Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering

Q & A with the PM on why he shutdown Drayangs

Until recently, Lyonchhen Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering was very clear that Drayangs would have to undergo some reforms to re-open, but the sudden Executive Order of 7th January 2021 to close down all Drayangs caught many by surprise and has caused much controversy.

Now, the Prime Minister in his first interview on the issue explained the change in heart and answered questions on his motivations to close Drayangs, issue of Constitutional rights, dangers of vulnerable women resorting to prostitution, legal challenges, basis of the research and potential political motives.

Tenzing Lamsang: What were your or the government’s motivations to shutdown Drayangs in light of the people’s livelihood issue and the right to livelihood under the Constitution? 

Prime Minister: It is my own understanding, and a lot of it is influenced by people I work with on a daily basis as I don’t function alone and I function in a team (PMO). So initially I knew and was convinced something had to be done on Drayangs.

First, I went on reforms and in doing so the physical infrastructure required male and female changing rooms, male and female toilets, two-meter distance between stage and public seating but 90 percent of the present structures do not qualify for that.

There is no space to build such changing rooms and toilets and so they are not willing.

Artists cannot be receptionists and servers, but indirectly they said they cannot afford it as there are enough girls to do both the services.

The biggest challenge was that they said that they cannot do without the request system.  To let the rural people understand I said ‘rubbing the knee.’ The girls request for Nu 1,000 and if they see 2,000 in the pocket they ask for more.

In the modern sense it is almost a lap dance.

I said this is not allowed and when I said so only a few asked for an alternative, but most said that they cannot do business without the request system. Within themselves, most of them even said they cannot open without the request system.

I was planning to insist on this so that girls do not have to come down from the stage and entertain or have physical contact. I said they can pay an entry fee and have a menu system.

I was about to send an order in that line, but then I sent this order.

TL: Lyonchhen what changed your mind then?

PM: Since I want it transformed at any cost, there were three factors (for the ban). We wanted the Drayang infrastructure changed, but that was not possible.

 We really wanted to change the mindset of Drayang owners, but we cannot. The mindset of the girls also could not be changed.

I have no control over people going to the Drayang as the same cohort will visit it.

The three factors were drayang owners and girls, infrastructure like house and room and mindset of the people visiting Drayangs remaining constant.

TL. What about monitoring Drayangs?

PM: People say it can be monitored and monitoring is the responsibility of the government by putting in place a couple of Desuups or even a policeman for few weeks, but how long can we maintain that. After sometime, the Desuup and police will also be there in the Drayang.

When things are like this, I just did not get the confidence that it will transform. Having sat on it for so long with my determination to change, I was not confident.

Then there was no option. I sat down with these girls (PMO staff) and they also said maybe and why not as they also do not have the confidence that things will change, and they felt things will fall back to square one in few week’s time.

So anyway, I though why not even though I knew it is going to be a very unpopular decision, but at least morally I will find myself correct.

Right now, I have some authority. I then explained to my cabinet friends, but it is not that I discussed with them and got opinions or suggestions. I told them and they all kept very quite. Now, is that agreement or not in favor but not willing to raise their voice. I don’t know.

TL. These are already vulnerable women who tried getting other jobs, but did not; many are single mothers; some are divorced and so the big concern is that they would join the growing prostitution industry which post pandemic has really grown and in prostitution there is no protection as we have heard of even gang rapes. The debate is not on the morality of Drayangs, but the big fear is that something worse awaits them once Drayangs are closed. How will the government protect them from that?

PM: True, but we cannot say it will definitely happen that way. Let us not rate them that low, but yes, it is possible, as everything is possible. But my point is that those girls from now on going into that trade might already be doing it.

Yes, some out of desperation having no choice will go, but my request is please don’t do that. 

I have asked Labour to design for any number of skilling options for them. I have asked Labour, Economic Affairs and Finance to design a support system whereby if they put in a small effort we will do the rest.

Design a business for them in their hometown, given them a bar license if they want, but if they are willing to go back to the village.

If they want to do a farm business we can given an input support for a number of years for free.

But the willingness must come from them.

You are saying what will happen to the girls after the Drayangs close, but what will happen to them after 10 years or 15 years as they have to exit that trade one day since even biology will not support that anyway, and then it is a disaster as they will not be fit for anything after that.

So professionally they are at a productive age and they are at the right age to learn anything or pick up any tricks that will sustain them for the rest of their lives, and do something that will only get bigger and better as they grow older.

So if I have 100 girls coming out of Drayang and if I can rehabilitate 60 or 70 percent then I think it is a huge success. 100 percent cannot be done. We need three hands to clap. The drayang girls, us in governance and you all.

Do you want the girls to do well and the country to do well or you just want to pick on us?

If it is to work together then give us ideas and let us sell those ideas together and let us encourage them.

There is a risk of them going into that, but the government is also laying out plans.

TL: If this case goes to court has the government done its legal homework. This is because this case pertains to Right to Livelihood under the Constitution, they were licensed entities, rules were framed and they have existed for a while?

PM: Anybody can go to court, no problem and doubt about that. Is my stopping absolutely illegal ? No. Can they to go to court? Yes. Both are right. You read the Constitution from the first page to the last page and read in between the lines. What I am doing is also Constitutional.

In nation building, there are many ways.  Isn’t this national building? There is ‘corrective course’ and isn’t this a corrective course? Because of this, I will not defend in the court. If the Drayangs are taking us to court, I will just go and submit my executive order that this is what I have done and if the court feels that I should not do it then tell me and I will withdraw it.

I will not challenge, justify and fight and I will let the court decide without a single word from me.

This is what I have done and if you want to change the wording then please suggest.  If you feel these are licensed and legal business entities and they have not done anything illegal or unconstitutional or unlawful and if I cannot stop them, then from there itself, I will cancel my executive order.

TL: The Executive Order says the decision comes after research and stakeholder consultations, but what kind of research was done?

PM: Research as in a couple of assessment studies.  The research shows that girls are exploited and there is no choice but it is not all of them and there are enough indications to show there is flesh trading. There are no specific cases pointed out.

TL: Some lawyers are saying that if this goes to court, where Drayangs can challenge the government on is to provide the specific evidence on how many Drayang girls were caught for prostitution etc?

PM: I am not going to fight because it is by my own understanding and by my own moral standing that I issued this, and if the court says no you cannot, then I will not justify. My lawyer will only be there for five minutes to listen to it.

TL: Did OAG provide you with legal advice on the issue?

PM: No, the OAG has not provided legal advice as I have not asked since I am not concerned at all on the legal aspect, not meaning that I am right, but if I am wrong here I am okay. If I am wrong here I will be asked to withdraw the order and let them function.

Morally, I would be correct at least as I can say that I tried but the court did not allow.

TL: The Executive Order is very clear that this is the decision of the Prime Minister. What personally motivated you to take this decision. Is it something that you saw or an incident, is it a view you built over a period of time since maybe even since the days that you were a doctor, or you developed this view after becoming the PM?

PM: Of course, without being the PM, I cannot issue executive orders. Generally, I am not one who has an overall opinion on Drayangs, but after coming here and after hearing more and more, I am more convinced that it is on the wrong path. I am not saying it is already wrong as it is not too, bad but it is on the wrong path.

Regulation is very difficult. In the name of promoting tradition and culture actually Drayangs have not promoted much tradition and culture.

If this avenue is kept open and 10 years down the line when it actually becomes like that I will regret terribly thinking that there was a room at one time. If it is difficult to stop now, then 10 years later it will be impossible to stop it.

Politically even now, do you think anyone in my position would have taken this decision?

Frankly speaking, it is not politically easy as unnecessarily I have a few thousands after my head now and few thousands will multiply by 10.

Those who support will support and give me one vote, but those who are angry will get 100 votes. I know this, I am a 52-year-old man, yet I said it is okay and let us do it, and in the first place if I get scared of politics and do not do it then that night I cannot sleep.

TL: Lyonchhen one counter-argument that Drayangs have made is what about Karaokes, Bars and Pubs?

PM: While we are reforming drayangs we cannot mix it. People cannot ‘rub knees’ and there should not be any deal making between visitors and clients. That was my condition.  If I was convinced with that then I would have no problems with Drayangs. The Drayang word itself is  very melodious, spiritual, tranquil and peaceful term.

In Karaokes who is entertaining who? You can go there and entertain yourself. You can ask for drinks, shout and entertain yourself. In live music you cannot touch the musicians.

These are totally different formats and platforms even if they are under one bracket called entertainment.

In a club house a group of dancers are hired to dance and visitors come and see and dance and drink and go. At this level I have no problems. The moment we see the dancer coming down and taking requests then that is finished and it will be closed.

But this will not be allowed in existing Drayangs as they must be closed. They can rejuvenate and metamorphose and come, but I have no comments on that. If club houses cross their limit and be like Drayangs then they will be closed.

On the stage if Thimphu boys do a one-hour dance and collect 25,000 and go home then it is absolutely okay.

If a club hires a band then it is perfectly fine. If that Paro dance group of girls who comes on BBS are hired to perform for a weekend, then it is perfectly fine. If they perform every Friday, then I will take my girls and go there. I love entertainment.

The moment that club house has a set of girls who performs and entertains the visitors asking for a peg of whisky or taking a glass of wine with them, then it is an absolute no. Then slowly they are going to be drayangs and I will close them.

TL: The government has come up with a financial package for Drayangs.

PM: Yes, the financial package is some sort of compensation for the accumulated rents and on capital investment. For the workers, I have asked for training, skilling, loan opportunities and business licenses but this is anything that every Bhutanese will have access to. There is nothing exclusively for them as we are all Bhutanese. They must come forward as they are more vulnerable and we will do the handholding, but that handholding and access is even there for non-Drayang girls.

TL: Is there a political angle as some people say it may benefit the government politically more to close the Drayangs than to keep it open?

PM: For God’s sake, I don’t do that. My friends are convinced that if a political party can make a bad political move then this is it. My DNT friends are already after me. They are asking how can this even be thought about.

In the cabinet some are okay, some are saying please decide and they will support and some are saying we should not do it as it is a livelihood issue, it is a business and politically it is not very good.

If anybody says I have done it for politics, then that person cannot make a graver mistake than this. Politically speaking, this is not the right decision. Why create enemies as I am creating a few thousand enemies right away.

However, I said it is okay if it is in the greater interest of the country.

TL: Will the government follow the girls to ensure they do not fall into desperate or hard times?

PM: We will give them enough options to be better persons, to do better and have something that they can hang on to for the rest of their lives, and something that as they gain more experience and get older their business or livelihood opportunity will get better.

I will be happy if they are initially ready to face hardship and sweat a little more.

In Drayang they do not have to sweat as it is an easy income and in the evenings. Girls get around Nu 40,000 to 50,000 monthly income.

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