Bhutan’s insensitive MPs

There is no doubt that Bhutan is facing an unprecedented economic crisis caused by the rupee shortage and credit crunch resulting in a shrinking economy and private sector and the strong austerity measures in place.

The unemployment rate is also on the increase as companies are either not hiring or letting go of staff. People cannot build homes, buy cars or even spend some extra money in such unpredictable times. Many of the companies, big and small, are on the verge of bankruptcy. To make matters worse, the inflation has been sky high for a while as prices of even the essential commodities have been going up.

The government, meanwhile, had limited revenue and increasing expenditure on the account of its programs and promises.

In the middle of all this, we had expected our newly elected representatives and leaders to not only show leadership to get us out of this situation, but also to empathize with the people who are suffering.

However, the past two weeks of the Parliament discussions and decisions have been anything but the above, and instead, a shocked nation witnessed MPs making a mad dash to get as a big a portion of the pie as possible.

The first instance was on the pay hike proposal of the government of Nu 1.7 bn which was questionable, given Bhutan’s precarious economic situation. However, the cat was let loose among the pigeons when the highest hikes were reserved for ministers and other senior post holders. Though the total amount might seem miniscule, however, what mattered was the principle and also the symbolism attached to such a move.

Most people largely saw this as self-serving and insensitive, especially in the context of the nation’s shaky economic situation.

But this was not enough, as the MPs pressed on for more share of the pie. In addition to the 21 percent pay hike, the MPs increased their pay by another Nu 10,000 per month and gave themselves several entitlements.

If this was not enough the government introduced some very tough taxation measures that charged anywhere from 100 percent to 180 percent for importing vehicles and a five percent tax on fuel.

This would mean that effectively most Bhutanese would not be able to buy cars and even if some did it would be after paying through their noses.

The MPs, after bluntly amending the Entitlement Bill, gave themselves the creamy layers on the pie, Nu 1 mn to buy cars, exemption from vehicle import taxes, and they gave themselves an additional monthly allowance of Nu 8,000 as fuel allowance and Nu 7,000 as vehicle maintenance allowance.

It has come to notice that the Parliamentarians in the previous Parliament and current Parliament are obsessed about thobthangs and thoblams (perks and allowances). Nobody is disputing that MPs or ministers deserve a reasonable pay and some allowances, but it should be done keeping in mind the national economic situation.

The above should not only be seen in its short-term context of predictable and understandable popular public outrage but should force us to ask deep and disturbing questions about Bhutanese democracy and the politicians who lead it.

At a time when the people are smarting under tough economic times made worse by ill-thought out high taxes it is a huge disappointment to see their elected representatives shaking of their responsibility and basically doing what they want.

The behavior of our MPs inside and outside increasingly betrays a misplaced feudal mindset of having the first right over the states resources and an increasing sense of superiority over common folk. This is also apparent how journalists and others are kept segregated from politicians during their long breaks and also how journalists are routinely insulted in front of politicians by their junior staff.

The question to ask now is if the Bhutanese democracy is inadvertently creating a new semi-feudal class of seemingly modern and educated politicians, but hankering after semi-feudal power and privilege.

The question some have started asking is if this set of people can be entrusted with taking care of the nation and framing laws that everybody has to follow if they themselves set such examples.

The above actions also show that there is serious disconnect between politicians and voters in Bhutan with the former being almost oblivious to the problems of the latter.

The Parliament, at the moment, still holds legal power but as of now barring His Majesty the King it has lost a great deal of moral authority among the people.

The last two weeks of the Parliament has been every damaging for the national spirit when, in fact, it is the job of our politicians to strengthen it. The actions of our MPs have resulted for the moment in a now demoralized civil service and thoroughly disappointed and disgusted citizens.

For quite a while, the new government has been lacking in political will from bringing in errant senior bureaucrats in line to fulfilling its promises. It now appears that there is plenty of political will when it comes to benefitting themselves. The Opposition also cannot sit pretty as it has also failed in doing its duty of bringing about check and balance. They have instead taken a part of the booty and accepted the amendments.

For a country still hugely dependent on foreign aid, we seem to have the best paid MPs and ministers in the region. When His Majesty the Fourth King first talked of introducing democracy in Bhutan, there was a lot of opposition from the people fearing a powerful and corrupt class of politicians that would look after themselves first and last. Given the experience from 2008 till date, the people’s fear doesn’t seem to be too unjustified now. Though democracy is still the best form of government, ours MPs and leaders from 2008 till date have neither done credit to themselves or to Bhutanese democracy.

So what options do the people have apart from exercising their franchise once every five years? A healthy democracy is all about the active participation of citizens. The ordinary citizens should not be afraid to express their opinion and people should even write in or contact their MPs to rethink such moves.

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