Bhutan:Imprisoning people for cigarettes and chewing tobacco, to what end?

Sonam Ongmo.03.08.2011.

This morning I woke up to some more news of arrests.

Manju Wakhley’s comment on the FB page “Amend the Tobacco Control Act” said:
“A teenage girl was caught yesterday and is currently locked up. She had three cigarettes I was told.” And then there was more from Twitter which said that an army official and another person (forget who) were caught “smuggling” cigarettes – I presume this was at the customs in Paro Airport.

So this is just great. By the end of this month or next we will have filled our small, inadequately furnished-lacking funds-bare minimum facilities- prisons with more people. We boast that we don’t have crimes or criminals like other countries but we might as well boast that we are good at making them. We complain that we don’t have enough funds for managing schools, hospitals, prisons and other government institutions, but we are now making sure we find ways to burden them. We have road accidents and children being run over by unruly speeding traffic because we don’t have enough traffic cops but we have enough of them to check on who is smoking? And so by the end of 2011 if this ridiculous act is not amended I can well imagine our prisons will be bursting at the seams!

What people, both government and civilians, have to understand is that this Act is one example of the growing pains of a new Democracy. This government is not bad – but it is making itself bad when it dismisses the genuine grievances of the people especially the youth who are quick to be inspired and quick to be disillusioned.

While it was great that the PM acknowledged the concerns of the people through his recent statement and while he is also right in saying that it was really the Members of the Parliament who created and passed this Act, it is still his government. People who may not understand how the legislative procedures work are therefore quick to point fingers at one person – him. That being said, the PM is the head his government and perhaps he was very busy with other things (the job of being a leader of a country is not an easy task) to realize when this act was passed. But that shouldn’t be the case. The Prime Minister should be fully aware especially if he knows of such an act that could have such repercussions on his government.

As for the others instead of pointing the finger at one person perhaps we should also look at the media and see how effective they were in communicating and informing the people at the very early stages of how this Act would implicate people. Maybe they did, maybe people didn’t pay attention, maybe they didn’t, but due to the oversight of all the important figures who could have stopped it in the early stages, this stupid act was passed and here we are. Instead of looking back and blaming one another we should see how we can move forward to improve the situation – and surely learn from it.

Now what do we do? As head of the government the PM urged people to write to their MP’s but it looks like the parliament will not be meeting for a while because they just did (December?) and meanwhile it looks like we will be filling up the prisons like nobody’s business.

In my humble opinion I think that this Act can have very serious consequences on the sitting government if it continues to be implemented. I think that when people are expressing their grievances in a proper and civilized manner through forums and discussion, the government should take the opportunity to convene and amend this Act. Dismissing the voices of the youth, and dissenters by calling them mouthpieces of the urban centers/areas, or implicating them for inciting hysteria etc. is only alienating the government more from the people. Shouldn’t officials be encouraging dialogue and discourse? Has any official even bothered to throw open a live/not virtual discussion where people can interact face to face with their MP’s or respective officials to come to some solution? Instead the people created their own space and have been, in my opinion very civilly and respectfully discussing their thoughts on this issue. So far only one MP (Sangay Khandu) has made the effort to let the people know how he feels about this issue. We applaud him for that.

I have a good laugh every time I hear the warnings that we will be the next Nepal (with no offense to Nepal they are a population of over 30 million people and therefore an unfair comparison) The government warns that because of the media we will be on the path of Nepal, and the Media saying that we will face Nepal’s predicament because of the government. All I can say is that we will be well on the way down that path if we don’t stop accusing/blaming each other, if we don’t communicate with each other and if we don’t make the effort to understand each other’s roles in a Democracy.

As Dechen Roder pointed out in her comment, it is only when these avenues of communicaiton fail that people resort to violence and take to the streets to demonstrate in frustration. (read her full comment below).
I would most respectfully urge every member of the sitting government, if they so cared about the future of their party and the country, to reach out to the people/youth and provide a method through which they can appeal to amend this Act.

Building walls and accusing people or the media of inciting hysteria etc. is not the way to go. Act while the people still have faith.

Sonam Ongmo, March 08,2011. Originally shared at Dragon Tales, republished here with permission.

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