Monday, 2 May 2011
The Smoking Buddhist
My sympathy goes to the 23 year old Buddhist monk Sonan Tshering, who is facing three years in prison after becoming the first casualty of a stringent anti-smoking law in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan - a country which claims to be Shangri-La and considers gross national happiness before gross domestic product - vows to become the first smoke-free nation.
Mr Tshering has been convicted of consuming and smuggling contraband tobacco under a law that came into force in January. In 2005 the sale of tobacco was banned in Bhutan because it was considered bad for one's karma, but it failed to make much of an impact because of the thriving smuggling operation from neighbouring India.
The new law permits the police to enter homes, threaten jail for shopkeepers selling tobacco and smokers who fail to provide customs receipts for imported cigarettes. Smoking in private is not illegal but the sale of cigarettes is banned, although smokers can legally import 200 cigarettes of 150grams of other tobacco products a month. They must provide a customs receipt when challenged by police.
The young monk bought the 72 packets of chewing tobacco from the Indian border town of Jaigoan and it was for personal use. He said he was unaware of the new law and had no tax receipt from the customs department.
Illegal cigarette sales have almost stopped in small shops as shopkeepers say it's difficult to hide tobacco from sniffer dogs.
The leader of the political opposition said the sentence was "very, very harsh. It's not in line with the character of Bhutan which is based on tolerance, compassion and justice". This politician certainly lives in Shangri-La. In the early 90s, many thousands of ethnic Nepalese who lived in Bhutan were stripped of their citizenship and forced into exile, apparently in a bid to ensure a homogenous culture. Up to 100,000 Nepalese had to live in camps in Nepal and an international attempt to resettle them in third countries is ongoing.
I'm surprised the monks haven't introduced a little tobacco growing/processing system within their hallowed walls. Religious institutions are historically renowned for bridging such gaps.