The Tobacco Control Act and the sentencing of former monk, Sonam Tshering, have been blown out of proportion. I sympathize with the sentiments of the people who are affected by the severity of the sentence and believe that it is important to provide a clear perspective on the issue.
What has been overlooked by the media and some sections of the Bhutanese population is that the Tobacco Control Act, introduced in the National Council (NC) by the Ministry of Health, debated in both the NC and the National Assembly (NA) was enacted by parliament with all members of the NC having voted in favor while only three voted against the bill in the NA. It was, therefore, a decision of the majority in parliament and therefore, the majority of the Bhutanese people.
Sonam Tshering has now been convicted in a court of law, not by the government or parliament.
I feel sorry for him and have empathy for members of his family who must bear the pain of his misdeed. I can understand why many people feel that the punishment is incongruous to the crime. But then, that is what the law has prescribed. In the end, it is not about how much of tobacco he was carrying, it is about committing an illegal act.
Although the members of the Lhengey Zhungtshog and parliament might individually harbour differing views, and disagree with the law, the government is bound to stand by the side of law. Likewise, all Member of Parliaments who debate and vote on an issue in parliament have the ethical and moral obligation to stand by the will of majority as manifest in the laws made by it.
However, the Royal Government — elected by a majority of the populace — has and shall always stand by the will of the people. Therefore, if the people want the Tobacco Control Act, or any other Act, to be amended, there are proper procedures for amendment. No law is perfect and all laws can be changed as compulsions and values of society change.
However, the government will not respond to any attempts to create hysteria on the issue through any forum including the social media. Likewise, street demonstrations and movements in such cases are unpredictable in their outcomes and are necessary only in countries where the rule of law is undermined by authorities; where democracy has failed and where there is no other way to draw the attention of those in power.
We must avoid bringing in practices that are foreign to Bhutan and go against the interests of true democracy. In a country that is committed to establishing a unique democracy, we must find ways and means to express our will and opinions in the most civilized and effective ways using means that are democratic, relevant and peaceful.
The government encourages the people of Bhutan to express their views and to propose amendments to existing Acts through their elected representatives who are duty bound to represent them in parliament. I encourage the people to call or write to your own MPs, as responsible members of your constituency, not as anonymous voices in the media. You must prevail upon your MPs to act on your behalf.
(This is the unedited version of a statement issued by Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley on March 5, 2011, following massive criticism from the opposition party and media on the recent verdict of the Thimphu Court on monk student Sonam Tshering sentencing him a jail term of three years. Download Tobacco Control Act 2010.)
The court verdict issued on Sonam Tshering is attached below