No Smoking: Monk jailed for three years in Bhutan
The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, famed for its unspoilt natural beauty and social policy of gross national happiness, found itself at the centre of bitter controversy yesterday after a Buddhist monk caught carrying tobacco worth under £2 was jailed for three years.
Sonam Tshering, the first person to be punished under tough new anti-smoking legislation, wept after he learnt of his sentence. "I should be punished, but the penalty could have been lighter," the tearful 23-year-old told reporters. "I wasn't aware about the act."
The headline is misleading as Mr Tshering was caught with chewing tobacco.
Bhutan banned the sale of tobacco in 2005 and tightened its laws last year to combat smuggling, requiring consumers to provide valid customs receipts for cigarettes bought outside the country. The monk was stopped crossing the border back into Bhutan in January carrying 48 packets of chewing tobacco he had bought in India.
That's not as not as much as it sounds. Indian chewing tobacco comes in a little package the size of a ketchup sachet with enough in it for one use. They cost about 3p.
In an eight-page ruling handed down by the district court in the capital, Thimphu, judges said the monk was clearly in breach of the Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan 2010 because he had not paid duty for the tobacco.
So is this a tax evasion issue rather than a possession issue? It is the case that even in Bhutan you can use tobacco so long as the government gets a cut? This aspect of the case hasn't been mentioned in previous new stories and is not expanded upon here.
The ruling added: "Ignorance of law is no excuse ... The law represents the popular will of the people."
No it doesn't. Bhutan is not a democracy. And even it was, could there be a better illustration of the tyranny of the majority than sending a man to prison for chewing a plant?
The sentence, though technically the most lenient for the offence...
The mind boggles.
...has triggered a wave of anger within Bhutan. Supporters of Mr Tshering, who have held rallies and organised Facebook pages, argue that the punishment does not fit the crime.
"I think this will adversely affect the image of our country," said Lily Wangchuk, a former diplomat and now director of the Bhutan Media Foundation. "We have a very good reputation right now. We are known for having visionary leadership that has set in place a sensitive and balanced growth, we have gross national happiness, people know us as a land of paradise, a Shangri-La."
Only because people don't know a damn thing about the place, and particularly about its persecution of Nepalese immigrants.
"Personally, I feel that a harsh sentence for such a small crime will get us bad publicity."
Good. Perhaps people will see in the phony backwater of Bhutan the inherent despotism of Gross National Happiness. Until the government can be trusted not to fall back on coercion and suppression (ie. never), its only legitimate function is to facilitate the pursuit of happiness. In the case of private behaviour, that means getting out of the way and keeping its bigoted opinions to itself.
I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating: When Bhutan banned tobacco in 2005, the Lancet said 'This is progress". Progress indeed. Monks thrown in jail and police raiding people's homes with sniffer dogs. And all in the name of tobacco control. I'd like to end by saying it couldn't happen here, but I really can't see any reason why not.