Privatising WestConnex is the biggest waste of public funds for corporate gain in Australian history



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Gladys Berejiklian’s government will pay for much of WestConnex construction, give away other toll roads, guarantee annual toll increases and force motorists to use the toll road.
AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Christopher Standen, University of Sydney

The NSW government has confirmed it will sell 51% of WestConnex — the nation’s biggest road infrastructure project — to a consortium led by Transurban, the nation’s biggest toll road corporation.

NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet described the A$9.3 billion sale to one of his party’s more generous donors as a “very strong result”.

I would describe it differently: the biggest misuse of public funds for corporate gain in Australia’s history.

Let’s examine how much public funding has been or will be sunk into WestConnex, a 33km toll road linking western Sydney with southwestern Sydney via the inner west.

Privatising Westconnex will return the NSW government 30 cents for every dollar of public money spent.
WestConnex Business Case Executive Summary

To date, the NSW and federal governments have provided grants of about $6 billion. Much of this was raised through selling revenue-generating public assets, including NSW’s electricity network.

Hiding privatisation by stealth

As well, the NSW government is bundling three publicly owned motorways into the sale: the M4 (between Parramatta and Homebush), the M5 East and the M5 Southwest (from 2026). Together, Credit Suisse values these public assets at A$9.2 billion. The government is privatising them by stealth. Leaked NSW cabinet documents suggest the Sydney Harbour Bridge will be next.

Then there is the A$1.5 billion bill for property acquisitions and the millions spent on planning, advertising, consultants, lawyers and bankers.

The government is funding extra road works to help prop up WestConnex toll revenue. It will increase the capacity of road corridors feeding into the interchanges. But it will reduce the number of traffic lanes on roads competing with WestConnex, such as Parramatta Road.




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It will also pick up the bill for building a A$2.6 billion airport connection and the complex underground interchange at Rozelle. It will even pay compensation if the latter is not completed on schedule.

To further bolster toll revenue, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian introduced a vehicle registration cashback scheme for toll-road users.

Her government has also committed to continuing the M5 Southwest toll cashback scheme. The cost of these incentives to the public purse is likely to exceed A$2 billion every ten years.

In total, I estimate the NSW government is pumping more than A$23 billion worth of cash, public assets, enabling works and incentives into WestConnex — though efforts to shield the scheme from public scrutiny mean the figure could be much higher.

Finally, as part of the deal with Transurban, the government has agreed to plough A$5.3 billion of the sale proceeds back into WestConnex. It’s recouping just A$4 billion by selling majority ownership.

This translates to a financial return of 34 cents for every dollar spent.

Government expenses and receipts.

Of course, governments don’t always spend our money with the intention of making a profit. Usually there are broader social benefits that justify the expenditure. However, past experience shows inner-city motorways do more harm than good — which is why many cities around the world are demolishing them.

Given its proximity to residential areas, WestConnex will have serious impacts on Sydney’s population. Construction is already destroying communities, harming people’s health and disrupting sleep and travel — with years more to come.

Motorists who cannot afford the new tolls on the M4 ($2,300 a year) and M5 East ($3,100 a year) will have to switch to congested suburban roads. This will mean longer journey times — especially with the removal of traffic lanes on Parramatta Road.

New tolls on existing motorways.

Those who do opt to pay the new tolls may enjoy faster journeys for a few years — until the motorways fill up again.

Costs outweigh the benefits

But this benefit will be largely cancelled out by the tolls they have to pay — with low-income households in western Sydney bearing much of the pain. As such, the ultimate beneficiary will be a corporation that pays no company tax and employs very few people.

Traffic and congestion on roads around the interchanges will increase significantly. Moreover, with tolls for trucks three times those for cars, we can expect to see them switching to suburban and residential streets — especially between peak hours and at night.

The extra traffic created by WestConnex will lead to more road trauma, traffic noise and air pollution across the Sydney metropolitan area. With unfiltered smokestacks being built next to homes and schools, more people may be at risk of heart disease, lung disease and cancer in years to come.




Read more:
Big road projects don’t really save time or boost productivity


On any measure, the WestConnex sale is not in the public interest. The billions of dollars ploughed into the scheme would have been better spent on worthwhile infrastructure or services that improve people’s lives.

Is the WestConnex acquisition a good deal for Transurban? A$9.3 billion may sound like a high price, given the past financial collapses of other Australian toll roads.

However, with the Berejiklian government agreeing to fund most of the remaining construction, giving away the M4 and M5, guaranteeing annual toll increases of at least 4%, and bending over backwards to force motorists under the toll gantries, it can only be described as a “very strong result” for the consortium, though not for taxpayers.The Conversation

Christopher Standen, Transport Analyst, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Rewriting history in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and beyond


Louisa Lim, University of Melbourne

This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Buried at the end of the most important Chinese political speech in a decade, President Xi Jinping’s 66-page address to the 19th party congress in November 2017, was one short line: “The Chinese Dream is a dream about history, the present, and the future.” Tired after 71 ovations over three-and-a-half hours, the audience may have missed this sentence. Yet it illuminates how history underpins President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.

History plays an increasingly important legitimising role in China. As historian Antonia Finnane writes:

Every country has its national myths, most of which are grounded in or derived from history; but in China, history alone is the bedrock. The People’s Republic doesn’t have a religion, and it doesn’t have a constitution – or at least, not one that counts. It no longer even has a revolutionary ideology. It just has history, lots of it.

For the Chinese Dream to be achieved, it is imperative – as the president himself has spelled out – to ensure people “have correct views on history”. Certain episodes – the Chinese resistance to the Japanese in the 1930s and the second world war – can be remembered. Others, like the brutal 1989 crackdown in the streets leading up to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which has just been removed from the new secondary school history curriculum in Hong Kong, must be forgotten.

The enforcement of forgetting

The French historian Ernest Renan said:

Forgetting … is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation.

In contemporary China, it’s put into practice with surgical skill. Specific memories of events deemed sensitive by the state are not just forgotten, they are winnowed out and selectively deleted. The Communist Party has succeeded in hacking the collective memory.

National amnesia has become what Chinese writer Yan Lianke calls a “state-sponsored sport”. And as Beijing’s global influence rises, its controlling instincts – to tame, to corral, to shape, to prune, to expurgate history and historical memory – are increasingly being exported to the world.

The first move was an attempt in August 2017 to bully Cambridge University Press into removing online access in China to 300 articles from the China Quarterly journal. These were pieces on topics deemed sensitive, such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown.

The publisher at first bowed to Chinese demands and only reversed its position after public backlash. But statements by the Journal of Asian Studies, Critical Asian Studies and Springer Nature indicate that this case is part of a larger campaign.

Chinese censorship has also made inroads into Western publishing houses. For instance, Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and Scientific American, deleted around 1,000 articles from its Chinese website, citing “local distribution laws”. In doing so, Western academic presses end up serving the CCP’s purpose by propagating only state-mandated “correct views of history” inside China, as if no alternatives exist.

Protesters injured in the 1989 crackdown begged the photographer ‘Tell the world!’ Today’s it’s a crime to commemorate the dead.
Courtesy Kim Nygaard, Author provided

China is also censoring its own archives, as work by Glenn Tiffert has forensically uncovered. His comparison of electronic and paper versions of China’s legal journals found that in one journal 87% of the page count had been excised.

At home, Beijing’s tightening grip on history deigns not only what can be remembered, but also the manner in which it can be marked. In the case of the events of June 4 in Tiananmen Square, small-scale commemorations that once flew beneath the radar are now regularly punished, often through vague charges such as “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.

Every year, Chinese activist Chen Yunfei had paid his respects at the grave of Wu Guofeng, a 20-year-old student who was shot and bayoneted to death by troops in Beijing on June 4, 1989. In March 2017, Chen was sentenced to four years in jail for this simple act of remembrance.

Chen’s lawyer Sui Muiqing told me:

June Fourth is a red line for the authorities that cannot be crossed. This was a very important reason. It was a catalyst for his arrest.

Last year, at least 16 people were detained for public acts of commemoration. Four other activists face up to 15 years in prison after being indicted for “inciting subversion of state power” for selling liquor with a label referencing June 4 and Tank Man.

A lone man stops a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square the day after the military suppressed protests by force.

The paradox, of course, is that the harder the Communist Party works to erase the memory of June 4, the deeper its obsession with Tiananmen’s legacy becomes. As Madeleine Thien wrote:

One could say that no one remembers the Tiananmen massacre more faithfully, or with greater attentiveness, than the Chinese government.

The crime of rejecting the revolution

An old term that came to prominence in the white terror after Tiananmen is also back in vogue: historical nihilism, or “rejecting the revolution and denying the historical inevitability of socialism”. In April this year, a law was passed that bans the slander of Communist Party heroes and revolutionary martyrs. Last week, prosecutors used this new law for the first time, against a man in Jiangsu province who used social media to criticise a fireman who died during a rescue operation.

A precursor of these new laws went to trial in 2016 when writer Hong Zhenkuai questioned elements of the patriotic war story, “The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain”. This recounts the self-sacrifice of a group of Chinese soldiers who threw themselves from a cliff to avoid capture. Hong questioned whether two of the soldiers may have simply slipped and fallen by mistake.

Hong was found guilty of libel and forced to make a public apology after the court ruled that he had damaged the solders’ “heroic image and spiritual value”. The court argued that Hong should not have disputed the validity of the well-known story precisely because it “constituted part of the collective memory of the Chinese nation”.

Chinese writer Hong Zhenkuai, convicted by a court for challenging the war story Five Heroes of Langya Mountain, climbs a peak to defend his position.

Many mainland historians and activists warn that the charge of historical nihilism could be used to muzzle historical research, using the threat of lawsuits to shut down discussion and ensure that the authorities’ view of history remains the only one.

“They want to use falsified history as propagated by the authorities to replace real history for the people,” Sui Muqing said. “They want to erase real historical events that happened. That’s what so-called ‘historical nihilism’ means.”

Even literary works are being targeted as guilty of historical nihilism. The Chinese government has denounced Soft Burial, a novel by Fang Fang about the excesses of the 1950s land reform movement, as a “poisonous weed” and banned its sale. Fang Fang explains the title, writing:

When people die and their bodies are buried under the earth without the protection of coffins, this burial is called a ‘soft burial’; as for the living, when they seal off their past, cut off their roots, reject their memories, either consciously or subconsciously, their lives are soft buried in time. Once they are in a soft burial, their lives will be disconnected in amnesia.

In today’s China, exhuming or even publicly remembering history – even events that happened within our lifetime, such as those of 1989 – is increasingly costly. Soft burial has become not just a reality, but a state of self-preservation.

“In the future, historical research will be impossible,” warned Hong in an open letter. He had previously worked as the chief editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a gutsy magazine that addresses Communist Party history. “If you point out the contradictions or holes in what they say, they can use the law to proclaim that you are guilty.”

President Xi has even published a book titled History: the Best Textbook. Yet only one version of history is acceptable: the Communist Party’s own.

The global spread of China’s amnesia

With China’s rise, it now finds itself in a position to amplify its version of history to a global audience. Following the 2017 meeting in Mar-a-Lago between Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, Trump described his conversation to The Wall Street Journal:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be part of China.

Such a distorted reading is in line with a growing body of nationalist thought in China.

Increasingly, Beijing is marshalling its own version of history to support its territorial claims overseas. This is the case, for instance, of the Nine-Dash Line, which China says gives it a historical claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. China has refused to accept the Hague-based international tribunal’s ruling that this claim has no legal basis. Disgraced Australian politician Sam Dastyari even echoed the “thousands of years of history” line to back China’s refusal to abide by these rulings.

Recently, a map dating from 1951 has been uncovered. It is being used by researchers to propose new boundaries, though it is not clear whether Beijing could adopt them.

China has also invoked history to legitimise its massive One Belt One Road international infrastructure scheme, despite critics claiming that its premise relies on mythologised history.

The Chinese Communist Party is actively trying to export its version of the past beyond its borders. But these examples should serve as a warning. If Beijing is given a free pass on history, the international ramifications could come back to bite us in the years ahead.


The ConversationLousia Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (OUP 2014).

Louisa Lim, Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Donald Trump doesn’t understand Haiti, immigration or American history



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After Haiti signed its Declaration of Independence from France, in 1804, the U.S. started a 60-year political and economic embargo that hobbled the young nation’s growth.
Wikimedia

Chantalle F. Verna, Florida International University

Donald Trump’s denigrating comments about Haiti during a recent congressional meeting shocked people around the globe, but given his track record of disrespecting immigrants, they were not actually that surprising.

Despite campaign promises that Trump would be Haiti’s “biggest champion,” his administration had already demonstrated its disregard for people from this Caribbean island. In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would end the Temporary Protected Status that had allowed 59,000 Haitians to stay in the U.S. after a calamitous Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

Their TPS was extended after Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti again in 2016. Without protected status, these Haitian migrants have until July 2019 to get a green card, leave voluntarily or be deported.

As a scholar and first-generation Haitan-American, I can attest that Trump’s statements and policies reflect not just disrespect for Haiti but also a profound ignorance about how migration occurs.

Why history matters

As shown in my recent book, “Haiti and the Uses of America,” history shapes where immigrants choose to build their lives.

Outsiders head to the United States in times of crisis not at random but because historic ties point them in this direction. When nativists like President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions refer to immigrants as “criminal aliens” – perpetuating the idea that foreigners are “invading” the country – they ignore this key fact.

Movement from Haiti to the U.S. has its roots in colonial times, when British, French and Spanish traders exchanged coffee, cotton and mahogany between the two territories.

In the 1790s, thousands of white and mixed-race residents sought refuge from a revolutionary war in colonial Haiti, which was then called Saint Domingue. Fleeing an uprising by enslaved men and women of African descent, French colonists boarded ships following historic trade routes to U.S. port cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York. Some brought with them the people they had enslaved.

An estimated 10,000 Saint Dominguan revolution-era refugees eventually resettled in Louisiana, contributing to the distinct Creole history
and culture that characterizes Gulf cities like New Orleans today.

By 1804 the island’s revolutionaries had driven out France to found Haiti. The U.S., however, did not formally recognize Haitian independence until 1862.

Born of a slave rebellion, Haiti challenged the legitimacy of an American economy and society dependent on racial hierarchies. In 1806, the U.S. government imposed an economic embargo on the island.

But a vibrant illicit trade persisted. In 1821, 45 percent of Haitian imports still came from the U.S.

As a result, migration between the two nations continued, too – and not just from Haiti to the U.S. In the 1820s, some 13,000 African-Americans sought refuge in Haiti, seeking freedom from slavery, anti-black violence and lack of economic opportunity in the U.S.

In the 1870s, civic and religious leaders, notably Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Episcopalian Theodore James Holly, enabled similar journeys by negotiating directly with Haitian heads of state.

President Abraham Lincoln supported such schemes to send African-Americans abroad – not just to Haiti but also to Liberia, Central America and elsewhere. Even many abolitionists of the era believed that blacks and whites could not co-exist as equals in the U.S..

Many of the African-Americans who went to Haiti later returned to the U.S., in part drawn by the promise of new legal rights after the Civil War.

American meddling leads to migration

By the time the American embargo of Haiti ended in 1862, the U.S. was openly striving for political and economic domination of the Western Hemisphere, including in the Caribbean.

Starting with President Ulysses S. Grant, who wanted to annex Haiti, American politicians militarily pursued U.S. interests on the island nation. Between 1862 and 1915, American warships were active in Haitian waters 17 times.

Powerful commercial lobbies with a business stake in Haiti – particularly the financial and sugar industries – also meddled in the island’s affairs. Foreign merchants and bankers in Haiti paid armed groups known as cacos to overthrow standing presidents and empower leaders who would give them preferential terms of trade.

The political and economic instability that resulted helped perpetuate the racist perception of Haitians as incapable of self-rule.

It also fueled emigration. New research shows that in the first decades of the 20th century, some 200,000 rural Haitians left to work as guest laborers for American sugar companies in Cuba. They were among more than 1 million Caribbeans who traveled across the Americas between 1840 and 1940. Some of them eventually landed in the United States.

A series of military interventions

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The occupation, which lasted until 1934, was the first in a series of U.S. military actions on the island.

The next interventions came in 1994 and 2004, under the auspices of the United Nations. The impetus was the 1991 ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who’d been elected during Haiti’s contested four-year transition from dictatorship to democracy. Through an economic embargo initiated by President George Bush and a military engagement under President Bill Clinton, Aristide was restored to power in 1994.

When he was again forced out 10 years later, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. Marines back into Haiti.

The actions preceding and during these interventions have destabilized Haiti. In other words, for over a century, the U.S. has helped to perpetuate and exacerbate the political fragility and economic struggle that leads Haitians to seek refuge on American shores.

Today, an estimated 830,000 people of Haitian descent live in the U.S., primarily in Florida and New York. Approximately 40 percent of them were born in the U.S.

With their TPS status revoked, nearly 60,000 Haitians will face deportation from the U.S. starting in July 2019.
Lynne Sladky/Ap Images

Few Haitian-Americans are wealthy – in 2009, census data shows, 1 in 5 households lived in poverty – but they are employed at higher rates than the general American public.

The Haitian-American population is also growing, more than tripling between 1990 and 2015. Within this group are the nearly 60,000 people granted Temporary Protected Status after the 2010 earthquake, who have now lived in the U.S. for an average of 13 years.

In countless ways, Haiti is woven into the fabric of the United States. Haitian-Americans have made their homes in South Florida, Brooklyn, and Detroit, among many other places.

The ConversationThe deep historic ties binding Haiti and the U.S. will persist with or without Donald Trump. What the president’s repugnant language and short-sighted policy changes can do is spur new crises in both Haiti and the United States.

Chantalle F. Verna, Associate Professor of History and International Relations, Florida International University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Iran: Demolishing Christian History


The following article reports on the destruction of Iran’s Christian history by Iranian officials.

http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue16072.html

Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events


Apparent central government crackdown puts halt to Yuletide celebrations in five areas.

HANOI, Vietnam, December 20 (CDN) — In what appeared to be part of a central government crackdown on Protestant Christianity in Vietnam, hundreds of Christians from 10 northern provinces were locked out of a Christmas celebration that was supposed to take place here yesterday.

The throngs who arrived at the National Convention Center (NCC) in the Tu Kiem district of Hanoi for the Christmas event found the doors locked and a phalanx of police trying to send them away, sources said. Deeply disappointed, some of the Christians began singing and praying in the square in front to the center, they said.

Police moved in, striking some Christians with fists and night sticks in the melee that followed. A number of video clips of the action were posted online by Monday morning (Dec. 20), Hanoi time. Christian leaders worked to calm the disappointed crowd, which eventually left, but not before at least six people – including the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao, the scheduled speaker at the event – were arrested. They had not been released at press time.

Similar incidents occurred on Christmas Sunday (Dec. 19) in at least four other places throughout the country.

Unregistered house churches under the umbrella of the Hanoi Christian Fellowship rented the auditorium in the name of one of their members. A copy of the six-page contract obtained by Compass says the event was to be a reunion of Vietnamese who had worked in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Many of northern Vietnam’s house church leaders became Christians during their time there.

While it was understood that this was to be a Christmas event, the managers of the state-owned facility did not want to put this in writing. Organizers had hoped that some 4,000 people would come.

The contract called for at least five days’ written notice before the event if either side wanted to terminate the contract. According to one source, the NCC informed event organizers on Dec. 15, four days before the event, that the contract was voided but gave no reasons as the contract required. The organizers, having completed major preparations and distributed several thousand invitations, considered this a breach of contract and decided to try to go ahead.

When the first Christians arrived Sunday afternoon, they found the doors of the NCC locked. According to a source at the scene, a sign indicated a wedding was taking place. When more than 1,000 people had arrived, some decided to sing and pray in the square in front of the NCC. Police called for reinforcements.

One witness said “possibly hundreds” of uniformed and plainclothes personnel came to try to disperse the growing crowd. Reports from the scene and video clips on the Web show pushing and shoving, with some Christian leaders trying desperately to calm the agitated crowd. Some witnesses said officials punched some Christians, and others were struck hard with night sticks. Late police reinforcements carried electric cattle prods, according to one source. In one clip, people can be seen comforting an 86-year-old woman who was knocked down.

Gradually the Christians dispersed. For many Christians who tried to come – some from great distances and at great personal expense – this would have marked the first time they had ever worshipped in a large gathering.

Sources in Vietnam told Compass that similar stoppages also took place yesterday (Dec. 19) in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Quang Nam provinces, and in the city of Danang in central Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, Christians of various house church denominations planned a joint celebration yesterday at the home of a woman identified only as Tuyet in Dong Phu commune. Pastor Ho Van Thom sent an appeal to the church worldwide asking for the prayers. He arrived at the scene to find some Christians had been beaten and wounded by police intent on preventing their Christmas worship.

In Danang city in central Vietnam, the Rev. Ho Tan Khoa, superintendent of the unregistered United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam, was invited to preach at a house church Christmas celebration yesterday. Pastor Khoa reported that a distraught church leader told him authorities had come that morning and, without a warrant, carted off the chairs, the pulpit and the sound system. They also tore down the Christmas decorations including a backdrop painstakingly decorated by church members, he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, house churches have received permission for a public Christmas celebration both from authorities of the central government in Hanoi and of Ho Chi Minh City for an event on Dec. 26.  But church leaders say that potential venue owners, obviously under threat, will not dare rent to them.

Even those who closely follow Protestant church developments in Vietnam were somewhat surprised at the severity of the crackdown. One well-respected overseas Vietnam leader observed that it is now clear that this was a coordinated, well-planned and executed crackdown involving top Communist Party and government officials.

He noted that sometimes officials in remote areas of the country are excused when they persecute Christians on the grounds they do not yet know the new, more enlightened religion policies of the central government.

“In this case,” he said, “the strong actions against Christians are taking place in Vietnam’s three largest cities. They can’t use that excuse.”

Another observer said that authorities likely became alarmed at the size and attraction of the Christmas events in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi last Christmas. The events in those two cities attracted more than 50,000 people. They were organized by unregistered house churches that somehow obtained permission in spite of prohibitions of such events by Vietnam’s Decree 22, which governs religion.

One key church leader in Vietnam informed Compass that Directive No. 75, a secret Ministry of Interior document dated Oct. 15, ordered the crackdown on unregistered groups.

Unregistered groups are caught in limbo. Denominations with a history before the 1975 communist takeover of Vietnam have now been registered, but many groups that began in the 1980s and later have tried but failed to register their congregations as provided by Vietnam’s regulations. Their requests have mostly been ignored or denied, leaving them vulnerable to capricious repression.

As Christmas Day draws near, it appears the 400,000 or so Protestants that belong to unregistered churches will be denied celebrating together.

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News