On ECB’s side

Elections are the single most important part of a democracy. They allow people to participate in the democratic process by directly choosing who they want as their representatives in the parliament. And they provide political legitimacy to elected representatives and to democratic governments. That’s why it’s important to allow as many people as possible to take part in elections.

So, naturally, I’m happy to hear that the Election Commission has decided to allow Bhutanese citizens living in America to use postal ballots in the next elections. They were not allowed to do so in the past, and, as such, most of them could not exercise their right to vote. I applaud the ECB’s decision, and am fully committed to supporting any initiative that makes it easier for even more of our people to take part in the democratic process.

But I am alarmed at the ECB’s justification for their decision. The chief election commissioner has gone on record to state that the ECB’s decision was “the result of the commitment prime minister made during one of his visits as the head of the government.”

The prime minister cannot alter the electoral system; only parliament can.

What ECB can do, and must do, as long as it is within the framework of our electoral laws, is improve the system to encourage and allow more of our people to exercise the their franchise. But what ECB does, they must do because they feel it is in the best interest of democracy, and not as a “result of the commitment” that a politician may have made.

Otherwise, ECB may be seen to be taking sides. And that won’t be good for democracy.

Flirting with danger

Clear and present danger

Last month, on 17 February, at about 8:45 PM, a policeman was shot and severely injured when gunmen opened fire on the Rinchending check post. Moments later a bomb blast ripped through the check post.

The United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, an armed outfit based in Nepal, has claimed responsibility for the attack. URFB is just one of the many Nepal-based organizations committed to spreading terror in Bhutan.

Last week, on 1 March, less than two weeks after the attack on the Rinchending check post, the prime minister announced that he is willing to repatriate bona fide Bhutanese living in the Nepal camps who fulfill required conditions.

I’m shocked. Our country was attacked barely two weeks ago. So we expect the government to be on a war footing – we expect them to hunt down the perpetrators and to hold them to full account; we expect them to demand answers from Nepal.

But what does the prime minister do? He flirts with the idea of repatriating the very people who are committed to attack and to spread terror in our country.

I’m shocked. And I told the media as much. Here’s my full interview with Bhutan Today:

Bhutan Today Prime Minister has said that the government might bring back (repatriate) some of the people living in camps in eastern Nepal if they fulfill the criteria agreed upon earlier by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal. What is your overall view on the issue?

Opposition Leader I don’t understand how the prime minister can even consider repatriation.

In 2001 the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments began a joint verification of the people in Khudunabari camp. That verification process came to an abrupt end after the Bhutanese team was attacked and beaten up violently in 2003, just before they completed the joint verification of the people in Khununabari camp. The joint verification process did not resume after that unfortunate incident. Therefore, I don’t see on what basis, on what criteria, the prime minister could even consider repatriating people.

Does PDP support repatriation?

No. Repatriation is no longer possible. Repatriation of some people was a genuine possibility 10 years ago, but even then, only if the verification process was honest and complete. That didn’t happen. Now it’s more than 20 years since people settled in the camps, plus most of them have opted to resettle in third countries. If repatriation was not possible 10 years ago, in spite of the best efforts of the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, I don’t see how the prime minister can even talk about it as a possibility now.

At a time when most of the camp people have accepted resettlement in third countries, some observers feel that the prime minister should not have spoken that the government “will bring” some of the people back as the PM’s speech might disturb the resettlement programme in third countries. Please comment.

I fail to see the logic in the prime minister’s statement. How can he commit to repatriate people if we now don’t have any basis of even identifying whether a person is a genuine Bhutanese or not.

What is the best solution according to you?

I am grateful for, and support resettlement in third countries, especially since the people in the camps themselves prefer to settle in third countries. In addition, I strongly support honest dialogue between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to consider workable ways of bringing closure to this difficult problem.

Photo credit: BBS

Rupee questions

Powerful

Last Tuesday, during question hour, I asked the Prime Minister to explain the rupee crisis: what has caused it, what the government is doing about it, and when we can expect it to be over. I directed the question to the PM as I had assumed that our head of government would be the most concerned and, as such, would be happy to reassure the nation that he has contained the crisis, and that the rupee deficit will not spiral out of control.

Too bad then, that the PM made the Finance Minister answer on his behalf. Too bad also, that I had to remind the Finance Minister that his response did not satisfactorily answer my question. And too bad, that several MPs felt compelled to snap at me that it’s easy to raise questions, but difficult to come up with solutions.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is the government’s responsibility is to identify and address problems of national significance, and notwithstanding the fact that ruling party MPs should show more confidence in their government, I offered my services to help address the growing rupee crisis.

The government has not contacted me. Nor have they given me a written response to my question. I had asked an “unstarred” question. So they are required to provide a written answer.

Now some of you, our readers, have asked for my views. Naturally, I’ll be very happy to share them, especially since we must generate more discussion on this important issue. But first, by way on introduction, here’s what I wrote about the rupee deficit in February 2009. Here’s what I wrote six months later. And here’s what I wrote last month.

I’ll post my thoughts sometime next week, after we conclude this session of the Parliament. In the meantime, please share your views here: what, in your opinion, has caused the rupee crisis, and how, do you think, we can get ourselves out of this predicament?

Home is where the hurt is

Waiting to be seen

The prime minister was in New York when the September 18 earthquake struck. He’d left Bhutan on 12th September to address the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly on 23rd September.

Most heads of government would have rushed home if, during their absence, an earthquake that hit their country caused widespread destruction. Our PM did not. He chose to stay on in New York. And from there, instead of returning home, he chose to go straight to Tokyo to address the 24th Congress of Architecture on 28th September, and then to Kolkata to meet the chief minister and to attend a Buddhist society meeting.

The PM eventually came home on 2nd October, two weeks after the September 18 earthquake.

It’s been over a month since he returned home, but, as far as I know, the PM still has not visited any of the areas that were hit by the earthquake.

And last Sunday, the PM left the country again, this time to attend the SAARC summit that will take place in The Maldives on 10th and 11th November.

Meanwhile, our people are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their homes. The September 18 earthquake damaged 9000 structures and cost Nu 888 million.

DHI and us

Kuensel quietly carried a corrigendum today clarifying that DHI had not given iPhones to the PM and the cabinet. And in it, the editor helpfully points out that: “Officials from the PM’s office, meanwhile, said the reference was to an occasion that happened in 2009.”

The corrigendum is helpful. But it is quiet. Too quiet.

Kuensel must now ask the PM – not “officials from the PM’s office”, but the PM himself – why he did not clarify that he was talking about something that took place almost three years ago, and why he misinformed the public about DHI giving iPhones.

The PM could have easily told the truth and put the iPhone rumour to rest. Instead, he chose to sensationalize it, and, in doing so, planted serious doubts about DHI’s credibility. For that, he owes the public an explanation. And he owes DHI an apology.

This is not the first time the government has raised questions about DHI. On several occasions already, MPs from the ruling party have expressed concern and objected to how DHI is run and how their employees are paid. The government complained about and succeeded in revising the Royal Charter. And during the very press conference which featured the iPhone controversy recently, the finance minister protested that “the government has little say in the functioning of DHI since it is governed by the Royal Charter which gives absolute power to its board directors.”

Added to that, unknown agents continue to fuel stories about DHI being run as a “parallel government”.

DHI was established in 2007, the year before our first elections, as the custodian of our nation’s wealth. The idea was to separate the investment and executive arms of the Royal Government. That idea is still relevant: politicians, now and in the future, cannot be trusted to manage and expand the commercial investments of the Royal Government in a manner that is prudent and sustainable. And that’s why DHI was established as an autonomous organization incorporated under the Companies Act.

But that does not mean that DHI can do anything it pleases or that the government has absolutely no control over the organization. DHI’s performance targets, including how much money they must earn for the exchequer, are fixed together with the government. And, more importantly, most of the members of DHI’s Blue Ribbon Panel and the board of directors are appointed, directly or indirectly, by the government. In addition, their operations are audited by the Royal Audit Authority to ensure prudent and effective use of the people’s resources.

These checks and balances are important. And we must use them to address concerns about salaries, perks, recruitment or any other issue that we may have. But otherwise, we should not undermine the functioning of DHI. And we must not make unmerited attacks on its image. The company is simply too important for the current and future wellbeing of our people.

How important is DHI? The company is already worth more than Nu 45 billion. That works out to about 60% of our national GDP. And last year, the company contributed Nu 4.3 billion in taxes and dividends to the government. That works out to more than a quarter of the government’s domestic revenue.

But DHI is barely four years old. So we can expect them to make some mistakes. When they do, we need to work together, constructively and within the legal framework, to correct them. Otherwise, we should support them – our wealth, and that of our future generations, is at stake.

We should (not) be proud

I applaud how the prime minister has responded to allegations that he, and other powerful people, were allotted land illegally in Gyelpozhing. He has written to ACC to investigate the allegations, and he has promised that offenders, especially those holding current political authority, will be made fully accountable.

The fact that the head of the government demands to be investigated is a very good precedent. We should be proud.

But I also condemn how the prime minister has responded to the same allegations. He has questioned the motive for and timing of the media’s reporting on the so-called “Gyelpozhing land grab case”. On the one hand, he asked if the allegations had been made “just as people are talking about next round of elections”. And on the other hand, he asked if the allegations had been aimed at “discrediting the government” just as the all-important round table meetings were in session.

That this response smacks of fear mongering, a tactic used by unscrupulous politicians throughout the world, is not a good sign. We should not be proud.

CDG giveaway

Looking for power

During a recent meeting with gups, the PM reminded the local government leaders that, “The constituency development grant of Nu 2M … was not fully used in most gewogs”. And he advised them to put the CDG “… to use to benefit the poor and contribute towards alleviating poverty.”

The PM makes it sound like local governments have full authority over CDG. They don’t.

Firstly, local governments cannot decide how to use the CDG. They can only submit project proposals. The proposals must ultimately be approved by their MPs. And the ministry of finance can release CDG funds to gewogs only at the instructions of MPs.

And secondly, CDGs are earmarked for National Assembly constituencies. Each constituency is made up of a group of gewogs. Most gups have no idea how the CDG will divided, and how much their respective gewogs will receive. That decision seems to lie exclusively with the MP.

The government should be concerned that most gewogs have not used CDG fully. If that concern is genuine, the government should hand over full and complete authority of the CDG to local governments. There’s really no need to involve MPs.

Otherwise, and in spite of what the PM has said, most gewogs will still not be able to make full use of the CDG. In which case, something else should concern the PM: that his MPs may purposely delay use of CDG till 2012 in order to extract maximum political mileage. The next general elections, after all, is in 2013.

Photo credit: Kuensel

State of the government

The prime minister took more than three-and-a-half hours to deliver his State of the Nation address to the Parliament today. He used that time to describe, in great detail, and to great effect, the achievements of his government.

The PM is correct in highlighting the government’s performance in his annual report to Parliament. We expect him to use the occasion to showcase his government’s successes. And showcase he did.

But we expect the PM to report on the status of some of the other institutions that are important to our nation as well. After all, he’s supposed to the reporting on the State of the Nation.

The PM gave a detailed account of the government, but he made little or no mention of His Majesty the King’s achievements, national security, GDP, the judiciary, the monk body and local government. So today’s report was more State of the Government, than State of the Nation.

He also did not present the annual plans and priorities of the government as required by the Constitution, Article 10 Section 10 of which states that:

The Prime Minister shall present an Annual Report on the state of the nation, including legislative plans and the annual plans and priorities of the Government, to the Druk Gyalpo and to a joint sitting of Parliament.

Instead, he spent a considerable amount of time arguing for state funding for political parties, in spite of the fact that the National Council had only recently voted against state funding.

Taking charge

Here are two reasons why we should welcome news that the prime minister has formally taken charge of the foreign affairs portfolio:

One, the foreign ministry, an important portfolio, has been without a minister for about a year.

And two, this is a good opportunity for the government to reduce the size of the administration.

Eleven ministers (a prime minister and 10 cabinet ministers) for a country of 700,000 people and a GDP of barely US$ 1.3 billion is excessive by any measure. Switzerland, for instance, has 7 ministers for 8 million people and a GDP of US$ 500 billion.

Our government is bloated. And we need to trim it. We need to make it small, compact and efficient.

A good way to start is by reducing the number of cabinet ministers. And a good way to start that is for the prime minister to take charge of at least one ministry.

What’s in a title?

Our last quiz asked a straightforward question: What does HPM stand for?

Regardless of how you answered, it’s obvious that you knew the answer. But “dungsamkota” was the first person to register it. He answered: “HPM = Honorable Prime Minister.” And for good measure he added: “HOL = Honorable Opposition Leader”. Well done!

Your answers were interesting … and thought provoking. Thank you for taking part.

But one of you, “Dodo”, who answered “HPM: Hon’ble Prime Minister. Can this be used formally?” seems to have read my mind! Is HPM a formal title?

In Bhutan, we respect our elders and defer to authority. So it’s quite common to address our leaders with elaborate honorifics to indicate that we have a good understanding of their social and official rank. For instance, we regularly hear our ministers being called: Mijay Lyonpo Rimpoche.

But these respectful salutations are not formal titles. And most newspapers generally don’t use them. To be sure, journalists have sometimes referred to our head of government as the “hon’ble prime minister” but rarely so. And never in its abbreviated from – “HPM” – which would seem to make the title formal.

So I was surprised to see a press release from the cabinet refer to the PM as “Hon’ble Prime Minister” and “HPM”. If the cabinet uses these titles, they must be official, no? No!

Incidentally, that same press release also tells us who Bhutan’s first lady is.