Council: Foreign minister Damcho Dorji yesterday spent one and a half hours in the National Council session explaining the merits of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) trade agreement, but to no avail. The House rejected the agreement.

There were two separate reports on each councillor’s desk based on which they had to decide either for or against the agreement: one from the government and the other from the NC’s legislative committee. The government’s report argued in favour of the agreement, while the committee’s report called for voting against it.

Trongsa’s NC member Tharchen proposed for ratifying the agreement, saying that the agreement provides protection for Bhutanese transport operators. He said there was no concrete basis for the committee’s conclusions and that he could not base his decision on them.

Tharchen argued the House should take into consideration the government’s statement and support the agreement. “We should take into consideration Lyonpo’s (Damcho Dorji) statement as it’s a government statement,” he said.

However, the agreement received only five votes in favour, while 13 voted “No”. It was just the number of “Yes” votes required to pass the agreement. Five abstained from voting.

Chairman of the legislative committee Sonam Wangchuk said the demerits of the agreement outweigh the benefits. The committee also found the agreement in conflict with national laws such as the immigration Act.

Sonam Wangchuk reported that the agreement could affect the country’s culture, religion and economy and even pose security risks. “There is a risk that a lot of people would enter Bhutan and we would not know what purposes some of them come for,” he said.

The committee also found that there are no basic infrastructures such as bridges and integrated checkpoints required for implementation of the agreement.

One of the major observations of the committee was the “principle of reciprocity” the agreement is based on. The committee could not be convinced that Bhutan would be able to ask other members to stop their vehicles at the border or take in fewer vehicles than what it would be allowed to send in their territory due to the principle of reciprocity spelt in the agreement.

Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said the concerns would be taken care of by the protocol of the agreement that is being worked out. He said the protocol would prescribe details such as how many foreign vehicles would be allowed in Bhutan during a certain period of time.

He said that the protocol would be brought as a separate bill in the Parliament. This would mean that the protocol would be a separate law that would regulate the cross-border movement of vehicles in the sub-region.

NC member from Punakha, Rinzin Dorji, said that he is in support of the agreement with certain changes. However, NC Chairperson Dasho Sonam Kinga said it is not possible for the Parliament to make changes in an agreement that is already signed by the governments.

Eminent member Dasho Tashi Wangyal had a different take on the issue. He said the agreement could affect Indo-Bhutan relations if so many vehicles come in.

He said that India faces security threats and that the implementation of the agreement would provide opportunity for militants to enter Bhutan. “We should not allow any militants to sneak into Bhutan,” he said.

He said that one of the causes of the economic problems like Rupee crunch was a result of rapid liberalisation. “We should not hurry in this case too. I’m not confident to support this agreement,” he said.

The agreement will be sent to the National Assembly with explanation for the NC’s rejection.

MB Subba