Gyelpozhing: who’s right?

People's land

Almost six months ago, Tenzing Lamsang exposed the Gyelpozhing land grab case, and explained how laws of the land had been broken to acquire public land and redistribute them to influential people.

A week after that, Dasho Neten Zangmo, the Anticorruption Commission Chairperson, was quoted as saying:

We will look into the case and if there is any element of corruption, abuse of power and conflict of interest and if land has been taken unjustly from private people then we will further investigate the case.

It’s been almost half a year since ACC’s assurances. So I was happy to hear that they have visited Gyelpozhing and that they “… are in the process of reviewing allotment procedure, eligibility criteria, details of all beneficiaries and even the rationale of acquisition.”

But I’m worried that the investigation is taking too long. And Dasho Neten seems to echo my concern by saying that, “It’s going to take a lot of time going one by one”.

I’m worried. And I’m worried for many reasons. But mostly I’m worried because some of those who are allegedly involved are “powerful and influential people”. They include the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the speaker. And in their case, I’m sure that, as politicians, they would want the investigation to be complete well before the 2013 parliamentary elections. It is in their interests that the investigations are over by then. It is also in the Election Commission’s interest. But mostly, it is in the interest of the electorate, our people.

Even so, Dasho Neten has warned that the investigations will “take a lot of time” and ruled that:

We just can’t investigate only a few powerful and influential people. We have to see and study the background of all the beneficiaries like whether there is a ‘nexus’ between the allotter and beneficiaries.

I agree. We need a thorough and complete investigation. An investigation that is not targeted to “a few powerful and influential people”, but one that examines all the people who were involved, one that is comprehensive in its scope.

That said, all the so-called “beneficiaries” cannot be lumped together; they cannot be treated the same.

I can see at least three types of “beneficiaries”. The first type is the beneficiary who developed a “nexus” with the allotter. That would be outright corruption, and both the allotter and beneficiary should be taken to task.

The second type is the beneficiary who applied for land, and was allotted land even though that beneficiary did not qualify to receive land. If that beneficiary did not seek to influence the allotter’s decision in any way, then the beneficiary cannot be held responsible. It was the allotter’s responsibility to check and to confirm that all recipients of land fulfilled all the criteria. So in this case, the allotter should be taken to task.

The third type is the beneficiary who should never have applied for land given the existence of serious conflicts of interest. Beneficiaries of this type would include all public servants (and their immediate family members) who were directly involved in the acquisition and distribution of land. And naturally, they would also include all cabinet ministers (and their immediate family members), but especially ministers who’s job it was to supervise the dzongkhag administration, or to approve the proposed township, or the authorise the land acquisition, or to endorse the allotment criteria.

We cannot excuse the misuse of inside information, the abuse of government power, or the disregard of conflicts of interest. They are the most damaging forms of corruption. So in this case, the beneficiary should be taken to task immediately.

Photo credit: Business Bhutan who also reported that Gyelpozhing residents protested the plot allotments, and that people who lost land were struggling

Apologise and appeal

One year +

Today, we celebrated traditional day of offering.

Today is also exactly one year since Sonam Tshering was detained by officials for illegally possessing Nu 120 worth of Baba khaini. Sonam Tshering has already been in jail for one full year.

So today, on traditional day of offering, I thought about how we, parliamentarians, should offer our services to Sonam Tshering and the many others like him who continue to suffer under the oppressive Tobacco Control Act.

First we should apologize. We should apologize and take full responsibility for arrogantly (and foolishly) passing a law that quickly subjected so many of our people to untold pain and suffering.

Then we should appeal. As soon as the Tobacco (Amendment) Bill comes into force, we –  members of the National Council, the ruling party and the opposition party – should collectively appeal to His Majesty the King to grant amnesty to the people who have been incarcerated unjustly because of our foolhardiness.

Sonam Tshering and others like him are in jail because of us. The least we must now do is try our best to get them out.

Investigating Gyelpozhing

Last Saturday, more than two months after Business Bhutan broke their story about alleged land grabbing in Gyelpozhing by senior public servants, the Anticorruption Commission announced that they:

“… are in the process of studying laws related to land, policy issues, analysing and re- viewing the complaints they received with regards to Gyalpoizhing land case.”

The Gyelpozhing land case has raised serious questions about alleged corruption involving our senior-most public servants when land was acquired and redistributed in Gyelpozhing. This is a big case. And it is an important one. So the ACC is correct in studying the case carefully before they launch an all-out investigation.

But the questions remains: Is ACC taking too much time to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?

Please share your views here. And please take the poll that asks the same question.

Think about Lhab Tshering

Lhab Tshering has been in detention since 31st January. On that fateful day, he was caught with 64 packets of chewing tobacco (Baba khaini) at the Chunzom checkpoint. He didn’t have a receipt to prove that he possessed the khaini legally. So he was charged for smuggling tobacco under the Tobacco Control Act.

Yesterday, the Thimphu District Court, found Lhab Tshering guilty of smuggling tobacco, and sentenced him to jail for three years.

Lhab Tshering, a driver, had purchased the khaini on 26th January, while repairing his vehicle, a trailer, in Jaigaon, India. He had paid Nu 200 for the 64 packets of khaini, each of which contains 10 grams of tobacco.

In court, he argued that the tobacco was for personal consumption. And he pleaded that he was not aware of the tobacco ban, which had, in fact, been in effect for barely a month.

The Office of the Attorney General, his prosecutors, maintained that ignorance of the law is not a justifiable defense. They are right. But they went on to elaborate that the Tobacco Control Act was:

… enacted by the Parliament which is represented by the elected members of all the people in Bhutan. This is enough to state that he is part of law making process because he is also a voter who elected the member from his constituency and thus he is also represented in the parliament in the enactment of the Act.

Incredible! The OAG, in its convoluted way, seems to blame Lhab Tshering for passing the law that got him into trouble.

Okay, Lhab Tshering may have voted. (And if he did, he most probably voted for the DPT.) But he can’t be held responsible for the laws that his representatives make. That responsibility – especially for crafting laws that harass people instead of benefiting them – lies solely and squarely with his representatives in the Parliament.

Anyway, Lhab Tshering has been sent to jail. And he doesn’t know what to do. In fact, there’s almost nothing he can do.

But the question is: what can we do about it?

At the very least, we can pause and think about Lhab Tshering.

Think about Lhab Tshering, a fellow citizen. He’s being sent to jail for three whole years for possessing a mere 64 packets of khaini worth all of Nu 200.

Think about Lhab Tshering, the sole bread earner in his family. He earned Nu 7,000 a month as a driver. But since his detention, five months ago, he hasn’t received a salary. And he won’t be able to do so for the next three years.

Think about Lhab Tshering, the young husband and father. His wife is 20 years old. And his son is just two. They’ve had to leave their home in Khuruthang, and are now living with Aum Choden, Lhab Tshering’s distant relative, in Thimphu. Yangchen Lham, Lhab Tshering’s wife, has no money, so she and her son are completely dependent on Aum Choden.

Think about Lhab Tshering, Aum Passam’s only “capable” child. She lives in a bamboo shack in Patale, Tsirang, with two of her children, both teenagers. She does not own any land, and, until recently, was supported by her son, Lhab Tshering.

Think about Lhab Tshering, Tshering Lhamu’s and Phub Dorji’s older brother. Tshering is in Class 3, and Phub is in Class 5. They go to school in Khuruthang and, until recently, they lived with their brother, Phub Tshering. While undergoing trail, Phub Tshering has had to request his Aunty, Wangchuk Dema, a gardener at Ugyen Academy, to take care of Tshering Lhamu and Phub Dorji.

Think about Lhab Tshering, a young man, criminalized by the Tobacco Control Act, and ask yourself if there’s justice in that law.

Think about Lhab Tshering, your fellow citizen, and demand that his representatives in Parliament – and your own representatives – correct this injustice.

Digging deeper

Yesterday, the government released the Tobacco Control Rules and Regulations. The rules, which come a week after the government had issued guidelines to relax the implementation of the Tobacco Control Act, have made matters even more complicated.

According to the rules, we will not be sent to jail for attempting to bring tobacco into the country without declaring it or for possessing tobacco products. Instead, we’ll be let go with a warning or penalized in line with Sections 86, 87 and 90 which state that:

86.     If a person tries to bring permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product without declaring at the authorized port of entry, the tobacco and tobacco product shall be confiscated and the person shall be warned in writing.

87.     If a person tries to bring permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product without declaring at the authorized port of entry for the second time and thereafter, the tobacco or tobacco product shall be confiscated and the person shall be imposed a fine of minimum daily wage rate of one year.

90.     If a person is in possession of permissible quantity of tobacco and tobacco product, which is brought into the country without payment of tax for personal consumption, the person shall be imposed a fine of Nu. 10,000/- and the tobacco and tobacco product shall be confiscated.

But there’s a problem: These rules may say that we won’t be sent to jail, but the Tobacco Control Act says that we will. The Act is quite clear on this – that’s why the judiciary has already sentenced several of our fellow citizens to prison.

And there’s another problem: These rules say that we won’t be sent to jail, but they are immediately undone by Section 92 of the rules itself according to which:

92.     If a person violates section 11(a), (b) and (c) of the Act, he/she shall be charged as per the provisions of the Act, irrespective of the quantity of tobacco and tobacco product.

Section 11(c) of the Act prohibits us from buying tobacco. And, according to the Act, the offense for doing so is a misdemeanor (1 year to 3 years in prison) but only if we reveal the source. If we can’t reveal the source, a felony of the fourth degree (3 years to 5 years in prison) is added to the misdemeanor sentence.

The Tobacco Control Act is draconian. So we must correct it; we must correct the extreme penalties prescribed by the Act. But developing rules and regulations intended to circumvent the provisions of the Act is not the answer.

The answer is to amend the oppressive Act. We, members of Parliament, must accept that the Tobacco Control Act is causing unimaginable hardship and suffering to our fellow citizens throughout the country. We must amend the Act.

 

Facebook strikes

Listen to them!

After several friends suggested it, I’ve added a new page called “News clips”. The idea is to provide links to news articles, especially to critical ones, that talk about what the opposition party and I have been doing.

The first link is to a story by Kuensel. It’s about the growing influence of social media in Bhutan, a discussion that took place during the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival.

Social media has already made remarkable inroads in Bhutan. In past five years, there’s been a proliferation of discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs. And some of them – like Bhutantimes.com, Nopkin, Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog, Kuzu.net and several Facebook groups – have emerged as powerful ways of creating, sharing and discussing information.

Foremost among them is Amend the Tobacco Control Act, a Facebook group created by Kinley Shering, dedicated to discussing the tobacco law. The group’s 2,252 members have already logged 1,417 posts, and both, numbers of members and posts, keep increasing each day.

The tobacco group’s discussions are diverse, vibrant and persistent. And its members readily express their opinions and vent their frustrations. This, however, is not exactly new, as online discussion forums, like Bhutantimes.com, also host lively discussions.

But Amend the Tobacco Group is different in several other ways. One, and most obviously, the group’s members are not anonymous – Facebook profiles generally have real names along with real addresses, photographs, email IDs and even telephone numbers.

Two, the discussions are focused on just one topic, tobacco, and have some order and discipline – members are not unnecessarily nasty, abusive or profane.

And three, the group has organized real measures to back up their virtual demands. First, they collected signatures – online and off – to petition for an amendment to the Tobacco Control Act. That has not worked, so now they have begun to write letters to their respective MPs and to publish those letters on Facebook.

All this is powerful stuff. And potentially dangerous too.

If the group is ignored, if their voices remain unheard, and if frustration grows, emotions could escalate and spill onto Thimphu’s streets. That would not be good. And that must not happen.

So the government would be well advised to take the group seriously. They should join the group and explain their position. They should take part in the discussions, listen to the grievances, and spearhead common solutions.

In a healthy democracy, citizens must be able to express themselves – individually and collectively. Facebook has provided a platform to do so. We can protest, rally, picket and demonstrate online, on Facebook. But for that to work, the government must also take part, and ensure that the voices on Facebook groups are heard.

The government should use Facebook, not ignore it. That’s why I say: “Rather than taking to the streets, take it to Facebook!”

Stop digging!

Listen...don't dig

Denis Healey, a British politician, once famously said: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Digging. That’s what the government is doing by issuing guidelines to relax the implementation of the controversial Tobacco Control Act. According to the guidelines:

Any Bhutanese bringing in tobacco products, more than the permissible quantity for personal consumption through designated port of entry, will not be directly charged for smuggling, but would be levied a 200 percent tax.

The excess quantity would be seized, the citizenship identity card number noted, so that the offender would be charged on the second attempt to bring in more than the prescribed limit.

Why do the guidelines amount to “digging”? There are several important reasons:

First, the government does not have the authority to grant exceptions to the Tobacco Control Act. According to the Act, any person found selling or buying tobacco products “… shall be punishable with misdemeanor if the source of supply is revealed. If the accused fails to disclose the source of supply, he or she shall be liable for the offence of smuggling in addition to the offence of misdemeanor.”

The law is straightforward. And the government must not undermine it. Doing so, like granting exceptions to first time offenders – letting them off with a small fine – could amount to interfering in the judicial process.

Second, why did the police draft these guidelines? That’s not their job. It’s the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency’s job to make rules for the implementation for the effective implementation of the Tobacco Control Act. And why did the cabinet approve the guidelines? That’s not their job either. Their job is to ensure that the rules made by the BNCA are in line with the provisions of the Tobacco Control Act.

And third, what happens to the 27-odd people already under detention. Some of them are being tried. And some, as we know, have already been incarcerated.

Through the guidelines, the government has now admitted that possessing illegal tobacco for personal consumption is a trivial offense, one that should carry a fine of only 200% of the cost of the tobacco. If so, amend the Tobacco Control Act.

The 7th Session of the Parliament has just begun. So if the government proposes an “urgent bill” to amend the Act, there’s enough time to discuss and amend the Act in this session itself. Otherwise, at least begin the process in this session. In the meantime, get BNCA to take another look at their rules. And stop digging.

Going out of control

The Tobacco Control Act is going out of control.

The Thimphu district court sentenced Gelong Sonam Tshering, a monk, to 3 years in prison for possessing a mere 48 packets of chewing tobacco. He appealed to the High Court. But the High Court has upheld the 3-years prison sentence.

Countless others – I’ve lost count … really – are in detention or undergoing trail in various parts of the country. We’re told that there are a couple of tobacco smugglers among them. But all the others were caught with small amounts of tobacco, obviously meant for their personal consumption.

And today, the Paro district court sentenced three men to jail for three years each. Their crime: they were caught smuggling ten packets of cigarettes.

Ten packets of cigarettes, just ten packets – that’s how much most smokers consume in ten days – and three people are going to jail for a total of nine years!

I called the Tobacco Control Act draconian. It’s much worse. It’s utter madness.

Amend the Tobacco Control Act.  And stop this madness before our people go out of control.

Control tobacco control

The International Tobacco Control Bhutan Report has recently established that the majority of the Bhutanese support tobacco control. According to the report, 95% of us disapprove of tobacco consumption due to religious reasons. And 97% of us support strict tobacco control.

The report seems to have given the government a renewed sense of confidence in the Tobacco Control Act. And a smug health minister was recently quoted as declaring that “… the members of parliament will think twice to amend the Tobacco Control Act now.”

But the ITC Bhutan Report has not revealed anything new. We already know that, in general, we, Bhutanese, frown on tobacco consumption. And that most of us favour tobacco control measures. The report has not “revealed” anything new. So there’s no reason for us to get excited.

There’s no doubt that we, Bhutanese, by and large, support the overall intention of the Tobacco Control Act. All of us wish to reduce – perhaps even eradicate – the use of tobacco in our country.

But that does not mean that we should not question the details of the Tobacco Control Act. Or that we should not challenge the way the government implements (or does not implement) the provisions of the act.

So we cannot allow the government to use a report prepared by a foreign agency – an interest group at that – to subvert the ongoing discussions on tobacco control.

Discussions that seek to ask, for instance, why Sonam Tshering must be sentenced to three years in imprisonment for simply possessing 48 packets of chewing tobacco that retails in India for a mere Nu 98.

Is he being sent to jail because chewing tobacco is criminal? If so, why are we allowed to consume tobacco in the first place? The Act, after all, entitles us to consume tobacco – to chew and to smoke, even in designated public places – if the tobacco we so consume has been imported legally.

Or is he being sent to jail for tax evasion? He bought the tobacco in India, but did not declare it or pay taxes on it when he entered Bhutan. Had he declared the 48 packets of chewing tobacco, he would have had to pay Nu 98 in taxes. For Nu 98 in unpaid taxes you don’t normally even get questioned, let alone sent to jail, and sent to jail for three years at that.

Or is he being sent to jail for smuggling. The Tobacco Control Act stipulates a minimum sentence of three years in jail for smuggling tobacco. But is the prosecution convinced that Sonam Tshering was indeed smuggling? If so, can they prove that he was smuggling? After all, 48 packets of chewing tobacco, worth only Nu 98 in India, could hardly be enough for a black market. So they must have been bought for his personal consumption.

Sonam Tshering represents just the tip of the iceberg. Many others have been arrested, some for possessing even smaller quantities of tobacco. At this rate, many more of us will end up in jail unless we amend the Tobacco Control Act.

We must abide by the laws of the land. And if we violate them, we must accept punishment. But if a law is defective – if it is unjust, if it is draconian – we must discuss it, we must review it, and, if needed, be prepared to amend it.

Yes, we frown on tobacco consumption. And yes, we support tobacco control. We know this. And we don’t need the International Tobacco Control Project to tell us what we already know.

What the ITC Project may want to know – and what the government would do well to acknowledge – is that support for tobacco control may be high, but that that does not mean that we are willing to send fellow citizens to jail for possessing small amounts of tobacco.

Indignation

Day before yesterday, when members of the National Assembly met to discuss the preliminary agenda for the Assembly’s next session, the opposition party proposed that a bill to amend the Tobacco Control Act be considered.

It has not yet been one year since the Tobacco Control Act was adopted, but according to Section 193 of the National Assembly Act:

When a Bill has been passed or has been rejected during a session in any year, no Bill of the same substance may be introduced in the Assembly in that year except by leave of the Assembly.

Regretfully, the members of the National Assembly did not grant permission to introduce a bill to amend the Tobacco Control Act.

Meanwhile, indignation spreads: four people have been detained for handling 9 packets of chewing tobacco!

And a woman has been arrested for possessing 5 sticks of cigarettes. This clip is from Bhutan Today: