This story was first published in 2007 a year before the unicameral Parliament was dissolved
Summoning all his courage, Limu chimi stood up, walked towards the microphone, and cleared his throat to speak.
After a few tense moments he blurted out a single word – “kow” (skin hide). He tried again and again but only “kow” managed to escape his lips. On the third attempt the house at the Namgyeltse Tshogkhang in Punakha burst into laughter.
When the Assembly recessed, the Speaker met the chimi and listened at length to what he wanted to submit. The people in his village wanted to request exemption of hide tax because when cattle did not die it had to be killed to pay the tax.
When the Assembly resumed after recess it resolved to abolish the hide tax.
From the reduction and abolishing of taxes on cattle, tax on traditional mills, compulsory castration of cattle and horses, supplying chili seedling to resolutions to flush out the ULFA/BODO militants and the devolution of the powers from the Golden Throne to the Lhengye Zhungtshog, Bhutan’s highest legislative body, the National Assembly of Bhutan has taken decisions that have mirrored the priorities of a young nation.
On Thursday, 54 years after the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the Tshogdu in 1953, members of the National Assembly formally closed the door to an era which witnessed Bhutan make the leap from the medieval ages to a modern one.
The Third Druk Gyalpo established the Tshogdu as a constitutional reform to include the people in discussing issues of national interest, promote public welfare and develop political consciousness so that the Bhutanese people could play a greater role in the decision making process and running of the country.
In keeping with this vision the Tshogdu had, in words of a former Speaker, transformed from a house of awe to a house which decides the future of the country and the people.
From a house with 136 members in its first session, the Tshogdu became the highest decision making body in the country with 150 members representing the government, clergy, and the people.
The greatest transformation came about in the functioning of the Tshogdu.
In the beginning, people’s representatives were mere silent spectators when Assembly sessions unfolded. “In the past there were not many who raised their voice in the Assembly even when the discussions had direct bearing on them,” said the Punakha chimi, Namgay Phuntsho who had represented his people for 17 years. “Even if an issue was discussed at length, the decision was largely based on what a government secretary or minister presented.”
Dasho Passang Dorji, who served as Speaker from 1989 to 1997, said that more time was spent in explaining issues to the chimis rather than in debate. “We had to deal with many irrelevant questions and comments. Some chimis found it difficult to keep up with the discussions.”
But if the discussions went one sided or if the Assembly was a one group show, it was because apart from localised concerns chimis did not have a wider and deeper understanding of government policies such as finance for instance.
Chimis who did stand up to submit a view hid behind the pillars in the august hall or read out from a paper in stammering voices.
“The participation from the chimis were poor and people were under the impression that the chimis were petrified of the Speaker and that the Speaker was a powerful figure,” said Dasho Passang Dorji.
The National Assembly Rules and Regulation for sessions clearly specified that every member had the right and privilege to express their thoughts and that no rule or law could interfere with the member’s freedom of expression.
Many elderly people who have served as chimis reason that the lack of understanding of government polices restricted their discussion to local development issues. “Most of the time the discussions were foreign to us,” said a former chimi from Mewang gewog. “We were so scared of the Speaker lest he scold and embarrass us in the hall,” he said.
The Assembly Speaker was indeed powerful, recalls the present Speaker, Dasho Ugen Dorje. “The Speaker used to keep the chimis standing or scold them if they did not understand the issue discussed and digressed from the topic of discussions,” he said. However, he said that chimis were free to speak their mind on any issue.
The greatest agent of change in the deliberations and the functioning was the establishment of the Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogdu (DYT) and the Gewog Yargye Tshogchung (GYT), according to many senior members of the Assembly. “When the policies were decentralised people were involved directly and they had to carry out the responsibilities,” said a chimi. “We started learning and understanding both public and government polices when we were involved,” he said.
In recent years, the voices of the representatives have been heard so much that they are even being criticised for trying to grab the spotlight. The past few Assembly sessions have witnessed people’s representatives taking ministers to task.
The devolution of power from the throne in 1998 to an elected cabinet of ministers brought about the most dramatic change in the Assembly, according to chimi Namgay Phuntsho. “When the ministers were elected by the people, we had the right to question them because we were answerable to the people,” said the chimi.
“Chimis started analysing issues, did more homework and understood more and more issues, which gave them the confidence to speak out,” said a senior civil servant.
Speaker Dasho Ugen Dorje who witnessed more open debates than any other Speaker said that chimis who were included in the Constitution Drafting Committee gained valuable experience and knowledge.
“This exposed 20 chimis (representatives from 20 dzongkhags) to important policies of the government and gave them a deeper understanding which came out during the Assembly sessions,” he said.
Today there are chimis who are also members of important government institutions.
Considered the most vocal representative, chimi Namgay Phuntsho said that the nature of proceedings changed not because chimis were becoming bold, but because they were “swept along with the wind of change”. “As the country developed there were more issues to be resolved in the Assembly,” he said. “There is a difference of sky and earth in the issues presented to the Assembly in the past and today.”
The most notable difference in the National Assembly had been the standard of deliberations and the subject of deliberations, according to the secretary for information and communication ministry, Dasho Tashi Phuntshog who served as the Assembly secretary for 15 years. “The subject of discussion changed from issues related to villages and gewogs to issues of national importance,” he said.
After the establishment of GYT and DYT many issues were resolved at the level, but national issues came to the Assembly and the importance of the issues demanded more vigorous and qualitative debates, according to the secretary.
A foreign observer who had attended the National Assembly for 16 years pointed out that the parliament had grown from a baby to an adolescent.
But the most significant transformation of Bhutan’s highest legislative body was seen in 2008 after the first general elections and the birth of a new parliament.