The Bhutan government has announced its plan to open an embassy in Canberra to provide services to the Bhutanese residing in Australia. The news has been received both positively and as a matter of concern.
To begin with, spending Nu 300 million (AUD 6 million) to purchase two houses is something worth pondering over. This will be a lot of money spent on buying properties at the current market scenario. From what I see, Nu 300 million is just the beginning of heavy expenses that will hit the government coffer. Salaries and allowances for ambassador, officers, local staff, utilities, etc. are not even accounted for. Those bills are going to be huge.
Location wise, Canberra is a beautiful place. It is geographically similar to Thimphu. While Canberra is well connected to major Australian cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane), it is a fair amount of travel distance from Perth, Western Australia. To be precise, the distance between Perth and Canberra is five and a half hours by plane. For the perspective, it takes six hours from Perth to the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.
Perth has also the highest number of Bhutanese living in Australia. It is estimated that there are over 5,000 Bhutanese in Perth as compared to over 2,000 in Canberra. Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney may have a few hundred. It may by far more expedient therefore for Bhutan to have an embassy in Perth rather than in Canberra. However, embassies are generally located in capital cities, hence Canberra has that edge over Perth.
But then who is really asking for an embassy?
The expert group from the Bhutanese government who visited Australia last December somehow missed Perth on their journey. Or did we miss them? There are opinions on the convenience of opening two consulate offices rather, one each in Perth and Canberra. The thoughts are from the Bhutanese in Australia. These are valid opinions given the cost associated with running the embassy.
What if we consider the two?
1. Opening of two consulate offices
The consulate offices can function with minimum cost. In fact, they can to certain extent self-fund their operational costs through fees and charges for certain services such as facilitating driving licence renewals, thram renewals/change, attestations of documents, birth registrations, legal advice, etc.
Both Perth and Canberra have beautiful and affordable rental options. At AUD 500 a week, our Consulate can be easily housed in a well-located suburb, just costing the government about AUD 500,000 for ten years.
2. Empowering Bhutanese Associations
Both Perth and Canberra and other cities in Australia have Bhutanese associations functioning through the effort of a handful of hardworking volunteers. These associations are registered under the relevant government authorities in their respective jurisdiction.
The primary source of income for these associations is membership fees (AUD 20 per person per year for Perth).
The associations are facing tremendous challenges and hardships in bringing together the Bhutanese community, attracting membership and, most importantly, in preserving our rich culture and tradition.
These associations are manned by people from diverse backgrounds (former government employees, former MPs, former teachers, etc).
Empowering these Associations (with maximum accountability) on matters such as the above consular services will maximise their funding and also authenticate their existence. (For more details on associations visit: www.bhutancanberra.org, www.abpiperth.com)
If the rationale to open an embassy in Australia is to provide services to Bhutanese residing here, a small approachable consulate office with a helpful Consul-General should suffice over a highly secured embassy with very busy diplomats.
We have good diplomatic relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region which can always be strengthened by our hardworking diplomats in Bangkok.
Contributed by Wangchuk Loday