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Will Gasa be forgotten by politicians?

'2008 is not the end, it is the beginning...'

Laya Gasa
Gasa dzongkhag is a place of legends and history. Yet, the experience of most Bhutanese who visit the dzongkhag is limited to the hot springs in the valley, a few visiting the dzong at the top of the hill or trekking for days to places like Laya and Lunana. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, who visits frequently with His Majesty the King, is a familiar figure to the people of even the remote villages of Gasa and was welcomed on his visit for the draft Constitution consultations.

About 500 Layap and Lunap yak herders and the people of remote Khatoe and Khamey gewogs represented their households at the meeting near Gasa Tashi Thongmey Dzong.

They said they were witnesses to a new era in the evolution of Bhutan.

Gasa Dzong
The Gasa Tashi Thongmey Dzong
The relatively small gathering enabled unusual and informal discussions with the Crown Prince who moved from the pavilion into the tent with the people.

Apart from discussions on the Constitution there were exchanges on the issues of importance to the people, on the economy of Gasa, on the hopes and aspirations of the people and His Royal Highness inquired after the families and children of those who spoke.

As His Royal Highness sat with the people and began discussing the draft Constitution, article by article, it became clear that the people of Gasa were deeply concerned with the prospect of living under the new system of politics. They asked what measures were included in the Constitution to prevent politicians neglecting the remote dzongkhags or those with small populations. 'Democracy is all about elections,' said Gup Kencho Gyeltshen. 'Gasa dzongkhag has the smallest population and, therefore, the least numbers of voters and we won't make a difference to the politicians,' he said. 'It will be difficult for an elected government to hear our voice.'

Crown Prince
His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

The Lunana gup said that even electing a gup was determined by the size of the village. 'We will have less representation since we are very few in numbers,' gup Dorji Droley said.

'Under His Majesty we have had steady development in our gewogs even though government officials have to walk for weeks,' said a 21-year yak herder from Lunana, Phuba. 'Will we get attention from the new government?'

His Royal Highness allayed their fears and assured the people that their interests would not be overlooked by political parties focused on votes from larger populations.

His Royal Highness explained that while this was the case in many parts of the world, minorities in Bhutan would be safeguarded by provisions specially drafted for this purpose. His Royal Highness asked for all the relevant clauses to be read and explained how they allowed even smaller dzongkhags and populations to play an active and important part in the new political system.

Crown Prince
His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

There was much exchange of views and requests for clarifications on many issues. Many people expressed their hopes for the future under the new system but still wondered whether rural people, whose only concerns had been of their family and village in the past, could shoulder the responsibility of electing people and parties and holding them accountable.

How could they, having been beneficiaries of the country's participatory development process till now, negotiate with political parties for their economic and development needs? A village elder from Laya, Tshering, expressed his gratitude to His Majesty for decentralising power to the grass root level but expressed his apprehension in shouldering the grave responsibilities that came with decentralisation. 'There will be many problems when simple villagers are suddenly made responsible for choosing their own leaders,' he said.

His Royal Highness said that there were good and bad democracies and that a successful democracy would have immense impact on improving the lives of the people. His Royal Highness repeatedly reminded the people, however, that it was crucial for them to understand the Constitution and the new system that would be introduced. He said that, without this understanding, the system would not work. His Royal Highness quoted His Majesty's command that ''Democracy, as a concept or system of political parties and elections, is not something Bhutan has gone blindly after. Every country is unique and needs a unique system. Bhutan needs a system that works - one that fulfills the aspirations of the people.''

His Royal Highness said this command meant that while the people were rightly proud that the King was initiating unprecedented reforms and that democracy was coming to Bhutan in a time of peace and prosperity, the real success would lie in the years after 2008. If the people, in whose hands power has been devolved, do not understand or carry their responsibilities then our pride would be short-lived and this historic opportunity wasted. '2008 is not the end, it is the beginning - His Majesty will place Bhutan in your hands. Are you prepared to play your part?' His Royal Highness asked.

His Royal Highness encouraged all village elders, people's representatives, civil servants and the educated population to make the effort to explain and discuss the Constitution with those who needed the help. His Royal Highness said that this effort to share knowledge of the constitution or the efforts to improve the system as a whole should be enduring and constant.

His Royal Highness served lunch to the people and then, together with school children and villagers, walked to the dzong and the nearby town area.

As a group of Layaps started their return journey, covered in rain coats, one of them told Kuensel that she had never thought that an ordinary citizen like her could make a difference in choosing a leader of their choice. 'Today I understood that we have a serious responsibility and it is time for all Bhutanese to start preparing for it,' Pasa Om said.

Kinga Wangmo of Damje village is skeptical about the changes coming soon. 'We are cut off by such difficult terrain but still we have been getting roads and electricity under His Majesty's government,' she said. 'Can the new government do the same? And even if they can, would they do so given our small population of voters?'

Twenty-one-year old Lhaba and 27-year old Pemba Tshering from Ramina village are confident that with His Majesty's wisdom and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince's guidance, Bhutan will see unprecedented development in the years to come. 'If policy makers come to our village they will se what we need,' Pemba Tshering said.

The people said they hoped everyone would follow the example of the King and Crown Prince and visit their dzongkhag more often. Senior officials and civil servants would learn about the needs and aspirations of the people of Gasa, while businessmen and tourists would bring economic activity and income.

Contributed by Ugyen Penjore and Tashi Dorji, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2006
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