With the world divided into high tech, low tech, and no tech regions, the developing world has a tendency to gripe about the digital divide, about the inequalities of globalisation, about cultural and, now, media imperialism in essence the gap between the rich and poor.These complaints fall on deaf ears as developed countries continue to ignore them. The sidelining of the UN by the United States has rendered these observations even more faint.
What many countries are overlooking, however, is the fact that, despite its inequalities, the information revolution has already touched the developing world in a big way.
For example, a meeting of information ministers from Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok last week noted that, out of three billion people expected to use computers by 2005, Asia will be among the fastest areas of growth. About 339 million Asians already use cell phones today. In India, radio reaches 99 percent of the people in 64 languages and dialects and, in China, it reaches 93.21 percent of the population. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Asians are watching television.
The problem, however, is that a large proportion of this fortunate section of the Asian population does not necessarily make healthy and productive use of the technology available to them. Governments and political leaders have not been able to provide effective alternatives to the commercial pressures that influence information technology and the media.
On the contrary, studies have shown that, while 3.5 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, ICT has brought more of the negative influences that characterise international trends than the true benefits that it represents. Globalisation is thus seen as a threat to many developing countries in terms of diluting their cultural diversity as well as social and political systems.
As we also see in government offices all over Bhutan, most computers are switched on to chat programmes during lunch breaks and even during office hours. Office workers use Internet and email services to help family and friends of the office workers more than for research and other official businesses.
If we follow international trends, or even the tendency among Bhutanese users after Druknet removed its screening system, pornographic sites are making most headway. Unknown to high-level bosses, official computers even have pornographic sites marked as the favourites. It is not surprising that the most popular sites now in South Asia are marital services with brides being offered for relatively small amounts of money.
In television, we have seen many viewers addicted to programmes that are completely irrelevant to their own lives. As local channels struggle to provide a sound alternative, international channels have literally swamped the audience. Daily conversation among adults in Bhutan often revolves around Kusum, the popular Hindi sitcom. For our school children, glued to the World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest concern is whether Triple H will be beaten by Kevin Nash on Judgement Day.
Therefore, while developing countries will never be able to match the industrialised world in the investments needed to boost access to ICT hardware and software, there are many steps that can be taken to obtain the maximum benefit from what the have nots do have.
One step is the realignment of priorities to make computers more affordable. For example, Bhutans decision to waive tax on computers. Our private sector initiative is also beginning to work, and competition is making products much cheaper. We will hopefully realise that it is worth sacrificing a few luxuries for a computer.
In the post-industrialised world, where the media-related industry is reportedly influencing 70 percent of the GDP in developed countries, there are many benefits that the information industry offers under-developed societies.
Professionally trained civil servants who are moonlighting for the private sector not an unknown phenomenon in Bhutan could be encouraged to establish their own companies and given the opportunity to service government organisations on a commercial basis. Facilities, in terms of subsidies and scholarships, could be offered to the private sector on transparent terms.
More than anything else we need to understand the real benefits of technology. Today, most of us do not obtain a fraction of the benefits from our computers that are still used as glorified typewriters. It is not very different from the need to drive a landcruiser where a smaller car would do.
Prioritisation means not just having relevant equipment but being technologically literate.
Too often do we see these days experts and officials carrying sophisticated equipment to make presentations at meetings. Then they lose precious time because the equipment does not work.
We continue to represent the incompetence that is a greater problem than poverty.
Sooner or later, false thinking brings wrong conduct
Bhutan and Nepal – both officialdom and the public – as well as observers, agree that there is an upbeat atmosphere surrounding the bilateral process to resettle the 100,000 or so people in the UNHCR-run refugee camps in eastern Nepal.In fact the mood, and general bilateral relations, have not been better in the past decade.
The main reason is a major breakthrough in the prolonged and protracted negotiations that have seen repeated disagreements, delays, and more than a little tension. And this is taking place within the purview of a new level of political understanding between the two Himalayan neighbours.
Yet we are a long way from arriving at a permanent solution to this problem that, we all agree, is an extremely complex one.
One trend has not changed. Understandably, perhaps, rumours and speculation are still far ahead of the real agreements that are being thrashed out. These past months, even as the ministerial joint committee was elucidating details of an obviously tricky job of categorising 12,095 individuals, a section of the media was stirring and dashing hopes of the camp population on issues that had not even been discussed.
It was widely rumoured, for example, that most of the people were to be repatriated to Bhutan almost immediately. There may be various sources for these assumptions but the problem is that, whatever the ultimate outcome, such speculation can only raise hopes and the level of frustrations all around.
Given the optimism today it would be more reasoned and pragmatic to seek a comprehensive solution to the problem. It would be unrealistic to expect that seven camps, housing 100,000 men, women, and children, could be dismantled overnight.
The UNHCR outlines three forms of refugee settlement in what it calls a durable solution. In correct universal terminology, repatriation means that displaced people go back to their country of origin, local settlement means that they are settled in the country where they have sought asylum, and resettlement means that they are settled in a third country. The solution usually lies in a combination of these three approaches.
UNHCR officials also explain that it is important for any refugee situation not to be politicised. This is also logical, given that most leaders at that level are immersed in personalised and petty politics.
Another relevant lesson to be learned from international experience is that, ultimately, it is a displaced person who must make the decision on where he or she would like to settle, not the self-styled politicians.
Dismantling the seven camps in Jhapa is going to be a long and tedious process. This is all the more reason that the process must be systematic and taken one step at a time. In fact this is the only way that the standards and procedures and dignity can be maintained. Looking back, the MJC deserves credit for maintaining a clear direction despite all odds.
Politicians and government leaders on both sides are under pressure from several directions, not least of all, their own constituencies. We are familiar with Nepals turbulent politics but cannot overlook the views of the peoples representatives in Bhutans National Assembly. In fact these are the members who will elect the new Bhutanese Cabinet come July.
With the people placed into four categories, with a substantial proportion of them born in the camps, and with their situation being politicised by self interest groups, it is unlikely that we will see a technical solution to the problem.
In the end it points to political will, like some of the decisions that we are beginning to see. Given our common sympathy for stateless people anywhere in the world and the goodwill between Bhutan and Nepal today, we urge the two governments to maintain this political momentum.
At this stage we share and encourage the optimism of the MJC. We have every reason to believe that, in a region of more than one billion people, we can find homes for this relatively tiny little community.
Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror
On the trunk of a mountain that looks like an elephant… in the middle of two rivers… a person by the name of Ngawang will appear… to build a sok (soul) dzong (From the scripture Dorje Lingpai Ter Lung)Eight centuries later this prediction by Guru Rimpoche came true as the most dynamic personality in Bhutanese history, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, established the Dewachenpoi Phodrang (Punakha Dzong) at the base of Jilligang hill, which slopes down to the floor of the Punakha valley like a reclining elephant.
Records of the construction of the Punakha Dzong convey the tones of Bhutanese history as we know it. An amalgam of dream, legend, and miracle, both the oral and written accounts resonate the almost super human skills and strength that was needed for such a colossal task.
The Zhabdrung was believed to have received the instruction to construct the dzong from Guru Rimpoche while he was meditating at Goenchaphu, on his way to Punakha on pilgrimage. He saw a vision of Guru Rimpoche, who instructed him to construct a soul dzong on the confluence of the Phochu and Mochu rivers. The Zhabdrung then performed the Sa Lhang ceremony, requesting the deity of the place for permission to begin construction, and laid the foundation stone on the eighth day of the eighth month of Rabjung 11 (1637).
Bhutanese devotees have no doubt that the deities, the monk and lay population, and even demons came together to help build the Punakha dzong. According to mythology, the raw materials for the dzong were contributed by local deities like the Gangmen Tshomen (the deity of the river) who appeared in the Zhabdrungs dream and promised to supply the timber, and Goendrakpa, who offered the stones to build the dzong.
The massive edifice was thus completed in 18 months, the time it takes us today, in the age of modern technology, to build a small house.
As this proud symbol of national heritage was passed down from generation to generation it remained a living mythology. The Punakha dzong has faced just about every man-made and natural disaster known, including major earthquakes, powerful glacial floods, and raging fires. It has been attacked by foreign armies and also witnessed internal strives.
Yet the valley and its people have not only been safe, they have rapidly prospered over the years. Today, the people of Punakha have more reason to celebrate their good fortunes than ever before.
The local population and the nation at large believe that this is because the dzong, and the country, is protected by the blessings of the sacred relics like the Rangjung Kharsapani, the self-created image of Chenrezig (Avaloketeswara) and the Machens (embalmed relics) of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Terton Pema Lingpa that reside in the dzong.
That is why entering the dzong is like stepping into history, treading on time. In an age of high technology and materialism, of human clashes and religious tensions, it is natural that we feel the presence of deities – both the peaceful and wrathful – in numerous altars of the dzong, on the walls and pillars, come alive in their most dramatic forms.
This weeks rabney ceremony was a long awaited event. It represented, not just the completion of a dzong, or the successful consolidation of sacred national heritage, or even a divine moment in Bhutanese history.
For the Bhutanese people it is the fulfillment of a prophecy that remains a permanent legacy. It is an assurance of our well being for all time.
When we build we build forever
It is no surprise that temperatures are generally higher after the release of the Royal Audit Authoritys annual report. Specific organisations and incidents are named in issues that imply millions of Ngultrums in irregularities.Audited organisations vehemently protest that the reports are not updated and also that some of the observations pre-date the audit period. They object to the fact that the audit reports and the media do not reflect their views and are, therefore, biased.
These views are often more understandable than valid. But some of the issues, both the observations and responses, deserve a closer look. So does the process.
The problem begins with delays. Like most annual reports, the audit report goes back and forth through bureaucratic and clerical procedures and it is usually more than a month after the audit period that they are released.
The issues, therefore, seem outdated, particularly because some of them might have been cleared within the period between the audit and the release of the report. A part of the remonstration stems from the fact that officials responsible for the audit objection have moved on and the successor feels that he or she has unfairly inherited the problem.
But the real focus is the audit report and it must be read as an audit report. A basic premise is that the observations are noted for the audit period and the report does not reflect the changes that have taken place since. Regarding objections that the issues pre-date the audit period, the RAAs answer is that an audit objection remains on record until it is cleared. So past observations will be maintained.
It is, however, true that the irregularities sound more harsh than they may be in reality. The large amounts of money are usually book adjustments at best and negligence in the worst scenario. Punishable crimes are rare.
There are ambiguities, or perceived ambiguities, in the reports. And there are sometimes major communication gaps between the RAA and an organisation under audit. There are a number of incidents where an organisation believes an observation has been dropped but the RAA claims that it has not. According to the RAA an observation has not been dropped as long as it is in the report.
But the transparency initiated by the RAA is a welcome move, not seen in most countries. It is appreciated by the government, by donors, and by the public. Even more effective are the objections that deprive civil servants and corporate employees of promotions and trainings.
Otherwise, an audit report in itself is an ineffective document. There is very little impact as officials delay actions and leave the tough decisions to their successors and successors indignantly blame their predecessors.
Children and fools speak true
Bhutanese men have always teased Bhutanese women, just as the women have always teased the men. Now this light banter is taking on a little more ominous tone.It has long been recognized as an aspect of Bhutanese culture that we enjoy this form of social exchange whether it is on the archery range, during annual ceremonies and festivals, or even in the outdoor work environment.
The urban setting is changing all that.
Women in Thimphu are now finding it difficult to walk the streets, even in broad daylight, because they are being teased and harassed. With more women walking for exercise, they cannot walk alone and are intimidated even in groups.
There are a number of groups who tease women.
Monks, in groups, are known to shout obscenities when women pass by. Pillion riders on scooters occasionally grab women as they pass by. Taxi drivers, characteristically, shout or drive close to them, particularly on the Thimphu-Dechenchholing road. Ironically, policemen in the camp behind Tashichhodzong have earned a reputation for eve teasing.
More recently, women pedestrians, even school children, complain about expatriate labourers working in Thimphu and have even reported several incidents of harassment to the police. Women complain about regular intimidation by groups of labourers, particularly in the quieter surburbs of the town.
In an era when eve teasing has led to robbery, rape, murder in many countries where politicians, police officers, and others have lost their jobs over the problem, it is time to take a serious look at the trend.
We want to keep Bhutans streets safe.
For football fans and the general populace in Thimphu, the performance of Bhutans national football (soccer) team against Mongolia last Sunday was a satisfying experience. More than the match itself, or the group victory, it was the maturity we saw in the team.We joined the international world of football with a bit of a jolt when the federation sent a hastily cobbled national team to Kuwait and shocked the folks back home with a resounding loss. But the bitter pill apparently had a positive effect because, since then, we havent looked back.
Our federation officials, a group of football enthusiasts who have volunteered their time and talent, deserve credit for outgrowing the colloquial mentality that previously characterized the sport in Bhutan.
We joined FIFA in 2000. Since then, Bhutans largest sports federation has developed a commendable sense of professionalism.
A FIFA grant of US $ 250,000 (Nu. 12 million) a year has, no doubt, been a major boost to football in Bhutan. We are hoping that most of this will be used to raise the standard of football among Bhutanese youth and, therefore, to improve the quality of our game. Now that Bhutan has entered the international arena developments and activities will, no doubt, be more transparent.
The team has gained much experience in the region, especially with the under-19 and under-14 tournaments in Kolkota and Nepal. The current national team has six players under 20 years. Hopefully this trend continues.
The exposure that our footballers and enthusiasts have received also includes the positive impact of television with most Bhutanese now hooked on to international football. The international coaches who have been invited to Bhutan have obviously enhanced our professionalism.
Since 2000, it has been Montserrat, Guam, and Mongolia. The fact that we won two and drew with a more experienced Mongolia is not the issue. Our team has shown greater professionalism with every match.
However, even as we celebrate a good performance at this early stage of the Asia Cup 2004, we are reminded of the next step, a foreboding round against Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Yemen. But, accepting that joining FIFA has been an asset, let us drop the excuses, work hard, and avoid a world record.
More important, we would like to see the development of the sport among youth across the nation. We have long outgrown the need to boost the sport by recruiting footballers from outside. Now it would be encouraging to see this spirit injected into the dzongkhags including Gasa which is the only dzongkhag without a football ground today.
In an era of workshops, seminars and conferences, the home ministry launched a particularly important training programme this week. A total of 211 elected leaders are attending a 10-day tailored course in Thimphu to get a better understanding of the DYT and GYT chathrims along with an intensive course on their management and financial responsibilities.This answers a basic question raised by observers within and outside the Bhutanese administrative system: are the local leaders capable of the professional aspects of governance that their new roles demand ? A specific concern was that, without adequate professional background, local government would have problems dealing with the financial responsibilities and accounting procedures.
The home minister took pains this week to outline a number of initiatives already taken by the government to groom the local leaders for their enhanced responsibilities in the evolving system of governance.
We know that the impact of theoretical training is limited. It provides the foundations but real education lies in the experience. And it might be several generations before a system is ingrained in the people.
So the sustained efforts of the government to convert political decisions into professional realities are reassuring. The chathrims certainly deserve close study and understanding, as does the management practices.
The training of the elected dzongkhag and geog leaders has now been given a special significance with the inauguration of this weeks programme by His Royal Highness Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.
His Royal Highness, who personifies the future, reminded them that they must look beyond their families, geogs, and dzongkhags for greater national good. His Royal Highness said that the challenge ahead was to implement His Majesty the Kings vision to empower the people to determine their own destiny.
On that note the elected leaders of our communities, far and wide, begin their crash course on governance.
Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten