Chorten Kora in Trashi Yangtse (Photo Courtesy : Bhutan Acorn Tours and Travel)

Development and Identity: Understanding the East

While the General Election results are 30 seats for Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and 17 seats for Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP), the fact that BTP won 16 of its 17 seats in the eastern region has led to some discussions and also questions.

It is clear that the eastern region overwhelmingly supported BTP as they assumed they would get a Prime Minister from the east.

The BTP’s Thrimshing MP elect Damcho Tenzin said, “Let’s be honest. The people of the east after 15 years wanted a Prime Minister from the east who knows the ground realities.” 

There are two aspects to the support of the east behind BTP and one is to do with a sense of being left behind when it comes to economic development and another is to do with eastern identity and pride in having a Prime Minister from there.

Development

The BTP president Dasho Pema Chewang said, “Three parties have formed the government and all parties have done their share of the work, but how it did or did not reach I cannot say as if I say this it creates the impression that past governments did not do anything. But the reality is known by everyone in terms of the developmental activities in the east and why there is more migration from the east to the west. I don’t think I have to be so explicit. The migration of the east to west itself is a big indicator and land value in the west is so high.”

The BTP’s Damcho Tenzin said there has been regional bias in development as apart from the migration he said in the east he has travelled on the remote feeder and farm roads and they are horrible and people do not want to return to their villages leading to Gungtong.

“There are not much economic activities in the east except for some small petty contract,” he added.

He said not only migration from east to west, but the majority of those Bhutanese leaving for Australia and abroad in general are more from the east. He said the other youths here are doing petty work at sites in Paro and Punakha.

He said the airport and most of the hydro projects are located in the west and most industries are under Chukha Dzongkhag.

Choden from Mongar who resides in Thimphu and just got back from her village says, “The East is left behind. People there do not have exposure and in remote areas they cannot even speak Dzongkha. The quality of roads, water, schools etc. are all lagging behind, the officials there are not very capable and people are so innocent that they cannot ask for their rights.”

She said the east is emptying out and she really feels the difference in development when she goes back to her home.

She said that youth there are also backward and they think it is okay to drop out of school and do farm work.

“In the east, the kids can write English well but it is difficult for them to speak as the quality of education there is not good,” she added.

Former Education Minister Norbu Wangchuk said when one looks at the budgets and plan allocations in the 11th plan or other five year plans the east always got the majority of the share.

A former civil servant involved in drafting Five Year Plans said that it is not true that the east is ignored when it comes to development as even well before democracy the five years plans always took care to ensure that all Gewogs had similar facilities and resources.

He said successive governments have always ensured that a common minimum program of roads, water, electricity, mobile connectivity, health and education is ensured in all regions.

He said that resources, especially to the local governments in all plan periods were allocated based on a formula of population size, poverty, unemployment, gewog size etc. which meant that eastern Dzongkhags got more given their size.

The former civil servant said the problem in the east is not the lack of basic facilities which are given equally across the country, but the issue is the lack of economic activities there and that has to do with the unfriendly terrain not suited for mass agriculture or industries and its remoteness which keeps it far away from markets. He said it also does not have enough tourism products and offerings.

BTP’s Damcho Tenzin asked if the budget is being allocated equally then where is the proof on the ground.

Norbu Wangchuk said that most of the people from the east migrate to either Thimphu Thromde or Paro and start comparing the two with their remote villages which he said is not a fair comparison.

He said Thimphu is a capital city and so a fair comparison would be comparing the villages even at a 10 minutes’ drive outside Thimphu and then people will start seeing the similarities.

A senior PDP party member that there are many remote places in Chukha, Haa, Thimphu, Wangdue, Punakha etc. where it is still very remote and backward.

The former Minister for Works and Human Settlement Dasho Dorji Choden said, “This is totally misleading as our country’s development philosophy is one of the best in the world. The Monarchy took development to every nook and corner of the country. Everywhere in the world where there is a capital the periphery is more developed and farther away it is the less developed it is. Every government tried to make a difference whether it is west, east or south. There were even special projects to target the poorest.”

A senior official in the government who also handles planning said that there is just one standard for roads, schools, BHUs etc. across the country and the plans ensure that all places get their share.

The official said the 13th plan and other plans are based on certain structures like 205 Gewogs and 20 Dzongkhags and all of these get the minimum common program of water, roads etc.

The former civil servant said in his time they wanted to make Kanglung an educational hub but they discovered that the area suffered from water shortages.

“The east overall is more water stressed then even the west,” he added.

The former Agriculture Minister Yeshey Dorji said the eastern areas near the Indian border like Nganglam and Samdrupjongkhar are doing well as they have a ready market and access whereas interior Dzongkhags like Lhuentse have a tougher time to sell their produce.”

Norbu Wangchuk said, “Even when projects were techno economically not very feasible or lower down in the list the government still pushed for it. He said the 600 MW Kholongchu was much lower in the project list but it was pushed solely because it was in the east.”

He said in 2014 the major northern east west highway project was started which reduced travel time from 2 days to 12 hours between the east and west and more central schools were built in the east apart from a lot of other infrastructure works.

Choden from mongar said there is a notion in the east that more developmental works was done during the first government’s time which is why they were so loyal to it for so long.

However, the context is that the pre-democracy 9th Five-Year Plan (FYP) at Nu 89 billion (bn) had almost doubled too Nu 149 bn in the 10th FYP drawn up by local governments and government agencies much before the elections or political parties came into play in 2008.

The plan was to build massive rural infrastructure which would be all over, but more so in the east and also targeted poverty reduction programs which was all for all districts, but more so in the east given higher poverty levels there.

This meant that whichever party came to power in 2008 the east was anyhow set to get a major infrastructure lift along with other parts of the country.

Since DPT came to power all the credit for the dramatic turnaround in the east caused by a 10th FYP prepared in advance went to the DPT.

Identity

While for some the large number of votes for BTP from the east was to do with development for others it was all about eastern identity and pride.

BTP’s Damcho Tenzin asked if there can be a Prime Minister from the west three times then why can there not be a PM from the east even once.

He said the BTP President Dasho Pema Chewang was seen as an able and winning candidate having served as Zimpon Wom and then as the Land Secretary. He said the people in the east voted very intelligently and not just like that.

He said while BTP is a national party sometimes it is good to have change of central leadership. He said it is good to accept alternatives in a democracy and this is the only way democracy will progress.

Choden from mongar said that while eastern voters of BTP are being accused of regionalism then what about the fact that western and southern voters are not giving a chance to a leader from the east.

BTP supporters also make the same assertion accusing the other regions of reverse regionalism.

Here a senior PDP leader said that the west, south and central regions voted looking at their own concerns and also concerns for the country while BTP voters seem to have been swayed more by the leader being from the east.

Norbu Wangchuk said the BTP’s narrative of this being the moment to elect an eastern Prime Minister after having missed the chance three times worked very effectively.

However, he said that this same narrative backfired in the south and west who felt jittery with such a claim and so neutralized it.

Norbu Wangchuk said the aim to have a Sharchop Lyonchhen is a legitimate aspiration given the population but he said they messed up in the campaign by projecting it in such a way that it excluded the south and west and so did not work.

Former Minister Dorji Choden said that actually people all identify as Bhutanese and such divisions only come out during the elections and they do leave an impact.

A Former Editor of a Newspaper said, that the east has a come a long way economically compared to the past and so, it has more to do with pride of getting someone from the east elected as a Prime Minister.

He said now with the election loss people in the east are saying it is a double loss with inability to form the government and also the loss of ministerial candidates from the PDP.

 The former Editor said that the development argument does not hold water as from the past government’s time right form under the Kings there has been equal development and equal fund allocation and the only drawback for the east is its distance from the capital.

He said the grinding poverty of the past is not there.

He said, “Even people with high posts from the east buy land and settle here and get their family here and do not go back and in fact the eastern people have helped developed Thimphu and Paro instead and so only the poor people are left back.”

The former Editor said that an economic issue is easier to solve than a regional divide based on identity.

He said when he went back to his village in the east he could get there in 12 hours compared to 2 days before due to the east-west highway and farmers can bring their produce to Thimphu in one day. He said he saw boleros parked outside homes etc.

He said political parties need to strategize to bring people together and here PDP can do a lot.

The former Editor said all credit to the current Je Khenpo as the Kagyu and Nyingma divide has come down as the Je Khenpo was taught by various masters including Nyingma masters and he is respectful to all which also explains his huge popularity in the east.

He said an issue in the more rural parts of western Bhutan is a subtle racial discrimination where the word Sharchop can be used in a demeaning manner.

Another former senior journalist also from the east also agreed that development is not an issue as he visited his village recently after 15 years to vote and he saw that the east has come a long way with roads, boleros, trucks, access to credit and other developments. He said the only issue seems to be a shortage of liquid cash at hand.

He also said that people in the east are now worried what will happen since BTP lost and the only reassurance for many of them is that the King is still there.

Victim hood?

Norbu Wangchuk said the voters in the east voted the way they did because people are playing the ‘victim hood card’ and that creates a rallying force and people want to rally behind it.

He said that development cannot come together all at once but it comes in phases and while the east needs to be developed he said it is not deliberately being held back.

He said the victim hood is ‘juicy stuff’ which fuels people and it is in the nature of politics for people to play the victim card and to divide as it gets votes.

Norbu Wangchuk said slogans like ‘Narrowing the gap,’ ‘Equity and Justice,’ are by nature divisive as it implies there is a big gap or there is no equity and justice at all.

A senior PDP leader said this feeling of victimhood that is being perpetuated by political objectives has to be looked at going forward and handled very carefully. 

He said, “It is up to leaders of the east here in Thimphu to travel to remote parts of Wangdue Phodrang, to travel to remote parts of Haa, to remote parts of Chukha and see the actual situation there in some Gewogs.  To understand that Soe, Naro and Lingzhi in Thimphu are not even connected by roads just now and then make a judgement. Don’t look at only urban Thimphu itself. You are looking at Thimphu and Phuentsholing and then making a judgment.

Thimphu city is a lot more developed but it belongs to the whole country. Go to Zhemgang, Dagana. These are all based on feelings of being victimised.”

On the other hand, Choden from Mongar said that people feel left behind because they actually experience it and it is not just some emotion or imagination.

Way forward

Norbu Wangchuk said that Bhutan cannot afford to be divided along political lines and it must come together and political wounds must be healed.

Norbu Wangchuk also said that the way forward is not to treat the BTP as a voice of the east only but as a national voice and the Opposition in turn should work closely with the government to bring people together.

He said that people should not doubt Dasho Tshering Tobgay as once he forms the government he will take the national line only.

Choden from Mongar said that PDP should reassure the people of the east as they are in a fearful mood with all kinds of speculations.

BTP’s Damcho Tenzin said, “We have to be careful as we cannot be divided and the country needs to be politically united. BTP would like to build more confidence in the south, west and center as we are not a party of the east. We must bring people together.”

The former Editor said that as a gracious step PDP can help breach the divide by electing somebody from BTP as the Speaker which will also work for the long-term interests of PDP as eastern people will warm up to PDP. 

The former civil servant said the east should get subsidies and infrastructure projects even if the return is not there. He said perhaps the new leaders can come up with more innovative ideas to help the east.

The senior government official said the 13th plan has several investments in the east like hydro projects big and small, better connectivity, development of its key urban centres like Trashigang and Mongar and Nganglam and Samdrupjongkhar and areas around it. He said local governments will get funds and people can decide too. There will be roads, central schools and water supply projects too.  

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