At the National Assembly’s question hour session yesterday
Assembly: Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay made 18 trips or spent 103 days abroad in the past three years while the Cabinet ministers made about three to 23 trips abroad during their tenures so far.
Among the Cabinet ministers, the foreign minister travelled 23 times abroad while the least travelled was the labour minister with just three trips abroad so far. The agriculture minister followed by the finance, health and economic affairs ministers travelled 19, 17 and 15 times respectively followed by the rest. (See box).
Foreign minister Damcho Dorji presented the details yesterday in response to Nubi-Tangsibji representative Nidup Zangpo’s query on the number of trips abroad that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet ministers made.
Reasoning that the question was based on a Cabinet decision to minimise trips abroad to reduce expenditure, Nidup Zangpo said the opposition is not against the Prime Minister and the ministers travelling abroad. “But it’s a question pertaining to check and balance,” he said.
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji also gave a comparison of the number of trips that the former Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers made simultaneously in five years of their tenure saying that the comparison was necessary to understand the travel pattern.
For instance, the former prime minister travelled 24 times or spent 218 days abroad. The frequent traveller among the Cabinet ministers then was the information and communications minister who made 16 trips abroad while the least travelled ministers were the finance and foreign ministers.
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that they have travelled only if necessary and when the expense was borne by external agencies or countries.
Given the poor economic state when the government took over, Lyonpo said minimising trips abroad was a priority to cut expenses. “In doing so, unless travel expenses were borne by countries abroad, we avoided travelling,” he said. “Even for travel within the country, we’ve reduced expenditure unlike in the past.”
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji added that with 45 percent more budget allocated in the 11th Plan, it meant more work and travel. In doing so, the foreign ministry studies whether or not the trip is necessary. If not found necessary, we avoid as far as possible, he said.
While travelling within the country, he said that they have reduced the number of officials and vehicles accompanying the Cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister besides revising the Chadri (preparation) guideline to reduce costs. “In the past, full daily subsistence allowance was given despite being provided food and accommodation, which is no longer the trend,” Lyonpo said.
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji also said that the government received the same question from the National Council in the past, which they chose not to respond to. “As too much interference in each other’s businesses would make it difficult to perform our duties,” he said. “Now that the question is raised once again, if we don’t provide the details, it will look like we have spent so much travelling abroad.”
In the additional question round, Lamgong-Wangchang’s representative Khandu Wangchuk said diplomatic ties were of utmost priority for which ministers and government officials were encouraged to attend international and regional meetings.
Khandu Wangchuk also said that during the campaigning period, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said except for strong ties with one or two countries, relations with the rest would not be of much importance as they are considered small countries.
Similarly, after the party formed the government, they said that the prime minister and the ministers would not travel abroad unless extremely necessary. “Likewise, establishment of the Japanese embassy in Thimphu has been postponed, which is a concern,” he said. “We’re concerned as it could have implications on our diplomatic ties.”
“If not less, the present ministers and Prime Minister have travelled enough comparatively,” he said, while also congratulating them saying trips abroad are important in establishing ties.
He added that during the former government’s time, diplomatic relations with 25 countries were established while no diplomatic ties were made during this government’s tenure. “When’ll the government allow the establishment of the Japanese embassy?”
In response, Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that Bhutan has diplomatic ties with 53 countries including the European Union.
Lyonpo also said that as the opposition and now the government, PDP’s concern is that while diplomatic relations are required, it must be studied how far the countries would benefit Bhutan through the established diplomatic ties. “Secondly, we must question on whether we’ll be able to set up 53 embassies in these countries,” he said. “We need to also study whether we have the capacity to accommodate 53 embassies in Bhutan.”
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji also said that the conveniences must be looked into besides studying the benefits. “As there are many objectives in establishing diplomatic ties with small countries, we are concerned,” he said. “We must establish ties with countries that would benefit us but in doing so, it shouldn’t be just for the sake of it.”
With regard to setting up a Japanese embassy in Bhutan, he said there were issues that the former government is also aware of. “When the right time comes, we’ll allow the establishment of a Japanese embassy in Bhutan,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be in a situation wherein when we show our face to one and we show our back to the other.”
“It is important that we are mindful of continuing existing ties with neighbouring countries,” Lyonpo added.
Bumdeling-Jamkhar representative Dupthob also questioned the foreign minister on the government’s pledge to start liaison offices in the Indian states bordering Bhutan to facilitate better trade and travel linkages between Bhutanese and Indian counterparts.
“Considering its importance, I asked the same question a year ago during which the reason cited was the poor economy,” he said. “As the economy is said to have improved, when is the government starting the liaison offices?”
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that starting liaison offices require intervention at the government and state levels. As of Assam and West Bengal, he said, border talks that have been initiated since the past are still underway to further strengthen the security and ties between the border towns.
Highlighting the role of the Bhutanese consulate office in Kolkata, India, Lyonpo said the office there not only caters to students but Indian tourists as well.
However, Lyonpo said that talks with Indian counterparts would begin soon to establish a consulate office in Guwahati, Assam that is expected to further improve relations between Assam and Bhutan.
With elections recently over in Assam, the new government is yet to take over, Lyonpo said. “Discussions will happen soon after the new government takes office,” he added. “The consulate office is not only expected to boost trade but establish links between local leaders in the dzongkhags bordering Assam and the Assamese counterparts.”