The RIGSS Blog

To stimulate analysis, innovation, and forward thinking, and generate new ideas and insight
on subjects that matter in 21st Century Bhutan.
A humble tribute to celebrate learning, leadership and service that His Majesty The King continues to champion.

Launched on 21st February 2021 to commemorate the 41st Birthday of His Majesty The King

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on the RIGSS Blog are that of the authors and do not represent the views of the institute.

NATIONAL SECURITY- SITUATING COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN BHUTAN'S SECURITY CONCERNS

POSTED ON February 21, 2021
Dechen Rabgyal
Masters Student, LSE, Former Asst. Integrity Officer, ACC

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc, some Bhutanese have treated national efforts parallel with the low-intensity military operation of 2003. Some urge compatriots to make amends for failing to respond to the nation's call during the 2003 operation. The duty might be different, but both have implications on national security. Bhutan's general rhetoric and understanding of security appear to confine to traditional security threats of being 'flanked' between two populous countries with military and economic power. This directly impinges on essential values of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and statehood. Non-traditional security concerns, which can pose threats to the survival and development of a sovereign state and humankind as a whole, aren't as necessarily pronounced as they should be. These include – pandemic, natural disasters, and cybersecurity.

On the eve of our democratic transition, His Majesty The King signed the revised Bhutan-India Friendship Treaty in 2007. Four years earlier, in 2003, His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo successfully handed over Indian militants residing in Bhutan's southern stretch to the Indian government. The former strengthened Bhutan's sovereignty while the latter ensured her security. Coming to the present time, His Majesty The King commanded the sealing of the international border to keep His people safe and the country secure as the COVID-19 caseload increased globally.

Now, in the reign of the third democratic government, COVID-19 is an ongoing test of how prepared we are in the wake of uncertainty. Did we live up to the expectations of our Monarchs? Are our actions commensurate with the trust bestowed on us?

Into the second year of the pandemic, Minister for Agriculture and Forests tells residents of an agrarian country to 'change the dietary habit to address the chilli shortage.' After the second lockdown, three women walked for almost an hour to refill liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder in Nganglam. With one death from 859 confirmed cases [as of 05 February 2021], the figures suggest Bhutan's fight against the pandemic as exemplary. However, overall responses could have been better. For example, as Phuntsholing witnessed positive cases every day in August 2020, BBS's panel discussion was mostly on zoning in Thimphu. While it must have helped prepare for the second lockdown, Phuntsholing required more coverage than a normal news story. As Thimphu residents ran out of vegetables, farmers in villages were said to have let rot their farm produce. The aggregate of individual household security forms the national security, including economic security.

Are we doing better in other non-traditional security threats? Our responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), and fire appear to be more prepared. The Disaster Management Act of Bhutan 2013 provides a clear line of responsibility, including at the Local Government as the establishment of the Dzongkhag Disaster Management Committee indicates. Considering that COVID-19 [as it stands today] did not spread across all 20 Dzongkhags, would it have been better coordinated through Dzongkhag specific response with similar legislation? The second lockdown saw coordination headed that way. Perhaps experience is important. Bhutan witnessed the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, which was, of course, of insignificant number? The practice of 'yulsung' was implemented as early as 1949. Didn't we learn enough lessons? In the absence of specific legislation, the Penal Code of Bhutan has become the principal legislation to deal with breaches of COVID-19 protocol. For example, a man in Samtse has been prosecuted for crossing the border to fetch water for his five-year-old son. Trespassing the international border during such times is one grave concern, but trespassing to drink water paints a different picture, particularly on the level of awareness on the ground and access to necessities such as water.

As disease outbreaks become more likely attributable to ecological disruptions, and drugs and pharmaceutical companies become more inclined towards profit than ethics, we can never rule out epidemics and pandemics in the future. Legislation with a clear line of responsibilities might help coordinate region-specific responses. Schools in Lhuntse need not have to close because of cases in Thimphu. Road construction in Trashi Yangtse can continue even when Phuntsholing sees infections. A tiered system coupled with proper coordination is expected to reduce economic disruptions, thus lowering recovery costs. Retrospective commentary is quite easy, though.

Information technology opens unrivalled opportunities. Bhutan e-Government Master Plan 2014 is one such acknowledgement. It is also accompanied by certain risks. As much as territorial integrity and national boundary, information and data integrity are important in securing national sovereignty. Digital sovereignty will be tested as the reach of information, communications and technology (ICT) deepen. Information, Communications and Media Act of Bhutan 2018 authorises interception, monitoring, decryption and blocking of information received or stored in any ICT system if it threatens the interest of the country's sovereignty, security, and harmony and defence. The National Cybersecurity Strategy (NCS) of Bhutan is also said to have been drafted. As technology giants in the U.S. face Congressional hearings, in Bhutan, social media such as WeChat is one medium in which some official documents are being circulated. Perhaps these are ordinary documents?

In pursuit of e-Governance, data and information are being migrated online. To this effect, 'Application Development Guidelines' are put in place. Unless the specific project proposal document covers security protocols, the guidelines eligibility criteria about 'sensitivity to security concern' in developing one such database or system are silent. Government's e-governance database and application such as 'Management for Excellence (MaX) System' covering entire civil service, 'Government e-Payment System' and 'Government Payroll System' have been built by expatriates and foreign companies. Apparently, expatriates have been trusted with the government's entire personnel and financial flows. Perhaps, code of conduct and audit mechanism is resilient enough. Was it because of a lack of Bhutanese expertise? Some Bhutanese are said to be working in Silicon Valley while some are plying their business in technology companies in Singapore. Cannot Bhutanese build their own security system, including data and information management systems?

As evident, concerted efforts are being put at varying degrees. However, our preparations are supposedly short of the imminent challenges. What would have been the status of those laid-off employees had it not been for Druk Gylapo's Relief Kidu? Into the second year, neither the executive nor the legislature has indicated a long-term solution for such redundancy. Does the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007 cover such redundancies? The question remains as to what the concrete recovery measures are. Come 2023, Bhutan will be graduating from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDC). By that effect, access to finance will possibly be reduced.

Currently, different security threats are subsumed under different legislative instruments. Attributable to such an arrangement, it appears that the security component didn't receive much attention as it should. Has the time come for Bhutan to develop a comprehensive security framework covering both traditional and non-traditional security threats? Or is such a fusion incompatible?

As we commemorate His Majesty's auspicious 41st Birth Anniversary, can we commit both in words and actions to maximise and deepen our efforts to strengthen Bhutan's security and sovereignty which we know is amongst His Majesty’s top-most concerns and priorities.

[Disclaimer: The author claims neither authority nor expertise on the subject matter of security.]

Dechen Rabgyal

An alumnus of Foundational Leadership Programme-2, Dechen hails from Mongar. His occasional posts and commentaries are available at his personal website, www.dechenrabgyal.com.

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