Social media and Bhutan

Social media was the subject of Bhutan’s attention on two occasions last month.

In one, the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy organized a conference to discuss “… the current social media scene in Bhutan and … how this can be used to benefit Bhutanese society.” The conference, which also provided “… a step by step guide to using Twitter and Facebook …”, took place on 29th and 30th March.

In the other, the government issued a circular pointing out that social media sites were “taking a toll on the productivity of the government machinery” and suggesting that social sites “… should be blocked in the office servers during the official working hours”. The circular, reproduced below, goes on to caution that “Measures adopted is to come into effect not later than 31st March, 2011.”

Virtuous precedence

“linda”, a regular commentator, screamed in my last post:


What upset “linda” was the apparent inconsistency the verdict by the Chukha District Court on a 29-year old bus driver.

On 16th March, in Tanalum, the driver had been caught with 10 packets of Baba chewing tobacco and two packets of cigarettes. He was charged with smuggling tobacco under the Tobacco Control Act.

On 28th March, the driver had been released on bail.

And on 30th March, the district court decided that the driver had not smuggled tobacco, but had possessed the tobacco for his personal consumption. The court ruled that possessing tobacco for self-consumption is a misdemeanor, a bailable offense, and sentenced the driver to a prison term of one year.

That, in short, is what I know about what “linda” calls the “tanalum tobacco case”. My knowledge comes from Bhutan Today. Their website continues to remain inactive, so I’ve attached a copy of their article at the end of this post.

Now for my “say on the tanalum tobacco case”. I welcome the Chukha District Court’s verdict.

Number one, the driver was allowed bail during the trail. Great! After all, the driver couldn’t have been that great a threat to society (or to himself) to deny him bail.

Number two, the case was wrapped up in barely two weeks. Again, great!

And number three, the district court ruled that the accused had possessed tobacco for personal consumption, and that he was not involved in contraband. Great! Absolutely great!

Sending the driver to jail for one year for possessing 10 packets of khaini and two packets of cigarettes is stiff. But the sentence is bailable. And the sentence is required by the Tobacco Control Act.

Convicting the driver of smuggling, and sentencing him to three years in prison, without bail, would be draconian. That would also be wrong. The driver couldn’t possibly be carrying the 10 packets of khaini to sell in the black market. He couldn’t be smuggling.

I’m excited about the tanalum tobacco case verdict for another reason. Precedence. I’m hopeful that the verdict sets a virtuous precedence for future judgments, including Sonam Tshering’s who has appealed to the High Court.

Sonam Tshering, by the way, is represented by Cheda, a partner with UC Associates. Cheda and his legal firm are representing Sonam Tshering and Lhab Tshering pro bono.

Sonam Tshering’s trial at the High Court is expected to begin today. He’s already been in detention for 71 days.

Big ideas

House No. 7

I stayed at Yangtsena yesterday. It’s a small village on the southern slopes of the Pu-la overlooking the Amochhu river.

Yangtsena has only seven houses. But all of them are handsome, traditional farmhouses. It wasn’t always like that – just 14 years ago, they lived in basic bamboo huts.

That’s about when, when Yangtsena’s residents got together and decided that they, all seven households, must have better houses. Individually, no family had the resources to build a farmhouse. So they decided to pool their resources, especially labour, and collectively build all of their houses, one farmhouse at a time.

Contributing labour to build houses is not uncommon in our villages. Almost every house in rural Bhutan has been built using at least some form of free labour from their neighours.

But what sets Yangtsena apart is their resolve to build the entire village collectively, an idea that engaged every man, woman and child, almost every winter, in construction. Last winter, they completed their seventh, and final, farmhouse. And with that they completed an idea that began 14 years ago.

Yangtsena is a small village. But they have big ideas. Their next project is to improve their irrigation channels and then, again collectively, build more paddy fields. The idea – a big idea, and one that they will surely achieve – is to become self sufficient in rice.

BNCA rules

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act, which is to reduce tobacco consumption – perhaps even eradicate it – in the country. But many of us are alarmed at the severe penalties being handed out under the Act.

First Sonam Tshering, a monk, was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing a mere 48 packets of chewing tobacco. He has appealed the verdict to the High Court.

Then Lhab Tshering, a driver, was arrested for possessing 64 packets of chewing tobacco. He’s currently being tried at the Thimphu District Court, and could also receive a three-year prison term.

And a couple of weeks ago, three people – an engineer, a soldier and an officer – were arrested for allegedly smuggling nine packets of cigarettes. Three people could go to jail for three years each for smuggling nine packets of cigarettes!

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act. But many of us can’t make sense of how the Act is being implemented.

So I was delighted to learn that the Royal Bhutan Police had offered the government a graceful way of resolving this predicament. Kuensel reported that the police had recently written to the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency asking them a very pertinent question:

Carrying what quantity of tobacco would be considered smuggling or violation of the Tobacco Act provisions?

And Kuensel reported that:

Police officials said for them to enforce the Tobacco Act, there was a need to “quantify” the amount of tobacco products a person was carrying.

“At least the minimum amount should be specified,” a police official said. “Are you going to charge a person, who is caught with a packet of cigarette, like one caught with thousands of tobacco products?”

But, sadly, the government did not seize the opportunity. Kuensel went on to report that:

BNCA officials said the penalty is the same, irrespective of the quantity of tobacco one is caught carrying.

There’s a big difference between smuggling to sell or distribute tobacco products, and illegal possession of tobacco for personal consumption. And that difference should be clearly defined in BNCA’s rules and regulations. But they feel that there’s no need to differentiate between the two.

That’s too bad. If the police’s concerns were accepted, a monk wouldn’t go to jail for possessing a few packets of khaini. A driver wouldn’t face a similar sentence for also possessing khaini. And three people wouldn’t be charged with smuggling nine packets of cigarettes.

At this rate, many more of our fellow citizens will end up in jail.

A helping hand

Here’s an announcement from Jurmi Chhowing. I won’t be in Thimphu, but for those who are … please attend.

My apologies for going off the topic!
I’m requesting personal help. We are trying to help raise whatever cash/kind we can for the Tsunami/Earthquake victims of Japan.

Its called “A HELPING HAND” – (With The Journalist, Bhutan Today, Radio Valley, Kilu Bhutan Music School & Japanese friends & colleagues using their resources besides many others). We are building up to the event (a MUSIC concert by STUDENTS from KILU), and trying to create avenues/raise publicity for people to chip in and show Solidarity at this tragic juncture in Japan.

It will culminate with the Concert on Sunday 2:30PM at the Clock Tower. And you are ABSOLUTELY WELCOMED!

Thanking You, Sincerely, Jurmi Chhowing.



Happiness without kerosene

Happiness is ...

Today is the 24th of March. So it’s exactly three years since PDP got clobbered in the kingdom’s first general elections. Actually it wasn’t that bad – 33% of the voters had supported us. It’s just that that, unfortunately, translated to only two of the 47 seats in the National Assembly.

Anyhow, it’s now three years since that fateful day. And I’ve decided to commemorate the general elections by going to the people. I’m in Dorikha, at my indulgent aunt’s farmhouse, on my way to Gakiling gewog.

I’m taking along two important items for this trip. The first is a book: “Happiness – Lessons from a New Science” by Richard Layard, an economist who challenges that contemporary economic theory does not favour the pursuit of happiness.

The second item is a “solar light bulb” manufactured by Nokero (as in “no kerosene” – their idea is to replace the use of kerosene for illuminating homes). Nokero’s bulb is the size of a regular incandescent bulb, but carries a complete system to convert sunlight into electricity – solar panel, rechargeable battery, and light emitting diodes.

The Nokero bulb I’m carrying is a sample. Several villages in Gakiling don’t have electrical light, so I’ll use it to read “Happiness” at night. If the bulb survives my week-long tour, it would be ample proof that Nokero would make a worthy gift to our remote farmers.

Playing the media

Back in 2008, Tenzing Lamsang, working with Kuensel at that time, wrote a series of stories about the impending pay hike for civil servants. His stories, based on information from unnamed “sources” in the government, added fuel to the wild rumors and speculation that were already rife throughout the country.

The government was obviously leaking information to the media. And that, I felt, was dangerous. So I felt compelled to write:

Kuensel’s Tenzing Lamsang is amazing. He’s done it again. He’s written yet another story almost entirely based on government “sources”. And he is thorough – his account is packed with names, dates, places, amounts and important quotes. He seems to know too many details about the confidential debate that the government has been having on the pay hike issue.

Our government is amazing. They’ve done it again. They’ve allowed classified government information to leak, including details of discussions in our highest decision making body, the Cabinet. Is classified information being leaked purposely? Or are they being stolen? If it’s the former, a dangerous game is being played. If it’s the latter, it’s dangerous, plain and simple.

Tenzing Lamsang called me several times after reading my post. He protested that he had not been fed information by the government; that he had not stolen information; and that he had not paid for any information. That’s why I later added that disclaimer at the end of my story.

So imagine my surprise when, last Saturday, I read what Tenzing Lamsang, now with Business Bhutan, had to say about sources:

Another similar incident occurred in early 2009 when another source shared information with me that the finance ministry was planning car taxes of up to 50%. The story was done. However, the ministry immediately issued a circular saying that there is no proposal for a car tax. The source later told me that there was in fact a proposal which MoF withdrew immediately at the time due to the negative reaction. The source confessed to me that the information was deliberately leaked to me so that public reaction could be gauged.

The government should not play games with the media and, through it, with the public at large. Such games are silly at the best of times. But more often than naught, like the rumors of resignation that spread following the Supreme Court’s verdict, they can get dangerous.

GNH for dummies

Gross National Happiness explained in three minutes by Morten Sondergaard, a “serial entrepreneur”.


Droelma Jig Chompa

The Central Monk Body offered three days of continuous prayers throughout the country for the people of Japan. Yesterday, the officiating prime minister, speaker, chairperson, cabinet ministers, MPs, civil servants, and other well wishers joined Japan’s new ambassador to Bhutan, the resident coordinator of JICA, and Japanese experts and volunteers at the Kuenrey in Tashichhoe Dzong to participate in the concluding day of the prayers.

Lopen Gembo explained the prayers and delivered the following statement on behalf of the Dratshang:

May I take this opportunity to welcome all to Tashichhoe Dzong to take part in this very special ceremony of propitiation and chanting of the Mantra of Drolma Jigchobma – the Wisdom Mother Tara, the great protector. For kind information, the ceremony was initiated by the Royal Government and started on 18th March and is performed in all Monk Bodies and institutions in all 20 districts. Please allow me to give a brief description of the service.

In our Bhutanese belief, Tara is regarded as a Buddha of compassion and action. She is the female aspect of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig) and in some origin stories she comes from his tears and became the most compassionate Tara, emanation of the activities of all Buddhas.

In terms of grace and achievement, all Buddhas are same. But due to their aspirations and prayers made during their path to enlightenment, they differ in their powers of blessings. Arya Tara generated Bodhichitta and took the vow to benefit all sentient beings and safeguard them from all unseen threats in presence of Buddha Amogasidhi. Since then, Arya Tara tok successive incarnations. She continuously performed enlightened activity for the benefit of sentient beings. She emanated into twenty-one forms of Tara, and through these emanations dispelled various sufferings of countless sentient beings.

In the absolute state of enlightenment or Buddhahood, everyone is one and equal. However, we are relative beings living in a relative condition. Therefore, we sometimes need different things at different times, different remedies for different causes. Because of this, apart from the 21 Tara, she had manifested in innumerable different forms to help our relative problems.

Not only is supplicating Arya Tara beneficial for clearing away the four major obstacles of anger, pride, attachment and ignorance embodied as fire, poisonous substances, ocean and demons. It also heps to clear away all hindrances and disasters caused by the four elements. Therefore, Arya Tara is referred to as the undisputed protector from the eight great fears. Using the power of Tara’s mantra, visualization, creation of the Mandala and generation of immense positive energies, we hope to divert all negative energies and various unseen hindrances. Thus we presume this religious ceremony will restore peace and harmony in the affected region.

The Monk Body of Bhutan humbly acknowledges the continuous assistance provided for decades by the people and government of Japan. We are very thankful for that and hope this small gesture and ritual service will uplift the spirits of Japanese people and create favorable conditions to overcome the disaster. At the same time, please accept our sincere prayers and condolence for those effected and lost lives. We do share your concerns and hopes and will continue praying for strengthening our good relations.

Thank you all once again for taking time to join us in this special ceremony.

Cross country

Yesterday, in Kabisa, during Bhutan’s first cross country mountain bike race, in which Sonam Tshering, who completed the 22 km course in 1hr 18 min, came first:

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