills (Consumer Protection Bill, Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Fund Bill, Education City Bill, Disaster Management Bill and University of Medical Sciences Bill) and ratified one international convention (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands); the National Council passed the University of Medical Sciences Bill, the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill, and ratified the Ramsar Convention; the joint sitting passed the Child Adoption Bill; and both houses endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of tshogpas, and questioned the government on a range of issues.

The 8th Session was short. But it was productive. A lesson, perhaps, that we should keep our future sessions as tight as possible.

In action or inaction?

The National Council and National Assembly will meet in a joint sitting tomorrow to discuss two important matters: the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, and state funding for political parties.

On the first matter, the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill, I’m delighted that the National Council has come through. Their recommendations aim to amend the draconian law to make it sensible and implementable. Naturally, I agree with their recommendations.

The discussions are not going to be easy. They’re going to be difficult. And complicated. If, at the joint sitting, we agree on the National Council’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will lifted in favour of taxation to reduce tobacco consumption in our country.

If we agree on the National Assembly’s proposed amendments, the current ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products will continue, but the penalties for breaking the law will be spread according to the quantity of tobacco involved.

But if we do not reach an agreement – that is, if neither proposal, nor one that the joint committee comes up with by tomorrow, is supported by at least two-thirds of the MPs present and voting – the amendment bill will be declared a “dead” bill. And we will be stuck with the current Tobacco Control Act.

Democracy in action. Or democracy inaction. We’ll see tomorrow.

Controling tobacco control

There's hope

The National Assembly has passed the Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill. 39 MPs voted for the amendment. One MP voted against it. And I abstained.

I believe that the proposed amendments do not adequately address the shortcomings of the Tobacco Control Act. That’s why I didn’t vote for the amendment. But I couldn’t vote against the amendment either, as doing so would amount to supporting the existing Tobacco Control Act. That would be unthinkable. And so I abstained.

Here’s the main difference between the Act and the amendment: while the existing Act condemns all offenders to prison, regardless of the quantity of tobacco involved, the amendment staggers the penalties for illegal possession of tobacco products based on the quantities.

So, for instance, if you’re caught with less than the “permissible quantity” of 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini you’ll be let off with a fine, which will be set by the tobacco control board. (Sorry, you won’t get to keep the contraband.)

If you’re caught with more than 200 sticks of cigarettes or 150g of khaini, but less than three times that “permissible quantity”, you’ll be slapped with a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor carries a prison sentence of one to three years. But the sentence is compoundable. So you could pay thrimthue of Nu 36,500 (at today’s wage rates) instead of serving time in jail. But be careful. If you are a civil servant, according to the civil service rules, you’ll lose your job and your benefits if you are found guilt of a misdemeanor.

And if you’re caught with three times the “permissible quantity” – that’s 600 cigarettes or 450g of khaini – you’ll receive a felony of the fourth degree. That means that you’ll be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years. A felony is not compoundable, so you will not be able to pay thrimthue. You will have to serve your jail sentence.

If the amendment sounds better than the current draconian Act, it is. Yet I didn’t I support it. Here’s why:

First, the amendment, like the existing Act, continues to allow people to legally import tobacco. Travelers, and those fortunate to live in bordering towns, can continue to legally import tobacco up to the “permissible quantity”. The way I see it, if we’re going to allow some people to purchase and consume tobacco legally, we should allow other people to do so too.

Second, the amendment, like the existing Act, does not recognize the simple fact that prohibition has never worked and will not work. That’s why a black market quickly (and effectively) established itself in spite of the draconian provisions of the existing Act. That’s why, in the year since the Tobacco Control Act came into effect, many people took their chances despite the stiff sentences in it. Of the many, 84 people got caught. And of them, 39 people have already been sent to jail.

If the amendment goes through, a minority of us will continue to be able to procure and consume tobacco legally. But for the most of us, if we consume tobacco, we will continue to be doing so illegally. That would make us criminals. And because the penalties have now been staggered, expect a bigger black market; expect many more criminals.

There’s no doubt that tobacco consumption goes against our beliefs and our traditions. And there’s absolutely no doubt that tobacco consumption is bad for our health. So we must reduce the amount of tobacco we consume, we must smoke less, and we must chew less khaini.

But I don’t see that happening through the Tobacco Control Act or, for that matter, the proposed amendments. Instead, we should allow the sale of tobacco products. But we should tax the products sufficiently to discourage its indiscriminate consumption. And we should limit the places where tobacco products are sold. We should also set and enforce a sensible minimum age to buy and consume tobacco. And we should make all public places completely tobacco free.

But most importantly, we should educate ourselves about the ills of tobacco consumption. And to educate ourselves meaningfully, all of us – teachers, religious heads, doctors, journalists, businesses, politicians, celebrities, parents, all of us – must work together, hand in hand, to convince ourselves, and then our children, that smoking and chewing khaini may not be worthwhile.

The Tobacco Control (Amendment) Bill is an urgent bill. So it will be discussed in the National Council in the next few days. I remain hopeful that we can correct the excesses of the Tobacco Control Act in a meaningful manner, one that is both logical and implementable.

Secondary tertiary policy

R.I.P?

About a year ago, on the 26th of July 2010, the prime minister launched the Tertiary Education Policy. The policy, one of this government’s most significant declarations so far, aims to enrich tertiary education in the country by streamlining how colleges and universities are planned, funded, registered, licensed and accredited.

The education minister described the 112-page policy as, “… a road map for the development and expansion of tertiary education in the country,” and boasted that it would contribute to making our country a “knowledge hub” and our people an “IT enabled knowledge society.”

In his introduction to the Tertiary Education Policy, the education minister boldly, and rightly, declares that:

Henceforth, this Tertiary Education Policy document, approved by the Lhengye Zhungtshog, will be the definitive instrument to guide all stakeholders, public and private, national and international, in developing and implementing programmes of study, material selection and pedagogical practices, assessment and certification, establishment of facilities and the integrity of all elements related to tertiary education in Bhutan.

So far, so good.

Now, the bad news.

It isn’t even a year old and the Tertiary Education Policy is already coming under attack. Actually, the policy is not being challenged. Instead, it’s being sidelined. It’s being ignored. It’s being snubbed. And that’s much worse than coming under any direct attack.

So who is the culprit that is overstepping the government’s inspired policies? Who is the perpetrator that is disregarding the government’s visionary policies? Who is the delinquent that is ignoring the government’s road map?

Believe it or not, that culprit, that perpetrator, that delinquent is the government itself.

The government has drafted a bill – one that the National Assembly is currently discussing – to establish the Bhutan Institute of Medical Sciences. There’s no doubt that the institute is important. It will benefit our country and our tremendously. So it must be established.

But in doing so, the government must follow its own policies. Otherwise why make policies? Why draw road maps?

The Bhutan Institute of Medical Sciences Bill has completely bypassed the processes outlined in Tertiary Education Policy. And it takes absolutely no notice of many of the policy’s important provisions.

So the Tertiary Education Policy’s credibility and authority are at stake. They’re being compromised by the government, no less.

And what are we doing nothing about it? Nothing.

Utter nonsense

The National Assembly’s live TV broadcasts are proving useful. One observer, for instance, a senior civil servant, followed the recent debate on the Anticorruption Bill, and noticed that I “didn’t utter a word” during the discussions. She spoke to Kuensel about it, which reported that:

A senior civil servant said the opposition leader was very emphatic about the severity of the tobacco Act’s penalty that he went to the extent of hiring a lawyer for the first Bhutanese to be convicted under the Act, pro bono.

“He didn’t utter a word when members were deliberating the corruption amendment bill,” she said.

Yes, the senior civil servant is correct when she says that I was “emphatic about the severity of the tobacco Act’s penalty”. Yes, I objected to the excessive penalties for seemingly minor infractions provided in the Act. But I, like most of Bhutan, completely agree with the aim of the Tobacco Control Act, which is to reduce – perhaps even eradicate – the consumption of tobacco in our country.

And yes, the senior civil servant is correct when she says that I “didn’t utter a word” when we deliberated the Anticorruption Bill. I did not speak – either for or against the Bill. But I, like all of Bhutan, completely agree with the aim of the Anticorruption Bill, which is to reduce – hopefully even eradicate – corruption in our country.

Why didn’t I speak? I didn’t because I couldn’t. And I couldn’t, because I was not given the floor on the two occasions that I put my hand up.

The speaker probably did not see me. But had he noticed my hand go up, and had he given me leave to address the Parliament, I too would have argued that the penalties proposed in the Anticorruption Bill were excessive, and I too would have supported the revised penalties.

The senior civil servant seems to insinuate that I should have opposed the revised penalties. I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t get to speak. But because this time, I actually agreed with the majority. Even if I were given floor, I would have just recorded my support for the revised penalties.

That, incidentally, is why I voted “No” for the Tobacco Control Bill, and “Yes” for the revised Anticorruption Bill.

I hope that the senior civil servant in question will now see some consistency in my actions. I do not, and I cannot, oppose for the sake of opposing.

But were the penalties that were originally proposed in the Anticorruption Bill excessive? You decide…

According to the original draft, the penalty for all bribery and embezzlement offences was:

A person guilty of an offence under this section shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not less than five years to not more than nine years.

In other words, almost all offenses were originally categorized as third degree felonies, regardless of the magnitude of offense. So if a person is caught giving a Nu 100 bribe, that person is liable to spend five years in jail. But if a person is caught offering a Nu 13 lakh bribe – or for that matter a Nu 13 million bribe – that person is liable to spend a maximum of nine years in prison.

The penalties did not differentiate between the severity of the offenses. And while the penalties for small offenses were excessive, those for very big offenses were exceptionally lenient.

So the Parliament, in a joint sitting, revised the penalties as:

An offence under this section shall be a misdemeanor or value based sentencing, whichever is higher, subject to maximum of a felony of Second degree if the value of the amounts involved in the crime exceed the total amount of minimum wage at the time of the crime for the period of 35 years or more.

Under the revised penalties, a person caught offering a Nu 100 bribe could be sent to jail for 1 to 3 years. But, on the other hand, a person caught offering a Nu 13 lakh bribe could now be sent to jail for 9 to 15 years, not just between 5 to 9 years as was originally proposed.

The new penalty structure is more reasonable. And it’s more logical. As such, it should be a much more effective weapon in our war against corruption.

That’s why I did not oppose it. And that’s why I voted for it.

Asking questions

About a month ago, I posted the question on Facebook that asked: “What should the National Assembly discuss during the coming session?”

A whopping 1366 of my “friends” voted on the 73 answers they generated themselves. This morning the situation looked like this:

The top five answers, as you can see, are the Tobacco Act, corruption, disaster management, jobs and sports.

But there are many other suggestions. They include citizenship, social security national security, agriculture, irrigation; health, music, alcohol, FDI, BCSR, PCS and DSA.

One enlightened friend suggested that we discuss “How to liberate people from suffering”. And another suggested that the National Assembly “Discuss on raising their pay again”!

Thank you for your suggestions. We – Dasho Damcho and I – will see how we can incorporate them in our discussions in the Parliament and the National Assembly. We’ll do our best.

But I’d like to invite some more suggestions, this time for the National Assembly’s “question hour”. If you have questions that you’d like us to ask the government, please post them here.

Obviously, I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to attend to all your questions. But I will guarantee that we’ll do our best.

Thanks in advance.