Today I read this news item at IPA Journal, a website maintained by I.P. Adhikari, who amongst others writes there frequently about all kinds of issues concerning Bhutan. It’s one of my respected information sources.
Latest news from Thimphu confirms that King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk has issues orders to release 16 people who have been jailed for smuggling tobacco. The names of all those sent behind the bars for carrying tobacco is not available at this hours but campaigners for release of monk Sonam Tshering confirmed that he has been released. The arrest and imprisonment of Tshering for carrying tobacco worth less than $2 had invited widespread criticism within and outside the country. His supporters had run campaign for his release.
Despite criticism, many citizens have been given harsh sentences for minor offences. The law enforcement agencies and courts became so harsh in implementing the law that citizens were barred for purchasing tobacco for their personal use.
Sale of tobacco is banned and consumers in all parts of the country have to travel to India to purchase, which is not possible in all circumstances. The tobacco Control Act does not specify criteria to call it illegal quantity. Under such vague provisions, people buying tobacco in different quantities have been given same sentences.
After public criticism, advocacy and division among the parliamentarians, the government amended the act in the last session of the parliament but did nothing to minimise sentences of those already given. The Act is still regarded as ruthless. The release of these innocent citizens is appreciated. It comes a few days before the king celebrates his birthday. Hope, families of these ‘imprisoned citizens’ will find meaning to smile at his birthday bash.
Of course people should celebrate this release and the intervention in the Bhutanese judicial system. For the first time in his reign the king actually shows some level of compassion with his people. Bhutan is not only an amazing beautiful country but also and amazingly strictly ruled country where general liberties and freedom are not something natural. Growing, harvesting and trading tobacco is prohibited by a 2010 harsh law. That law was relaxed in january this year reducing penalties. And now the king stepped in and ordered the release of the poor prisoners who were thrown in jail because they broke that law. In fact the king used his power as an usurpator to have them released.
But Bhutan will next year be scrutinized again for the human rights situation and it is obvious that the four yearly UN evaluation of Bhutan’s human rights status will give a lot of bad press. Simply because the continuation of the Bhutanese exile and the stalling of talks between Bhutan and Nepal that were supposed to end that situation and start repatriation. It is obvious that another negative evaluation will add to the slowly emerging political pressure on Bhutan. And as history shows time will always bring change, also in Bhutan.
So, the question is whether the kings compassion with the ‘law breaking tobacco smugglers’ (some of them Buddhist monks who just carried around 30 grams of tobacco for their own use) is in fact a move to demonstrate human rights improvement or is just an answer to building internal pressure in Bhutan.
One thing remains: change is imminent. No country can uphold human rights violations as a standard government practice. Not even Bhutan. The policy might last for decades as proven by dictators like Khaadaffi and Mubarak, but in they end they will fall when they continue repressive policies. Always. It is to be hoped that the king of Bhutan will not persist in allowing his government to breach human rights. For the sake of his people and for the sake of his reign.
Maybe, this release is a small but important step.
The news earlier this week of a cowardly terrorist bomb attack at a police station in Puentsholing which is another attack in a long list of attacks in the past decades gives a signal that there always is the risk of violence against the Bhutan government. The answer until now has been further repression. Maybe another answer would be wiser.
Alice © 2012