Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Unbroken: An Exhibition of Hope and Determination

(photovoice.org)

(photovoice.org)

Hari Acharya
Thank you very much Dr. Sadik. I would like to start with reinforcing that I am still very much Bhutanese. I have not been given citizenship by any other country. Nepal couldn't, they have too many. And the US is pretty busy with war right now. What I will talk about may pale in significance compared to what Otunnu and Dr. Sadik have been doing for ages compared to what I have been doing. But I will try to bring down the brutal aspects that they talked about, to a particular situation that I have undergone. Many of you might have been surprised when you saw "Bhutanese youth refugee" beside my name in the paper that you got. For many of us, Bhutan is a very very wonderful, peaceful unspoiled country where everything is at peace with everything else. It's the mystic country where we go to seek peace when you are tired with problems and situations in cities like New York. It is a very, very beautiful country, but I also bring to you today another aspect of Bhutan that many, many people in this room don't know about. And you might be wondering how this connects to child rights. And it does because every decision that we as parents make ultimately affects the future of the children. And to the level that any government and any situation impacts the decision-making capacity of the parent will directly affect the life and future of the child. Having said that, I will try to relate what I say to the criticism of Bhutan's first State Party report to the Committee on Child Rights of the UN, and the observations and recommendations of the Committee of the Rights of the Child on Bhutan's first report, and the initial criticism brought forth by the NGO, which is I think called the NGO Response to the paper. The NGO Response was prepared by a Bhutanese refugees support group, which is based in the UK, and it was also sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation. The other thing that I will try to relate to what I say would be the human rights report that Bhutan gave to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in April 1999. So the reason to bring this report in front of you today is, what you see in papers, what you see in government speeches, what you see in observations by sometimes independent observers, sometimes government reports, is always what is actually happening. For instance, in Bhutan education is universal. The child does not have to pay for education. The child doesn't have to pay for health. They have access to health. Education is free of course. The parents even don't have to pay a penny. And the international community looks at that...everything is free...so everything is good. But we don't see the compartmentalization that occurs within the society. Who is getting it is something that international organizations don't look into. And that's why people who are in the minority, people who are victimized suffer. They don't have ways to let it be known to the international community as to what's happening. For instance, there are UNDP Projects in Bhutan. There are UNFP projects in Bhutan. There are UNICEF projects in Bhutan. UNICEF gives money to Bhutan for particular projects, say drinking water or say a small school. And a school is built. The school is being used, money is well-utilized, donors are satisfied. Then after that Bhutan comes and asks for money for, say health facilities from the same donor. "We gave money for school. It was well-utilized, so we'll give money for health facilities." The money goes to the same area. The same area is developed. The people of the same area, same part of the country benefit. We don't see that there is discrimination in the implementation of the project. That's what we fail to notice. So for example, UNICEF's website on Bhutan...UNICEF's Bhutan office has a website on the Internet of about 30-40 pages. If you go through that, you'll find that all the development projects which are named in that website are in the northern part of the country, which are most of the rich districts from where the ruling community comes. And a little bit of projects are pushed towards the east. In the whole website, you'll find the name of one southern Bhutanese person, a person who is trying to get distance education in teacher training. That is the only thing the whole website notes. But there is reference to a water supply caretaker in the northern part of country, where another community lives. I am taking this for granted, because so many of you are interested in Asia, that you do have some aspects of ideas about what Bhutan is, culturally or ethnically. If you don't have, you can ask me later and I can clarify that. That kind of discrimination doesn't come out in reports. That's why I'm trying to relate what I say to these reports. Bhutan's report to the UNHCR says that, paragraph 9 says the spiritual and emotional well-being of the people, and preservation of Bhutan's culture heritage and its rich and varied natural resources, is its main national goal and policy. Bhutan has Hindus in the south whom the government says makes up about 25% of the population, but who claim to be about 50% of the population. There are people in the eastern part of the country, which are one of the three main ethnic groups, who follow a sect of Mahayana Buddhism. The people in the north-western part of the country follow a different sect of Mahayana Buddhism. These people are of a different culture. So if we are trying to safeguard the culture heritage of the country, do we safeguard one culture, one heritage? Or do we safeguard all the cultures and all the heritages of the country? Do we try to accommodate diversity? Bhutan does not. Bhutan tries to promote one culture, one tradition, and all the people have to wear the same dress. So that's not what Bhutan is doing, but that's what Bhutan is saying in its report. The next thing that I would like to talk about is the National Assembly. From many of Bhutan's people you will hear about elections...in the U.S. somebody's whose 18 gets to cast a vote. Somebody who wants to get elected gets an opportunity to go out and canvas, and spread his or her policies and ideas to the people. We get to campaign. That's an election. Bhutan doesn't not have that. (Of) 150 members in the National Assembly, the Unicameral Legislature, 105 are elected and the rest are appointed by the King and the clergy. How do elections happen at the villages and the local level, at the constituency level? The district administrator and the sub-divisional administrator, who are appointed by the King, will pick up two to three persons from the village, put them out there in front of the villagers for consensus voting. They have to choose out of these three guys. The people who are voting for these people don't know what these people are going to advocate. They don't' know what they stand for. And each family gets a vote. And in many cases, the votes don't count because counting does not take place in front of an election commission's oversight. There is no election commission there. So that's how elections happen. So these elected members go to the National Assembly and then they will elect the Ministers of the country. So this election of Ministers started in 1980, and with a big reform, which made many western countries say, like radio stations like CBS and 60 Minutes, they talked about a country, an absolute monarchy where the King is willingly devolving power to the people even if they don't want it. So that's what our King did in 1998. What actually happened was...five Ministrial posts were there. The King nominated five people. The National Assembly had to choose five people out of the five people nominated for five Ministerial positions. Those who are the Ministers who are running the country right now. Bhutan's national...there is only one weekly newspaper and they have a discussion forum on their website, where there are these guys inside Bhutan, the people who are working with the Bhutanese Government, are discussing about the election coming up because in November their term expires, and now they again have to be elected. So they are wondering, "why don't we see if we can find as many candidates as possible, and why don't we vote for them?" These are your own people discussing within the country, where as the government says that the country's heading toward gross national happiness. That's what the people are discussing. And those who want to contradict what I say may say that this could be anybody posting anything on the Internet. It's possible to do that from here...I could have done it. No. The service provider they use is the only service provider you can find in Bhutan. So these are the people working in the government who are saying this. So now what's happening is the parents who are voting are not getting any chance to make decisions that are going to affect their children in the future. Another thing is, at one point, (the report) talks about the district development committees and the block developmental committees. There are members from different villages and different districts, where they go together and they make decisions for what kinds of developmental projects that we are going to come up with. What exactly happened is...I've been there...I've seen people who represented me in those forums. These people go, when they go from the village to the meeting, they say I am going to "hear" a meeting. They go, they hear what is said, and they bring it back to the people and say this is what we have to do. They don't go and discuss. There are no priorities being set for the people in a particular village which are taken to the district committee by their representatives. So that is the kind of democracy that we have in Bhutan.