NC and Opposition express reservations

The National Assembly yesterday decided to continue with the Bhutan Children’s Parliament, an initiative of the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), although Opposition members argued in favour of scrapping it.

The House was divided between the government and the Opposition when Education Minister Norbu Wangchuk submitted that the children’s parliament should be continued for educational purposes and advocacy on democracy.

The minister said that resolutions of the children’s parliament would not be legally binding, although they would be submitted to relevant miniseries and agencies. He said the recommendations were furnished by a group of experts from relevant ministries and agencies, including teachers, officials from the home ministry and ECB.

He said experts reviewed all related concerns and concluded that positive outcomes of the children’s parliament outweigh the concerns. “It would strengthen our democracy and promote advocacy on democracy,” he said.

Opposition MPs, however, raised questions on whether it was within the mandate of ECB to set up an institution like the children’s parliament.

Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said that the House should be mindful about whether it was right for Bhutan to adopt something that is practiced in other countries by ignoring the possible implications.

“Our focus should be on promoting the values of education,” he said, adding that institutionalisation of the children’s parliament could lead to politicisation of students and teachers. “We should be mindful of its implication on the future of our democracy.”

The National Council in June 2017 raised questions on the legality of the children’s parliament. The Council also cautioned that the institutionalisation of the children’s parliament could lead to politicisation of the education system.

Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi said that although ECB could conduct voter education programmes, the establishment of the children’s parliament was outside its mandate.

Justifying his statement, he cited Section 1 of Article 24 of the Constitution, which states that there shall be an election commission which shall be responsible for the preparation, maintenance, and periodical updating of electoral rolls, the election schedule, and the supervision, direction, control, and conduct of elections to Parliament and local governments, as well as holding of national referendums, in a free and fair manner.

“The roles and responsibilities of ECB have been clearly defined in the Constitution. Therefore, it’s important for us to carry out responsibilities as per the law,” he said.

The main responsibility of ECB, Dorji Wangdi said, was to conduct elections in the country. He said that it was also important to see whether such an initiative would affect children’s learning hours in the school.

“While it is important for children to be aware of our democratic system, there was no need to institutionalise the children’s parliament,” he said.

He said: “The education ministry can promote advocacy on democracy through development of curricular and extra-curricular activities. There are already concerns expressed that too many agencies are visiting schools, affecting the children’s study hours.”

Khar-Yurung MP Zanglay Dukpa warned that politicisation of students and teachers would not be good for the country. He said it was unfortunate that a political matter such as the signing of the children’s parliament was done in a sacred place like Punakha Dzong.

The Constitution of the children’s parliament was signed in Punakha Dzong in 2015.

Drametse-Ngatshang MP Ugyen Wangdi said that periodic elections were enough for people to gain knowledge on their voter rights and democratic practices.

Questioning the legality of the constitution of children’s parliament, Nubi-Tangsibji MP Nidup Zangpo said that there is only one Constitution in the country. “We should be mindful of the dangers of setting up institutions like the children’s parliament.”

Children, he said, should be taught about the three branches of governance – the executive, legislative and judiciary – and about the need for them to be independent of each other.

“Rather than institutionalising the children’s parliament, we should teach our children about the need of the three branches of governance to carry out their respective roles,” he said.

Dophuchen-Tading MP Tek Bahadur Subba said that politics is reality.

“I do not see any danger arising from institutionalising the children’s parliament,” he said, adding that it would only benefit democracy.

Speaker Jigme Zagpo said that children’s parliament existed in countries like Denmark and Sri Lanka.

Jomotshangkha-Martshala MP Pelzang Wangchuk said that it was disheartening to hear from the Opposition that the children’s parliament was not needed.

“The committee’s report would strengthen democracy and the children’s parliament if implemented,” he said.

The children’s parliament, according to ECB, will train children to be future leaders. There are 205 democracy clubs involving 7,193 students in the country.

MB Subba