By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
It is no surprise that Bhutan has been named as the most peaceful and stable country in the South Asian region by one of the NGOs. It is no surprise either that Nepal was placed next to Bhutan in that index.
One would have expected Maldives to come next after Bhutan with its homogenous population, small size and its fledgling democracy. But it proved to be otherwise when its lawfully elected president was thrown out by deceit.
Bhutan is now getting ready for the second general elections due in 2013. It is to the credit of the present Prime Minister Thinley that despite an overwhelming majority (45 to 2) he had acted with great responsibility ( I dread to think of such a situation in India!) He went out of the way to take great pains to explain his policies in the parliament in detail and was even seen to be willing to take responsibility when things went wrong. ( Tobacco act)
The opposition PDP with just two in number was quite vociferous and objective though on one or two occasions their questions were bordering on the triviality. ( Tshering Tobgay’s question in the recent assembly session why a consignment of asparagus from Bhutan was stopped at Kolkotha!)
Credit should also go to Gyalpo 4 and 5 who have unobtrusively ensured the smooth running of the government.
There is no doubt that democracy has taken firm and deep roots in the country.
It is too early to say whether this is the result of the current philosophy of Gross National Happiness that is being vigorously pursued at all levels in the country. But the philosophy is catching up. The UN has declared March 20 as the International Day of Happiness and Bhutan has claimed that it is due not a little due to its diplomatic campaign.
In the coming elections, the youth would probably play a more decisive role. Of the declared total population of 720,680 more than half are below 25 and therefore a large number of voters would also be youths.
Besides the two parties the ruling DPT and PDP, four more parties are getting ready to contest the elections, though they are yet to register themselves with the Election Commission. ( The four are Bhutan Kaen-Ngyam Party, Druk Chirwang Tshogpa, Druk Meser Tshogpa and Druk Nyamrup Tsohgpa).
The ruling party DPT has begun the exercise of choosing the candidates. As a first step, they are evaluating the performance of the current parliamentarians. It is hoped that they select more youths and women as candidates in the coming elections. The opposition PDP has a new Secretary and hopes to do better. Nothing can be said of the other parties as of now.
Chinese Intrusions and the Border Talks:
One could detect concerns at all levels and even helplessness on the continuing Chinese intrusions on the border. The Minister in charge of the talks had to admit in the parliament in the beginning of this year that they were “no closer to finalising the international border than they were in 1984.” In 2004 and 2009 the Chines built roads in Bhutan territory but stopped for a while. But from 2009 the road construction beyond Zuri is being continued.
In the year 2008-2009, the Chinese intruded deep into Bhutan no less than 17 times. One of the MPs suggested that the PM should visit China and discuss with the authorities. One of the blogs suggested that the PM should visit India first and request India to let them (Bhutan) freely negotiate the northern border. Is India standing in the way of a “just settlement?” I don’t think so. But one should note that the Chinese frequently change the goal posts. They talk of a package deal and would subsequently not even admit later that they made such a suggestion! The Chinese continue to insist on their claims in the Doklam, Charithong, Sinchuimpa and Dramana without any change.
It is good that Prime Minister Jigme Thinley took the opportunity to discuss the border issue with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently on 21 June on the side lines of Rio+20 Conference. Jiabao is said to have expressed China’s willingness to establish formal diplomatic ties between the two countries on the five principles of peaceful coexistence. He is said to have added that “China is willing to complete border talks at the earliest” and strengthen exchanges at various levels. Thinley on his return is said to have described the meeting as of “historic significance.” Strengthening means “big presence” in Bhutan!
In one sense, PM’s description of the meeting is true as it marks the first meeting between two heads of government. It looks that a good beginning has been made though I am not sure whether the border problem could be solved to their mutual satisfaction in the near future. The bullying tactics of the Chinese will also continue.
The Refugee Question:
The ghost of the refugee problem continues to haunt the administration though the problem is getting solved by other countries and it is not clear why Bhutan continues to talk about joint verification and other issues when more than half of the refugee population in the camps have already left for settlement in third countries.
On 6th of March, PM Thinley told the media persons in Thimpu that his government was positive about solving the long running problems of ‘people in camps’ that has persisted for two decades. He also said that his government is serious to find a solution to the problem of the people . . . and expressed his concern over the problem of the people in the camps that continue to threaten peace and stability of the country.
I am not surprised at the statement but to think that others will swallow what he said when the facts are otherwise troubles me.
As of May 31, a total of 66351 refugees has been resettled in third countries and another 37,077 have indicated their willingness to get resettled. This will leave around 10,000 refugees who are bound to get scattered in the region and they are the hardcore and Bhutan should certainly be worried about them.
The breakup is as follows:
New Zealand. 657
United Kingdom. 226
The UK has indicated its willingness to take more refugees. The Dy. Commissioner of UNHCR in his visit to the camp at Beldangi camp on 15 June said that the US has not set any cap on the number to be taken and if the refugees are still willing, it is still possible to resettle almost all the refugees.
The strength of the refugees in the camps is said to be as follows :
Beldangi I. 11,083
Beldangi II 16,167
Beldangi Extn. 9045.
Some of those resettled refugees ( who call themselves the fortunate of the unfortunate) have joined for higher studies and have also got into social net working. They have started churning out articles criticising the situation in Bhutan. It is a question of time before they organise themselves into a forum to be more effective as the Tamils have started doing with their GTF. ( Global Tamil Forum)
The Rupee Crunch:
The rupee crunch that is troubling the country in the last few months is nothing new. There has always been a shortage when 60 to 70 percent of requirements of Bhutan come from India. But the problem had reached critical proportions in the last six months and the government in order to meet its rupee requirements had to borrow at a high rate of interest of 10.5 percent from the Punjab National Bank. The State Bank of India had also given a line of credit 10 billion at a high rate of interest of ten percent. The GOI’s line of credit was a reasonable 5 percent and only recently after much delay was the credit increased to 10 billion.
The press had reported that the Government of India wanted an increased rate of interest of 6.5 percent and fortunately good sense prevailed in the end and the rate of 5 percent was restored. It was wrong to have demanded more from a friendly country like Bhutan particularly when it is in distress. As an Indian I am a little embarrassed!
The rupee shortage has affected all walks of life in Bhutan- from the hydro electric projects, to construction of building, business, agriculture, road construction and even commodities meant for day to day use.
Many reasons are attributed for the rupee shortage. But the main reason given by the Prime minister was the penchant for profligate consumption by the people and unrestricted loans given by the private banks. There were allegations that the rupee shortage was mainly due to construction of new hydro electric projects and repatriation of rupees by the Indian labour who are brought for construction of roads. These could have contributed but are not the main reason.
With additional line of credit coming from India the situation has eased a little but there are many fundamental problems that need to be tackled.
A study made in the beginning of this year said that Bhutan must look beyond Indian markets to strengthen bilateral relations with other neighbours in the region and suggested specifically
1. To explore more exportable products to Bangladesh.
2. To encourage private sector to enter into collaboration in commercial activities in Thailand.
3. To finalise bilateral trade agreement with Nepal.
These will take a long time and not easily achievable too.
Overall, Bhutan has a favourable balance of payments. The imbalance with India that is growing is the one that needs to be addressed. Steps taken by the government have already yielded results and may not reach crisis proportions if the government is conscious of the problem.