"Thank you for Nu. 50, you are a good rich man...otherwise, I would stab you with this KNIFE," warned a half-face-hidden young man at broad daylight in the heart of Thimphu city today. This is shocking.
It is not common that I walk the streets of our capital city. For the last 5 years, I spent most of my time in the villages of Bhutan. And it seems in the last 5 years alone Thimphu city seems to have changed, not necessarily for the better if today's incident is any warning sign for social ills to come in our otherwise small, safe and sacred society.
Today, out of curiosity to see the streets and shops of Thimphu and also to do some actual shoppings, I walked around streets and shops at busy Norzin Lam.
I walked into the Bura Kira and Gho shop in the same building and floor as Pepe Jeans store. As I was looking at collections of Bura Ghos, a young man in 20's also walked in and stood next to me. He was in blue jeans and his face was half-hidden under a cap. I couldn't see his face properly above his nose. He smelled of drinks or may be he was on drugs. He definitely looked depressed.
"Could you give me Nu. 50 please, I am broke," he asked me politely in English. There were people shopping in the shop too. Some girls heard what he asked me also. I looked at him, I looked at the girls, and I actually felt embarrassed for him, for begging for Nu. 50 in front of those girls (.i.e., less than US $1). I first pretended not to hear what he asked. But he seemed serious and desperate. "Could you please give me Nu. 50, I am desperate, I don't have job, I lost my wife, and I don't have money," he begged.
If he was asking lots of money, I wouldn't have but Nu. 50 was not more than parking fees for couple of hours. "Nu. 50 I can give him," I thought. "After all, I have always championed for poverty alleviation and social equity," I reflected at that moment. "I should be ashamed if I don't give him the Nu. 50 because I do have Nu. 50 in my wallet," I thought to myself.
He seemed to have lost all hope as he was willing to shamelessly trade his human dignity for just Nu. 50. He talked about not having a job, having lost his wife (whatever that means) and being educated urban poor. I felt empathy for him. I have heard such story of desperation over and over many times during my service as a Zimpon Wogma to His Majesty the King before. So it was only natural and moral that I listened to his plights and listening I did.
"I am sorry to hear your story, here's Nu. 50," I gave him the money from my pocket.
"Thank you for the money, you are a good rich man," he reached out his hand to me for a handshake. I smiled and silently refused his handshake because I am not a rich man. I was just able to give him Nu. 50 and that's all. I didn't even want to know his name for just Nu. 50 let alone acknowledging his gratitude.
As I was walking out of the shop, he said again: "Thank you, you are a good rich man...otherwise, I would stab you with this KNIFE." He took out a big kitchen knife from the pocket of his blue jeans and said in a cold voice: "For those rich people who don't give me money when I ask, I want to STAB them with this knife." I was shocked. Those girls in the shop also saw the scene and they almost screamed and ran away. I decided to be normal and not react. I quietly walked out of the shop and he was following me with the knife in his right hand in the broad day light as if he was going to stab me. He didn't stab me. Perhaps, Nu. 50 stood between his knife and my body.
I then walked fast but he was still following me down the steps towards outside. I saw two policemen on the street in front of me. I was in a dilemma whether to report to the two policemen to arrest him or not. On one hand, he seemed to be a threat to public safety. On the other hand, he seemed to be someone who had lost all hope. Locking him up did not seem to be a solution to me.
But I want to share this shocking and sad incident with public and policy makers for two reasons:
(1) I want to alert the public to watch out for such depressed fellow citizens for your personal safety. Thimphu does not seem to be safe anymore, even in the broad daylight or in the crowd. Please be careful and be safe.
(2) I want to highlight this incident as a serious warning sign for our small society if we don't address the root causes well in time. Root causes are unemployment, educated urban poor, alcohol, drugs, public safety, etc.
The Prime Minister had commented that if Thimphu is not safe for him, it's not safe for ordinary Thimphu residents. It's time to go bit further and acknowledge that if Thimphu is not safe for an ordinary Thimphu resident, it's not safe for the future of our precious Nation. By today's incident, I would appeal that Thimphu is not safe for an ordinary Thimphu resident. It's time to act through right policies and incentives.
Until now, our rural uneducated poor are tolerant towards gap between rich and poor in our society - economic disparity. This, I believe, is because our rural people have strong traditional value-system. But I would like to caution our leaders and policy makers that we shouldn't expect same tolerance from our "educated urban poor." They would be willing to stab you even for Nu. 50.
It's time for serious thinking about how to share our nation's progress for the benefit of all the people, especially benefits from hydropower and mineral wealth. Examples around the world show that societies where citizens are more equal, countries are more secured and safe. Making all citizens economically all equal is impossible and even not desirable as it's against the spirit of free enterprise but we must definitely strive to make them more equal.
Therefore, poverty must be considered as a national security threat and poverty alleviation must be incorporated as a National Security strategy, not just as charity or development goal. This is something to think about by our leaders and parliamentarians before it's too late.
Meanwhile, please watch out and be careful when you walk around in Thimphu city. It's no more as safe as it used to be...
(Please share this information for safety of your loved ones and our fellow citizens).