Bhutan: Monk Becomes The First Victim Of The Tobacco Act

Depending on which way you look at it, the first violator or victim of Bhutan's Tobacco Act that came to effect in January 2011, was a Buddhist monk who was arrested end of January while trying to enter the country with 72 packets of Baba, chewing tobacco from India.

Sonam Tsering. Image courtesy Chencho Dema. Used with permission

Since then Sonam Tshering (23) has been held without bail until he was finally sentenced to three years in prison on the 2nd of March. The Bhutanese media, including bloggers have been following his case closely. A Facebook page titled “Amend the Tobacco Act” was also created to protest this Act. The Prime Minister is reported to have said that the page was inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

PM says FB page against Tobacco Act inspired by Tunisia, Egypt & Libya and is not good. “Am I a tyrant,” he asked

It seems far-fetched that the Prime Minister would compare this to events in the Middle East for, aside from the few Bhutanese who feel strongly about how out-of-line the government has stepped, there is hardly any outrage. The Facebook page has less than 300 members, other than that while few have called for protests, a majority of the Bhutanese feel otherwise. After all, while the Bhutanese consider the Act to be overreaching, they are also aware of how good they have it in many other respects.

And so while this is a far cry from the events in Tunisia or Egypt, in this age of social media and technology government officials certainly shouldn't underestimate the power of the voice of the common mass and this new technology.

The recent ruling by the Supreme Court on Bhutan's first Constitutional case, which was in favor of the 2 member opposition against the present government proved to the people the justice system's integrity. However, there are many other verdicts/rulings – as a result of the laws- which the people are not happy with. Some of them being harsh sentences like 3 years imprisonment for minor infractions like proselytizing and misunderstanding or defying the tobacco act.

A member of Parliament has also submitted a petition to study complaints by people about delayed service delivery by the Judiciary. In one of the most high profile cases which was sent to the courts in 2007, involving a member of the Royal family who tried to acquire land through a government official, all were acquitted of any wrongdoing in September last year. However, the case is back in court after an anonymous letter was sent to the Anti-Corruption Commission which was set up by the Fourth King of Bhutan to stem such corruption. People are waiting to see how the Justice system will handle this. And so with a free press, nothing short of this – people venting their feelings and opinions- should be expected.

One member of Parliament, Sangay Khandu, poignantly wrote on his blog:

It’s very unfortunate Sonam Tshering became the first Bhutanese to be arrested for smuggling tobacco since the enactment of the Tobacco Control Act. As a law-maker, I empathize with his predicament. It is very important I mention this because law-makers are after all….undeniably Bhutanese living in the same community with family, relatives and friends, governed by the same laws…. I do not necessarily agree with the “ban” or “the penalty” but I believe if it is a matter that needs to be re-discussed then it shall be, keeping legislative processes in mind. I value people’s freedom of expression without a doubt

Meanwhile, the few outraged Bhutanese hope the government will amend the act. Blogger Jurmi Chhowing who has been posting daily pictures of himself lighting up a cigarette on Facebook said:

Sad Tidings:
Verdict Out: Sonam Tshering Sentenced To Three Years (as i understand it..).
The Scapegoat Gets The Slaughter.

He even wrote a letter to the monk asking him to treat the sentence as the three year meditation retreat that most Buddhist practitioners aspire to. Manju Wakhley replied:

We are building a hypocritic nation- we care more for our international brand than for our own people. Compassion for all beings- really? Ego overtakes compassion. It is sad, very very sad.

While many have been complaining about misplaced emphasis on smoking as a killer over alcohol, which claims over 50% of lives at the hospital in Thimphu. Kinga Sithup pointed out another cause of high death rates:

bad roads took more lives than smoking…

But amidst all of them were some like Kelzang Wangchuk who thought otherwise:

Bumthang, the second Zangdopelri on earth, burnt twice because people started smoking in the beautiful valley!! Anyone who has smoked a cigarrette in Bumthang valley is requested to donate generously to the Fire Kidu fundraising…smoke responsibly!!

It is true that fires caused some of the biggest destruction in Bhutan. But does this justify such a law, the idea of which it seems originated in Bumthang, when most of the fires were caused by butter lamps and faulty wiring/short circuits more than cigarettes. The recent Bajo fire is an example and the investigation into the Bumthang fire revealed that it may have been candles which caused it.

Recently a second violator has been caught but according to blogger Passang Tshering:

My village is populated with smokers and Tobacco chewers and sniffers… and looks like the law is kept as it is Whole my village is gonna be behind the jail…
Look what I wrote last year

And a young filmmaker Dechen Roder wrote:

when everyone on this page knows that they'll never be checked for ciggarettes nor chewing tobacco, its elitist. I recently came on druk air, and saw certain VIP who had been smoking in the airport lounge with me earlier breeze right through customs… if we're going to be vigilant about following laws, it should affect all of us…. its a law that has been designed to push a certain class (the majority) down.. and my main fear is that the ones who made the law, actually also realize they've messed up, but they'd rather let it go, instead of admit being wrong.

One young woman, Cee Dee Jamtsho, even went out of her way to visit the young monk:

Today i made a point to go and meet Sonam Tshering….he was so pleased to see me though I was a stranger to him. As i began to talk to him…his eyes were filled with tears and so were mine…to see him handcuffed like an serious criminal was too much… he shared with me that he was not aware of the law and by the time he could know. he was locked up…he looked frightened and sad……many people are going to be caught and put behind… its time that the government should do sumthing before too late to react….

She even met with the father of the incarcerated and translated what he had to say.

And it was Kencho Namgyal who summed it best when he said:

[The] Tobacco control act is a great tool to criminalize otherwise law abiding citizens.

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