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Saturday July 20th, 2024

“Happy” Bhutan threatened by climate change and geopolitics

ECONOMYNEXT – For decades, the small Kingdom of Bhutan, has carefully controlled its exposure to the more materialistic lifestyles adopted elsewhere in the world.  It’s concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) taking precedence over Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as envisioned by that nation’s 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck has won Bhutan the status of being the only carbon neutral country in the world.  It also fares pretty well on the world happiness index.

Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, this Kingdom of less than 800,000 people, has styled its GHN along the four pillars of good governance, sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development, environment conservation and preservation and promotion of culture based on the country’s Buddhist heritage.  The Kingdom seeks to apply a holistic approach to development and progress as a nation, striking a balance between the economic and non-economic facets of well-being.

But, its carefully crafted policies to protect its people and the environment, maintain the status quo and withstand issues not of their making, requires a keen balancing act.

These subjects were discussed at a webinar on ‘Liberty and Happiness in Bhutan,’ organised by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom (FNF) moderated by journalist Gopilal Acharya. In his introductory remarks Acharya said all development activities in Bhutan are centred around ensuring the happiness of the people, where liberty of the mind, and liberty from everyday situations is foremost, Bhutan must also struggle to safeguard its own identity. It may also have to consider diversifying its economy, he added.

The webinar which was held on June 2 had as its panelists Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Senior Columnist, Hindustan Times & Fellow, The Ananta Aspen Society, Dasho Paljor J Dorji, Deputy Minister and Special Advisor, Environment Commission and Dr. Passang Dorji, MP, Chairman of Human Rights and Foreign Relations Committee, National Assembly of Bhutan.  Bettina Stark-Watzinger, an MP of the German Parliament, the Bundestag and a Board Member of FNF, was the Keynote Speaker.   Moderator Acharya is a Consultant and Freelance Journalist and Founder of The Journalist.

According to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Bhutan, a landlocked country, sandwiched between India on the south and China in the North, and Nepal and Bangladesh in proximity, is faced with several challenges.

The primary challenge he said is the sustainability of the country’s 2600 glacial lakes. Because of higher temperatures Bhutan is vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) which would negatively impact the people living along the river valleys.  Nearly 70 percent of Bhutan’s population make the river valleys their home, and an equal number engage in subsistence agriculture.  The warming waters do not bode well for agriculture, he added, pointing out that climate change has already hit tea production in India’s Darjeeling region for instance, resulting in tea plantations moving to African countries such as Malawi and Kenya.

The second challenge will be the economy, Chaudury said that as hydropower, Bhutan’s main revenue generator, with most of the power produced sold to India, too could be impacted with fluctuating glacial water supply.

Bhutan, says Chaudhuri, is also placed in a vulnerable position, with the intensification of rivalry between India and China.  Of late, he states, China has become bolder, openly flouting its political and economic clout. Though both India and Bhutan have refused to be part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, both countries appear on the China’s websites on this plan. Bhutan’s borders are therefore threatened.

With India being a close ally of the USA, ‘Bhutan needs to be more nimble in geopolitics’, he advises, adding that the same is true for any country caught up between these powers.  In Bhutan’s case, he suggests reaching out to third party states for support, perhaps European countries, to help maintain the balance.

Bhutan adds Dr. Passang Dorji is the only country which has national happiness as a goal as it is mandated in the Constitution.

Transitioning from an absolute monarchy in 2008 to a constitutional monarchy, Dr. Dorji explains that the country has elected three different administrations, each time it went to the poll.  That is a sign of a robust democracy.  Though there may be criticism regarding freedom of expression, he claims that the more than eight mainstream newspapers are vibrant and critical of all the elected governments.  Social media platforms, he adds, have ‘destroyed social hierarchical structures’ and have provided the space for diverse views.  ‘It is not 100 percent free expression, but it is allowed, without fear and favour.’

Despite efforts to uphold its national goal of happiness for all, Bhutan is not without internal problems.   A country where half the population is under 28 years of age, unemployment is growing. Says Dasho Paljor J Dorji, as an infant nation, when its population was less than 500,000 it was possible to give everyone an education and employment.  But that is not the case anymore. ‘We are at saturation point we cannot provide employment to everyone.’  Therefore, the government is encouraging self-employment, the young are seeking opportunities outside the country, and that is a good thing too, he says.  “Not only are they remitting money to Bhutan, there is no brain drain, as many come back.’

More importantly, he urges a change of mindset and acceptance that there is no shame in taking on blue collar jobs.

Says Dr. Dorji, the country must address vocational and technical education. Bhutan’s reigning King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has instructed says Dr. Dorji that the country’s civil service and education system be reformed to reflect current world trends.

Dasho Paljor J Dorji popularly known as Dasho Benji, who is the brains behind the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation says Bhutanese ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to preserving the environment.  There is much activity in terms of research and social media engagement on this sphere.

Again, Bhutan’s constitution mandates the country maintains at all times, 60 percent of its land under forest cover, and reports indicate that the current percentage is over seventy.

Development takes place, says Dr. Dorji, but not at the cost of the environment.

Multilateral diplomacy, says Chaudhuri is no easy task for Bhutan, but with climate change becoming a major issue, possibly for the next fifty years, Bhutan could, along with other governments develop strategies for climate resilience, providing an impetus to other mountainous nations with similar ecologies, he adds.

Dr. Dorji agrees. Bhutan, he says could promote soft power, playing the role of ‘small state, smart state,’ in climate resilience as well as peace and happiness in the world.

In terms of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative and the South Asian context, the country to watch closely says Chaudhuri is Bangladesh.  Sitting on $60 billion in foreign exchange, enabling it to provide a $200 million currency swap to Sri Lanka recently, Bangladesh is ‘neck to neck with India in terms of per capita income, and may well get ahead within the year.’

Dasho Benji attributes Bhutan’s control of the coronavirus pandemic, where to date there have been 1,669 confirmed patients, but only one death, to the leadership given by their King.  If the stringent rules regarding movement etc. are not obeyed, the long-term effects would be messy, he says. It is all about taking advice from one person   and adhering to the restrictions in force. The King has pulled out funds from the country’s reserves to fight the pandemic, he says.

Acharya explained that while the King has been guiding the initiative and providing creative solutions to fight the pandemic, the country’s Prime Minister, himself a medical doctor and the Minister of Health (an epidemiologist) have been out front ensuring the spread is controlled.  (According to WHO reports Bhutan had, by April this year, vaccinated 93 percent of its adult population.)

Keynote Speaker, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, welcomed the recent opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Western world, she said, has much to learn from Bhutan’s emphasis on valuing time and relying on the experience to shape the country’s policies, learn to slow down and concentrate on mental well-being.  Both countries share an ‘interest in climate policy and the preservation of a rule based multi-lateral and international order,’ and promotion of culture. Germany is also providing support to Bhutan’s initiative in preserving its ancient manuscripts, she added. (Colombo/June09/2021)

Reported by Kshama Ranawana

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Jayampathy Wickramaratne PC, responds to President on constitutional article 83

ECONOMYNEXT – Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel had responded to a statement made by President Ranil Wickremesinghe that Article 83 (b) of the constitution which has reference to a six year term was left alone not due to any ‘lapse’ on his part.

A Cabinet sub-committee headed by Premier Wickremesinghe was appointed to oversee the Nineteenth Amendment process.

The changes to the Constitution, were made by a team of legal officers of which he was member, overseen by a Cabinet sub-committee headed by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of 49 political parties and organisations headed by the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Nayaka Thero at Viharamaha Devi Park, in which he pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency altogether,” Wickramaratne explained.

“However, the very next day, he signed another MOU with the Jathika Hela Urumaya, in which he pledged not to make any constitutional change requiring a Referendum. Mr Sirisena’s election manifesto also stated that no constitutional reform necessitating a Referendum would be initiated.”

The Attorney General also made sure that there were no changes that required a referendum, he said. As a result Article 83 (b) was left as it was.

The full statement is reproduced below:

On President Wickremesinghe’s statement that not amending Article 83 was a lapse on my part

The President stated in Galle on 19 July 2024 that not reducing the upper limit of the term of the President and Parliament from six to five years while preparing the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was a lapse on my part due to my inexperience.

I wish to set the record straight.

Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of 49 political parties and organisations headed by the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Nayaka Thero at Viharamaha Devi Park, in which he pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency altogether.

However, the very next day, he signed another MOU with the Jathika Hela Urumaya, in which he pledged not to make any constitutional change requiring a Referendum. Mr Sirisena’s election manifesto also stated that no constitutional reform necessitating a Referendum would be initiated.

Soon after being sworn in, President Sirisena appointed Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Constitutional affairs was Gazetted as a subject under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. A Cabinet sub-committee headed by Premier Wickremesinghe was appointed to oversee the Nineteenth Amendment process.

The five-member team that prepared the initial draft comprised three retired officials who had served in very senior positions in the Legal Draftsman’s Department, myself and another lawyer.

The entire drafting process was carried out on the basis that the Bill should not be placed for approval at a referendum, in keeping with President Sirisena’s electoral pledge. While the terms of the President and Parliament were proposed to be reduced from six to five years, the upper limit of six years was not touched as that would require a Referendum.

Article 83 of the Constitution mandates that a Bill that seeks to amend or is inconsistent with particular Articles listed or the said upper limits would be required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum.

It is essential to note that Article 83 itself is included in the list of provisions requiring a Referendum. The several drafts prepared were all shared and discussed with the Cabinet sub-committee.

The draft finally approved by the Cabinet sub-committee was then sent to the Legal Draftsman, who took over as required by law and made some changes. It was then sent to the Attorney-General, who took the view that certain clauses, especially some that reduced the powers of the President, would require a Referendum. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had several meetings with the Attorney General to discuss the matter. I participated in one such meeting. Several changes had to be made to the Bill because of the Attorney-General’s position.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe presented the Bill to Parliament. When it was challenged in the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General argued on behalf of the Government that no provision required a Referendum. The clauses that the Supreme Court held to require a Referendum were either amended or withdrawn in Parliament.

In light of the above, I regret that President Wickremesinghe has thought it fit to place the entire blame on me for not reducing the upper limits of the President’s and Parliament’s terms.

I reiterate that the entire amendment process was based on avoiding a Referendum following President Sirisena’s pledge at the Presidential election.

(Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Presidents Counsel
20 July 2024.

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Sri Lanka banking system foreign assets turn positive in May: analysis

ECONOMYNEXT – Net foreign assets of Sri Lanka’s banking system turned positive in May 2024, official data showed, amid a steady reduction in the negative reserve position of the central bank helped by the current interest rate structure and domestic credit.

In May the combined net foreign assets position of commercial banks and the central bank was about 311 million US dollars by May, up from a negative 178 million US dollars a month earlier, central bank data show.

It was made up of positive 1.9 billion US dollar foreign assets position in overseas banking units and a negative 811-million-dollar position which gave a positive NFA position of about 1.13 billion US dollars for banks.
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The central bank still had a negative position of about 821 million dollars by May, down from about 4.5 billion US dollars in last currency crises triggered by deploying liquidity tools (printing money) to cut rates.

The central bank has been collecting reserves for several months, except in June after a confidence shock from the flexible exchange rate and some injections made to keep rates down.

Analysts have warned that under flexible inflation targeting, where there are anchor conflicts, external imbalances will re-emerge when private credit recovers and money is printed to cut rates.

Printing after giving Reserves for Imports

Sri Lanka’s central bank ran up a negative foreign assets position, by spending dollars borrowed from the International Monetary Fund and from other central banks including in Bangladesh and India as well as domestic banks and spending them to suppress market interest rates and finance imports.

An ‘age-of-inflation’ (or age-of-BOP-deficit) central bank that spends reserve for imports, simultaneously prints money into banks, injecting excess rupee reserves to maintain an artificial policy rate, preventing the outflow of real resources to other countries being reflected in bank balance sheets.

The printing of money after spending reserves, or the sterilizing of an outflow, allow banks to give loans without deposits and trigger forex shortages.

To collect foreign assets, a central bank has to do the opposite, and sell its domestic asset portfolio down against dollars purchased from banks, at an appropriate interest rate, which will moderate domestic credit.

Modern IMF-prone reserve collecting central banks are able to mis-target rates beyond their reserves mostly with the aid of Central bank swaps.

Sri Lanka’s central bank also borrowed reserves from domestic banks through swaps, in a somewhat similar operation to the way Lebanon’s central bank borrowed dollars to show reserves instead of buying outright against domestic assets.

Borrowed Reserves

Central bank swaps were invented by the Federal Reserve to mis-target rates and avoid giving gold reserves as macro-economists printed money to target growth in the 1960s and the printed dollars boomeranged on itself from other Bretton Woods central banks that focused on stability.

RELATED Central bank swaps symptomatic of Sri Lanka’s IMF return tickets and default: Bellwether

By March 2022, before rates were hiked, negative reserve position of Sri Lanka’s central bank was around 4.0 billion US dollars.

The negative position worsened to around 4.5 billion US dollars by the third quarter of 2022, helped by credits from Reserve Bank of India, which allowed Sri Lanka to run arrears on Asian Clearing Union balances.

In addition to the swaps, Sri Lanka also had borrowings from the International Monetary Fund which contributed to the negative foreign assets position.

The IMF borrowings came from serial currency crises triggered in the course of money printing to enforce rate cuts and target growth (potential output) and generate twice to three times the level of inflation found in monetarily stable countries through ‘flexible’ inflation targeting.

The external sector started to balance only after ACU credits were stopped. It has since been turned into a swap and the central bank is paying it down steadily in the current interest rate structure.

Related Sri Lanka repays US$225mn to Reserve Bank of India in first quarter

Sri Lanka was unable to use a People’s Bank of China swap to mis-target rates and boost imports its use was barred after gross reserves fell below three months of imports.

Private and State Banks

Sri Lanka’s private and state banks also had negative foreign assets for many years, due to lending to the government through US dollar Sri Lanka Development Bonds and other credits. The dollar loans to the government were financed in part by foreign credit lines.

As downgrades hit the country, and forex shortages worsened from flexible inflation targeting/potential output targeting, banks could not renew their credit lines.

Some banks avoided rolling over Sri Lanka Development Bonds. After the default and debt restructure, they were repaid in rupees leading to banks covering their open positions. The dollars are banked abroad, leading a net foreign assets position.

An improvement of net foreign assets, reflects an outflow of dollars from the domestic economy to foreign accounts, similar to repaying debt for building foreign reserves.

The foreign assets position of banks excluding the central bank turned positive in February 2023 and reached around a billion US dollars by the year end and has remained broadly stable around those levels in 2024r.

RELATED Sri Lanka bank net foreign assets turn positive: analysis

The stabilization of the NFA position in banks may allow the central bank to collect more foreign reserves than earlier, analysts say, at the current interest rate structure as long as money is not injected overnight or term injections to mis-target interest rates claiming inflation was low.

Any confidence shocks from the ‘flexible’ exchange rate or liquidity spikes, would also reduce the ability of the central bank to collect dollars and lead to mini ‘capital flight’ style episodes from importers and exporters. (Colombo/July20/2024)

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New constitutional amendment a ‘necessary revision’: Sri Lanka President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s President has said a proposed amendment to the country’s constitution was a ‘necessary revision’, which would not result in a postponement of elections.

“In 2015, we proposed a new constitutional amendment,” President Wickremesinghe was quoted as saying during a ceremony to open a court complex in Beligaha, Galle on Friday.

“Typically, I would have assigned this task to K N Choksy, a lawyer.

“However, since he had passed away, the responsibility fell to lawyer Jayampathi Wickramaratne. He was unable to make the necessary revisions. This oversight is regrettable, and I apologize to the nation for it.”

President’s Counsel Wickramaratne has explained that the leaving out Section 83 (b) of the constitution was a not an “oversight” but it was a result of instructions received from the then administration to avoid making changes that required a referendum.

President Maithripala Sirisena in his election manifesto has pledged not to make changes that required a referendum, and the drafting team was told not to make changes that would require a referendum.

Related Sri Lanka’s 6-year Presidential term: problem in drafting 19th amendment explained

Meanwhile President Wickremesinghe said the move to change the constitution should not lead to a delay in elections.

“Our country has upheld democracy since 1931,” he said. “Protecting democracy is crucial. The upcoming election is on schedule, with the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court confirming that it should be held within the specified timeframe, and we support this directive.

“Some critics argue that democracy is at risk during certain crises. However, our constitution, judiciary, and political system have worked to advance and protect it. The most significant threat to our democracy occurred in 2022, yet we have continued to progress through consensus.”

Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia and Africa to grant universal suffrage in 1931, Wickremesinghe said.

“Unlike in the United States, where some states did not extend voting rights to Black people, Sri Lanka is unique for maintaining democracy continuously since then.

“Despite facing wars and rebellions, Sri Lanka has preserved its democratic system, and democracy has remained intact despite numerous challenges.”

Sri Lanka got universal suffrage under British rule.

In Sri Lanka, power transitions smoothly and without conflict after elections, the president said, “a testament to the strength of our democratic process. Despite various debates and issues, democracy has never been compromised.”

Opposition parties and lawyers have charged that the legal process involving changing the constitution could potentially delay the upcoming Presidential elections.

“Article 83 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is hereby amended in paragraph (b) thereof, by the substitution for the words “to over six years,”, of the words “to over five years,” the gazette notice issued on the orders of Wickremesinghe says.

Download bill 523-2024-bill-constitution-EN

There is a discrepancy in the Article 83 with reference to a six year term, while the rest of the constitution, refers to a five year term. (Colombo/July19/2024)

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