Internet was introduced in Bhutan in 1999 by the progressive fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. 1999 to 2008 was a period when there was only one operator, Bhutan Telecom. Internet rates and mobiles were expensive and only rich people could afford it. Today, the usage of social media has rapidly grown in the country with people using Facebook, WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. On March 11-15, 2019, a Social Media for Empowerment (SM4E) workshop was conducted by DEF to apprise participants about importance of social media and how it can be a powerful tool for change.
In 2008, a new player entered the scene of Internet provider, TashiCell. Competition led to Internet rates becoming comparatively affordable. Now more Bhutanese could use Internet.
Today, Bhutan has a population of roughly around 7,50,000 people. According to ‘Annual Info-Comm and Transport Statistical Bulletin (9th Edition, 2018)’, Internet penetration in the country is around 60-70%, tilting more in the favour of urban areas than rural.
The cost of data in Bhutan is BTN 499 for 5.9 Gb of data. The value of Bhutanese Ngultrum and Indian Rupees is almost same. In India, for Rs. 499 we get 75 Gb of data. From that perspective, data rate in Bhutan is still expensive. More economical data rates would certainly help in the adoption of technology, especially in the rural parts of Bhutan.
There are 6000 chewogs or villages in Bhutan, which are administered by 205 gewog mandals or block heads. 205 gewogs are administered by 20 dhzongkhags or districts, which are run by dzongdag or mayor. Mayors work directly under the instructions of the Prime Minister.
Bhutan was declared a democracy by the fourth King of Bhutan in 2008. In that year, Bhutan conducted its first elections and formed a constitutionally elected government. Bhutan is a unique constitutional monarchy, where the King has the final say in all the matters pertaining to the government.
Bhutan is also unique because for the first time in the history of monarchy anywhere in the world, the fourth King made it mandatory by law for the King to abdicate the crown at the age of 65 years; like retirement. The Golden throne would be passed on to the successor, provided the crown prince or crown princess has reached 21 years of age. The fourth King himself led by example by abdicating the crown in 2006, even though he was only 51 years old at the time. His son, 26 years old crown prince, HH Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, took over his father as the King.
People passionately revere the king and the royal family. Culture of dissent and opposition towards the King or elected government is considered inappropriate. Be that as it may, a cultural shift is becoming visible as technology is allowing people to exercise their freedom of speech much more than before.
During 2008 elections, a website called www.bhutantimes.com managed by an alias called ‘Common Man’, was somewhat instrumental in influencing the elections. There were two main parties fighting to form the first democratically elected government in Bhutan, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). Common Man’s intense criticism of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the online space benefited Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), which went on to form the government in 2008.
In 2013 elections, a satirical website called Bhutanomics, turned the tables on DPT, and it helped PDP to win this time.
The use of social media is rapidly growing, especially amongst younger generation. Social Media platforms that are most used in Bhutan are- Facebook, WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. WeChat is very popular in rural Bhutan because it is economical in the use of data and is extremely user-friendly.
In the 2018 elections, Facebook, WeChat and WhatsApp were the primary source of information sharing in Bhutan. And this time misinformation also played a huge role in influencing the voters.
Awareness of misinformation and fake news is very low in Bhutan. People share messages on social media platforms without any regard for authenticity and understanding of verification.
The trend of misinformation is not new in Bhutan though. There have been plenty of instances of misinformation, which caused panic amongst devout Buddhists.
There was a rumour of a headhunter in eastern Bhutan, who was allegedly collecting heads as prized possessions. It created quite in panic rural areas.
Rumoured death of Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, a famous film actor in Bhutan, also spread like wild fire and made people anxious and curious.
Then there was a fake news that Lama Zoya Rinpoche has predicted a huge earthquake in Bhutan. Lama is a highly respected religious leader, and it caused hysteria in Bhutan where 95% people are Buddhists. It was spread more with the use of WeChat.
Misinformations finding traction amongst God-fearing Buddhists could also be attributed to the fact that Bhutanese were the followers of bonism or they were nature worshippers, before Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan in the 7th century A.D. Buddhism practiced in Bhutan still retains some aspects of bonism, such as superstition and culture of eating meat. In Buddhism, violence of any kind is strictly prohibited. So killing of animals for consumption is banned in the country, and all the meat is exported from India.
More exposure to the outside world is gradually changing the mindset in the country, and there is a realization to address the ambiguity of the situation. The government has made it mandatory to serve only vegetarian food during all government events.
In Bhutan, ambiguity is also reflected in the adoption of technology. A social media policy has been drafted and put in place. Legal provisions to deal with crimes in the online space are also there, but there is a gap in perception and implementing them.
Bhutan is a unique society, which is quite open and liberal as compared to other societies. Many age old traditions still form the basis of how people think and conduct themselves in public space.
‘Night Hunting’ or Bomena was an age old courtship custom which was practiced in the villages of Bhutan where the boys went prowling for girls in the night and sneaked into their houses for courtship. The practice has come under intense criticism in modern times and is perceived as unethical amounting to sexual harassment of girls.
As regressive as it is perceived today, the practice strictly mandated the courtship to take place only with a girl’s consent.
The custom is not practiced anymore, but it forms the basis of socio-behavioural ethos in the Bhutanese society. Youngsters are extremely open when it comes to forming relationships. Most couples start living together without marriage. Polygamy and polyandry are acceptable, provided it is economically viable; though there are more cases of polygamy than polyandry.
There is a visible change here, perhaps to conform to more acceptable ideas of ethics and morality. It’s been made mandatory for couples to produce a marriage certificate or MC for a child’s admission in school.
Divorce rate is still exceptionally high in Bhutan. A Bhutanese is only allowed three marriages and divorces in his/her lifetime. Interestingly, one can have multiple legal partners with one marriage certificate provided they have consent of other partners.
For what it’s worth, smartphones and social media have made meeting and dating much easier.
Bhutan is perceived to be an extremely safe country for women/girls. Girls can be seen walking back home in the night on an empty street without attracting a shifting eyebrow. Up until sometime back, prominent cases of sexual harassment in public sphere were rare.
Recently, there was a case where somebody made a video of a monk molesting a woman. It led to the man who had made the video, and the monk, both being arrested. The man was arrested because he violated the privacy of the monk, and the monk was arrested for indulging in molestation.
An incident of a mistress slapping the wife of a man in public was made video of by somebody and posted on social media. The police arrested the man for invading the privacy of both the wife and mistress.
In Bhutan, law does not designate sexual harassment as heinous a crime as child pornography and human trafficking. So the police cannot take cognisance of a case on their own unless it is reported by somebody; better still by a recognised institution like National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC), Bhutan.
In India, Madras high court took cognisance and rejected the anticipatory bail of the politician, S Ve Shekher, for sharing derogatory Facebook post on women journalists with a view that it amounts to endorsement. Bhutan also has comprehensive provisions to address online harassment under Information Communication and Media Act (ICM Act 2018), but they have been rarely referred to, often because of lack of awareness.
There are lots of cases pending in court where people have been accused of dissent on WeChat. During 2013 elections, a man was taken to court by the incumbent government of the time for defamation on Facebook, the man won the case and received 4 lakhs as compensation.
So the ground is slightly chaotic when it comes to perception and implementation of digital laws to support the change.
For a country, which has been using Internet since 1999, and ushered in democracy in 2008, it’s surprising that we still haven’t had any innovation success stories from the country.
According to 2017 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan Report, Bhutan has literacy rate of 71.4%, with half of population younger than 26.9 years. There couldn’t be a better scenario for encouraging digital innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. Perhaps the government needs to play a more proactive role with a clear understanding of technology and strategy.
Civil servants are the face of the government for public. So if the government is serious about positive adoption of technology in the country, then they have to go beyond just drafting of social media policy and digital laws.
Civil servants are using mostly WeChat to reach out to citizens and deliver important messages. They are also aware of China’s growing influence in data collection and nefarious agendas to grow their economic and technological influence across the world. So there is conscious endeavour to move away from WeChat in favour of WhatsApp. It may take some time, since people in rural Bhutan are mostly on WeChat.
Currently, civil servants exhibit basic social media awareness. None of them have a social media strategy on their priority list. The ministries expect social media visibility, but there is lack of understanding that effective social media communication requires resources. This means that every ministry needs a dedicated social media team that is equipped with time and budget for content creation. Besides, they may not see the results immediately. It further means, persevering with the team and supporting them.
Number of workshops are being organised by the Department of Information and Media (DoIM) for the capacity building of civil servants from various ministries.
SM4E workshop was held from 11-15th March, in Paro, Bhutan, in partnership with DEF, which was conducted by Ravi Guria, Sr. Programme Manager- Media & Communication. This was the fifth partnership between DEF and Directorate of Information & Media (DoIM) towards capacity building of various ministries in Bhutan.
The participants in the workshop represented various ministries such as- Ministry of Labour and Human Resource; Ministry of Health; National Commission for Women and Children; National Assembly; Road Safety and Transport Authority; Ministry of Economic Affairs; Dzongkha Development Authority; National Land Commission; Bhutan Infocom and Media Authority; National Council of Bhutan; Royal Civil Services Commission; Ministry of Agriculture and Forest; Ministry of Education, Office of Air Transport; and Ministry of Home and Culture Affairs.
The format of the workshop was informal, where for the first two days the participants only indulged in content creation exercises. They practiced the craft of storytelling in the form of graphics, photo-stories and video by using graphics creation tool Canva, and video-making apps like Adobe Spark and Filmorago. The workshop further progressed with a session on misinformation and fake news, which dealt with how to classify information into real, fake, opinion and rumour; how to verify fake news; image reverse search; and understanding Artificial Intelligence to counter fake news. They learned how to build campaigns, about privacy and security, social media listening and monitoring tools, and created a social media strategy for their respective ministries.
Like India, Bhutan is also a diverse country. Dzonkha is the national language of the country, but there are 20 dialects spoken across the country, which are more like different languages. So one social media strategy fits all doesn’t work. Language is an integral part of social media communication. Focused and specific content to target different language groups is imperative.
It helps that well known personalities such as Namgay Zam, a popular journalist, and Dasho Sonam Kinga, Chairperson of the National Council (NC), with Facebook following of 50,258 and 8,338 people respectively, are emerging as influencers to impact public opinion in the country.
Former Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, himself uses Twitter and Facebook extensively to communicate. He has a massive following of more than 85000 and 180,000 people on Twitter and Facebook respectively.
In fact, during his term, Tshering Tobgay, was roped in as an influencer to promote Facebook campaign, ‘I Break the Silence’, that was launched to address menstruation hygiene in Bhutan. It involved tying red ribbon around people’s arms and giving them sanitary pads. Then a picture was taken of them and posted on Facebook. The campaign saw huge following.
Facebook page called Bhutan Pothole Police with over 35000 followers has been able to mobilise citizens to address the cause of bad roads in the country; and Breaking the News- Bhutanese Social Media with over 75000 followers has become a popular platform for discussion on topics ranging from fashion to various social issues.
International social media campaign #trashtag, has found huge traction in urban Bhutan. To participate in the campaign, one has to select a location, which requires cleaning. Then the locality is cleaned, and juxtaposed photographs of before and after version of the locality is posted on Facebook with the hashtag. Lots of youngsters are participating in it with much enthusiasm.
Technology has become the hallmark of growth and progress for all the societies in today’s time. But positive and meaningful growth comes with understanding and awareness of the benefits and potential setbacks the change will bring. Moreover, while change is important, it should not come at the cost of culture, tradition and ethos of a society.
Archery and singing karaoke in a bar are favourite pastime in Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan is slinged dexterously while aiming for technology adoption, and if they keep their focus, they’ll be singing eloquently all the way to digital future, sooner than later.