May 5, 2011

Bhutan: Twenty Four. How many more?


Of late I don’t know what I’ve been feeling, or what to feel anymore. In March, even while I was supposed to be relaxing with my family in beautiful Belize, I was filled with anger and frustration (as some of you might have judged from my tweets). Of late I feel dispirited, disgusted, depressed, demoralized (you get the picture), so much so it’s a malaise. 

Why?  It’s the Tobacco Act – an act that to date has arrested 24 innocent people who were going about their daily lives; who were otherwise law abiding citizens, but were overnight turned into criminals simply because they had the habit of smoking or chewing tobacco or maybe even selling them.  I feel so mentally exhausted from arguing with people who refuse to see why imprisoning innocent people is wrong; trying to convince people in forums that this law is morally wrong and that our legal procedures are not in place. Those caught (for not having a receipt or exceeding the limited amount which is not even reasonable - it's not truckloads but few packets!) have been held without bail until their trial (don’t even know if they are getting a trial/fair one, because once its determined that you have tobacco on you without a receipt or exceeding amount, off you go).  Lawyers are not compulsory (probably if you can afford one?) and there aren’t enough to begin with. There is also nothing the law enforcement people can do because this has been made the law (thanks to our legislators) and the proceedings between your arrest and before trial are not clearly defined so it’s pretty much in gray.

Kuensel reported April 27 that of the arrested are 16 men, 7 women and one teenager.  They are described to be a farmer, some businessmen and women, expatriate construction workers, a Druk Air aircraft engineer, housewives, students and a bus-driver.

Look at their professions and tell me they sound like dangerous people? All they had in common was smoking or chewing tobacco – not kidnapping, raping, dealing drugs, theft or murder.  But in Bhutan, the authorities like to incriminate them as “smugglers” a term used to make the “crime” of buying cigarettes or chewing tobacco sound “illegal” and “criminal”.

When news broke first about the act, I was under the assumption that this was the desire of a few conservative people and that it would soon be overturned (because of the ridiculousness of it and the logistics in implementing it).  It was disbelief, but I had hope that people would see reason eventually, maybe even admit they made a mistake. Far from it though, things have only been getting worse.

There were rumors that the ecclesiastical order was influencing this decision because there were posters saying that smoking was a sin (I haven’t been in Bhutan since this law passed so I don’t know, it’s just what I heard and the information could be wrong). The other rumor was that it was what the village representatives wanted; that it was the will of the majority 9:1. [1]

But so far no newspaper has reported these statistics. And even if it is the will of the majority does this mean it should be enforced?  Racial segregation in the U.S was the will of the majority at one point too. Simply saying it is the will of the majority does not make it right or give the government the right to become moral policemen of civilians.

I have been unpleasantly surprised (wait, that is too mild) rudely awakened that the imprisonment of innocent people who have families to feed, who are no serious threat to society, has not been viewed as something wrong. To the contrary of what some of the (self-righteous/religious) legislators hope to achieve, this has come as an absolute embarrassment to us as a Buddhist Nation. The indifference and lack of understanding that this is an issue that some want addressed, is what makes me scared.

From all my informal discussions most, if not all, the officials do not feel that imprisoning people for this is wrong and even if some - lets say one at least does – or do, they feel that this Act is beneficial to Bhutan in the long run!!??  Either they are lacking something or I am, for how is this beneficial – a law that has set the dangerous precedent of infringing on individual and civil rights; a law that makes criminals out of innocent people; a law that has no qualms about throwing people in prison for all the wrong reasons; not worrying about any of the social implications or costs this will incur; the time, energy and resources wasted by law enforcement….


It started off with a status comment by a Member of Parliament on his/her facebook page (I will not identify who) who pontificated that Sonam Tshering, the monk/student who was first violator, should be doubly punished (maybe because Sonam Tshering happened to be a monk and should’ve known better or implying that smoking/chewing tobacco is a sin?)

This only confirmed that the conviction to arrest and treat people like criminals is based on religious beliefs and more importantly self-righteous ones.  On the same page I had an argument with a young educated woman who once again brought up the issue of why it was wrong because of religion, amongst other reasons with no basis.  It has made me realize that no sooner than we've come 3 years into being a democracy as a liberal society we've taken many steps back.  The Tobacco Act is a fine example of why and how we are doing this.

None of what is happening in Bhutan should affect me in anyway. I don't smoke nor do I intend to when I get to Bhutan. None of my relatives or anyone I know has been imprisoned as a result of the Tobacco act; I don’t happen to live there at the moment; I don’t even get treated like a Bhutanese by some who think that as a result of where I live I have no right to comment; as a result of which I should just simply learn to shut up and ignore it all.

But it just so happens that if something bothers me I let it bother me. I have no ability to rein myself when it comes to such injustice.  Maybe because I always put myself in that person’s shoes or the shoes of their children, or families, and try and see how I would feel. 

And maybe I don’t even need to do that because I have already been in their shoes. With the introduction of another law (introduction of the age of sexual consent to 18) in Bhutan, I had a relative face prison for 4- 9 years for consensual sex.  But even though it was consensual it was the law, the girl was below 18. But it was not only family members who accepted his sentence (out of respect for the law) but even the incarcerated:

“I really don’t care what the world or society will think about me… I will pay the price…even if this takes the best years of my life… I don’t want you to knock on anybody’s door and ask favors for me or negotiate my sentence…”

After the trial (with no lawyer) it was 3 years in prison during which there was no opportunity for parole ( there is no parole system in Bhutan). But that was a case that, as one legislator/ MP said, resulting from collateral damage.

But to use that justification (that there will be collateral damage) in enforcing the Tobacco Act is stretching it by far.  The Act itself is causing intended damage.


Fearing that the dismissal of the younger generation who were against this act would lead to unprecedented protests, some of us felt that we go through available channels first by submitting a petition.  It was drafted and circulated, online and physically.

The fact that only a little over 300 signatures were collected against the Act speaks volumes about where Bhutan is still today in terms of how people view, even legitimate processes, of appeal to the government.  And why won’t they? The Health Minister came out publicly and denounced those who had set up the FB page and the ones who initiated the petition as a group of “smokers and drug addicts.” ( BTW I do not smoke nor do I dope but  at this point if I am so labeled maybe I should).

Shortly, thereafter, the Petition –which the submitters hoped would be looked at during this coming parliamentary session – was rejected. It was said on the grounds that a law passed needed to be in effect for at least a year before it was amended (or even looked at? At least given some consideration given the severity of its implementation?)

But what became even more worrisome was when it was reported that the secretary of an official called one of the initiators of the petition and told him that petitioners needed to submit their Identity Card Numbers.

Now whether this is done because of the obvious way we like to layer our process with bureaucratic procedures or not is something I don't know. For while Bhutanese are good at making any simple procedure complicated (While she was at the ID#s she probably should have also mentioned the revenue stamps) it could’ve also been said to intimidate people.

In the Great Game (Peter Hopkirk) a book about the European conquest for land and colonies in Central Asia (including parts of South Asia) since the 12 Century, the Europeans are said to have said this about the Asians: “The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet,” probably understanding how compliant Asian’s were.  Sadly it's not just the Europeans but also Asian authorities who think this way (how else would the Europeans come to know?)

This is the first time people have attempted through correct procedure to have themselves heard, the next time round it might not be the same. Such behavior, of dismissal, rejection, intimidation, and accusation, may lead to unwanted consequences that even the petitioners do not wish to see happen but may be left with no choice - Nothing should be taken for granted.

[1] Much of this information can be found in discussions on the Amend the Tobacco Act facebook page


Sangay said...


To be clear from beginning, I am strictly non-smoker and non-chewer. I believe in religion, but not to the extent of believing in child worship. I generally have my own reasoning/explanation in various religious activities.

It is funny sometimes to see how our law makers make law. I have no objection in letting people smoke, chew and do whatsoever they like if there is no threat to the sovereignty of the nation.

Instead of banning cigarette completely (i have provided similar comments in one of the parliamentarian's blog), and encouraging "black market", it should be legalized on the ground of human rights. I would rather say, legalize tobacco but increase the tax. This will not only make smokers or chewers happy but help in contributing to nation's economy.

It may be true to certain extent of brain washing rural communities leading to majority lean towards framing TCA on the grounds of religion....damn, Bhutanese are still "ignorant" and tend to believe in what ever influential people speak/conveys. It is still long wait to see Bhutanese analyze everything they hear and read.

Winton said...

I have previously had some favourable things to say about GNH on my blog; for example,this post. Perhaps I should be more critical in future.

Winton said...

I'm sorry. The link didn't work. It is here.

Anonymous said...

But Why Bhutan is a GNH country when so much of breach of civil rights exist even when there is democracy in the country? Do you also see the unequal way of enforcing the law to Sonam Tshering and a army officer, Druk Air official and a constable found guilty of possesing cigarettes who got a bail of ONE YEAR! Sonam is unheard and taken to three years jail, while officers are released on bail after paying some money? Is this a democracy of a GNH country?

kinga said...

Good it in one of the papers as well....they seem to have edited( for space and clarity??) the original article as it appears here..hopefully the central message was conveyed.


sonam ongmo said...

@ Winston. GNH is the way of life of the Bhutanese and that is not what should be criticized for that is where the beauty of this philosophy really lies. The criticism should come at the policy level where officials are trying so hard to make it bigger/deeper/more profound than it already is, stretching it as far they can that in the process they have screwed it all up.

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