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Land of bountiful bans

Tenzin Chopen, 26, standing outside Thimphu’s only human traffic light post looking out for vehicles floutingPedestrians' Day on a Tuesday. On other days, he is usually inside the post directing traffic. (PHOTO: GO-FAR/IVAN TAN)

Publication Date : 05-09-2012


Getting four-year-old Pema Choeyang out of bed and ready for school on Tuesdays is no easy task for her father Kencho Tshering. They live just a 20-minute drive away from the school, but Tuesday is Pedestrians' Day, which means their Toyota Hilux must remain at home.

Young Pema has to wake up a full three hours before school starts at 9am in order to beat the crowds in search of a taxi.

For many Bhutanese like them, Monday blues have turned into terrible Tuesdays, when private cars are banned from city centres. Thimphu may still be the only capital city in the world that does not need traffic lights, but that has not stopped the authorities from taking pre-emptive action against traffic congestion and pollution.

Pedestrians' Day is just one of Bhutan's restrictive laws that reveal the government's paternalistic tendencies. It may have lifted the country's ban on television in 1999 and become a democracy in 2008, but the kingdom today has a cigarette ban that is even tougher than Singapore's, strict regulation of religious practices and a national dress code for all locals.

In a less idyllic setting, some of the rules might seem almost dictatorial. But here, they add to Bhutan's quaint charm, showing the government's refusal to be swept along by the tide of globalisation.

While some societies equate happiness with individual choice, Bhutan's notion of well-being is more communitarian.

"As a general policy and in line with the GNH philosophy, self-determination, freedom and those kinds of values always have the highest cost," says Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission.

But officials acknowledge that most bans cannot be watertight. They are mainly introduced to buy time before people's attitudes change. "A lot of bans cannot be bans for good. What we hope is that education will help people understand what's good for you and what's not good for you," says senior government official Kinley Dorji.

However, the GNH philosophy has not stopped wide criticism of Pedestrians' Day since it was launched in June. High street businesses complain that they are losing customers, while parents like Kencho Tshering have had to scramble to make alternative provisions to get their children to and from school.

Prime Minister Jigme Thinley remains enthusiastic about the ban. He often cycles the 26km round trip through the hilly terrain between his house and his office, not just on Tuesdays but on other days as well.

But he acknowledges that Pedestrians' Day could have been implemented better. "I think we could have consulted more on this," he says. "The good thing is that whenever we fail to consult enough, we have a media and a public that is increasingly vocal and that makes us more mindful."

Indeed, Bhutan's largely free press, including lively online forums, is quick to reflect any public unhappiness with the restrictions.

Prominent investigative journalist Tenzing Lamsang says the government's we-know-best attitude reflects officials' "elitist mindset".

"A lot of our ministers come from the Bhutanese bureaucracy and are more used to a top-down approach," he says.

Another controversial law is the Tobacco Control Act, making Bhutan the first country in the world to ban tobacco sales. Last year, a monk was sentenced to three years in prison for smuggling in S$2.70 (US$2.16) worth of tobacco.

The high-profile case made lawmakers realise that, in their enthusiasm to protect the population, they had engaged in overkill.

Penalties have since been reduced, and a thriving black market operates. Shopkeepers sell packs of illegally imported Indian cigarettes at S$2.20. They quietly slip the slim packs, wrapped in old magazine pages, into buyers' hands while keeping a lookout for the authorities.

A smoker, 28-year-old Kezang, who goes by just one name, describes the tobacco sale ban as "irrational", since the premium paid on illegal cigarettes could have gone to the government as taxes.

Other bans have less to do with the nanny state and are instead due to the country's economic situation. Faced with a precarious trade imbalance with India and a rupee shortage, the state imposed austerity measures this year, including import bans on vegetables and vehicles.

There are also restrictions rooted in Bhutan's desire to preserve its culture. Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, only Buddhism and Hinduism are officially recognised.

Christian pastor Phurba Wangdi, 45, says he has had to relocate his church at least eight times in the last 20 years.

"If they find out that we are preaching or converting anyone to Christianity, there is a serious punishment," adds the pastor, referring to the 1992 National Security Act that prohibits promoting enmity or hatred between religious groups.

As for the national dress, the requirement to wear the gho and kira at most workplaces enjoys support, even among government critics like Tenzing Lamsang.

"It has a lot to do with our external surroundings. For a small country, we cannot afford to have division, and if we all have a unified culture, then there is no issue of division," he says. "Globally people don't know much about us, so the only thing that can make us stand out is culture."


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