Is change coming to Bhutan?

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

One thought on “Is change coming to Bhutan?

  1. It certainly feels good to learn that the king can turn round rules that have been approved by “higher-ups” petrified peoples’ representatives in the ‘democratic’ Bhutanese parliament. Its a big solace for those who were imprisoned for minor crime. However, please note that the king’s action is reveals that despite the much touted ‘democracy’ in place, the king is still the supreme and the highest authority in Bhutan, who can over-rule any law and policy. It vindicates my belief that the only person who can bring about any change in the Exiles situation is the king and the king alone. All others are pawns who move around just to stall time and misguide the gullible international supporters of Bhutan’s overtures being akin to political workings elsewhere.
    The present king, is Oxford-Harvard returnee, and is certainly well versed in international politics. As mentioned in the article, he could be eyeing the HR reports positive markings to improve Bhutan’s image internationally. But, these unrelenting actions and policy moves could be deceptive. The matter to note are the continued diplomatic moves to establish relations with regimes that have long history of ethnic repression and far extreme political views shows that not much has changed in Bhutan since the 1980s.
    However, if the king genuinely wants to bring about changes in Bhutan, he could grant a general amnesty to all exiles, reinstate them it will cleanse the nation and (its rulers) of all the muck they have heaped onto themselves so far.
    But, will (or can) the king makes such move? Is he willing to take on the wrath of the coterie that surrounds him? Does he have the confidence in himself to make one clean swift stroke to cleanse the country’s sullied image and emerge a person of courage that history will honour forever?
    Lots of courage needed even for a king educated and trained in the best of the world’s institutions and prove that he is not frolicking with decoys.

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