Law-making a collective process (tobacco)

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, at the end of the day, undeniably Bhutanese living in the same community with family, relatives and friends, governed by the same laws (I hope exceptions are NEVER made).

Kuensel ran in its editorial today about how and when the “banning” began and it was only a matter of time before other districts embraced decision on controlling tobacco consumption in the country. Needless to say, “banning” is not a new thing and therefore, as some very lightly accuse decision makers of setting “trends”, I would think it would be reasonable to criticize for the benefit of society and not sounding vindictive and negate the positive factors of hearing out criticisms which should be the focus and priority. It is also interesting to see how sometimes “precedence” affects decisions. Commitment as a result of movement by health sector in helping improve health of the people (tobacco included) won Bhutanese recognition and acclaim and having participated as a State, it may have made decision-making a little more complex than it may seem. 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, it was clearly on my mind when I signed it along with my colleagues. It’s one right I clearly am committed to upholding as enshrined in the Constitution and my brief experience on “facebook” with the group concerned about the legislation gave me a lot of insightful arguments; most of them genuinely mean well for the society and I can only say such concerns from citizens is encouraging, encouraging that honest and fruitful public debates, allowing more public opinion to be laid out in the public domain, may not be too far.  This is most important for a functioning democracy I realize and we should encourage debates more often. I remember when we first tabled the tobacco control bill, there were far little opinions floating around in public space then. Even BBS live discussions did not see opinions we see today, I wish there were, perhaps things maybe have been different and maybe Sonam Tshering would not be where he is sadly.

In the end, there were no ulterior motives in making the law supposedly “draconian” as it did not and has not benefited any law-makers. It was all well-intended ( I wish BBS would play the debate and discussions on the matter during the time).

I hope we draw lessons from such events.

(1) The public needs to be concerned and engage in debates meaningfully all the time so that decision makers do not just talk to constituents back home but take on board opinionated others.

(2) The media may need to create the environment to bring about public debate before and during such processes of decision-making. A bit of analysis of the bill and issue would do wonders to bring that about.

(3) MPs need to talk to more people outside of their constituents too. We need to stop thinking and compartmentalizing the Bhutanese as your and my constituency.

Good decisions come from experience; and experience comes from bad decisions


About Sangay Khandu

Elected to Parliament of Bhutan twice. Previously worked with the Central Bank, the largest SoE (power utility) and international organization.
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5 Responses to Law-making a collective process (tobacco)

  1. As the world’s newest democracy, Bhutan is struggling, as it naturally should be, with governing itself and you are right to say that “failure is the pilar of success” — as Dr. Sangay, the blind physio at JDWNR hospital puts it. Missteps will be made along with illuminated moments like last year’s SAARC summit. Democracy is a process. Democracy is messy. With Bhutan strugging to get it’s real economy going, the shadow economy brought on by smuggling is worrysome. In my mind this is the ultimate issue with tobacco. There are no easy answers to this problem, but I have faith in the Bhutanese. More importantly, your brilliant and benevolent king, HM4, believes in your ability to govern yourselves.

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  5. drukpa says:

    I think it is unfair to blame the public for their lack of input while the tobacco bill was tabled. First of all, bills are not ‘tabled’ for the public, and all we hear is what is put out on BBS which is usually not longer than 2 minutes on air. If a true discussion is desired, all bills should be presented to the public even before the opening of the NA session.

    Secondly, I do not think it requires public input to realize that the tobacco bill’s motives and methods are misplaced. The fact that chewing tobacco has been targeted because of ‘second hand smoke’ shows that the thinking was not very clear and clearly infringes on the rights of chewers of tobacco. And speaking of rights, it may come as a surprise to many non-smoking, religion-espousing citizens and MPs that yes, cigarette smokers, as citizens also do have rights. So long as they smoke in private and do not affect the health of other citizens, there is no justification in denying them the right to smoke.

    The tobacco bill makes it impossible for a law-abiding addicted smoker to legally obtain cigarettes, specially those living far from the border. The law thus makes addicted smokers into criminals and then treats them worse than perpetrators of far more heinous crimes such as rape, pedophilia, drug peddling etc.

    What is there that is not wrong with this act? The MPs should have see it when they voted it in. The reality is now out and nobody needs to speculate any more of how ridiculous it will be. It is now time to amend the act, make it more reasonable and more proportionate in the allocation of punishment.

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