Tashi Dema

The year wasn’t favorable for those combating and preventing corruption.

From being abused by individuals accused of corruption and their relatives to logging heads with prosecuting agencies and court order to take administrative action against their own employees, it was a challenging year.

Curbing corruption is found to be a long journey ahead, as the nation reels under corruption offences, including abuse of function, embezzlement and bribery because of weak systems, poor professionalism, and lack of ethics and integrity.

Netizens were also taken by shock to witness Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and Office of the Attorney General (OAG) accusing each other of doing and overdoing their roles and responsibilities.

The Constitution mandates ACC to investigate and OAG to prosecute but there were many incidences where ACC moved the courts on their own. ACC officials justified they are empowered to prosecute under Anti-Corruption Act 2011. The recent case ACC appealed directly to the Supreme Court was Phuentsholing tax evasion case after OAG did not appeal against the High Court judgment.

While many construed it as evolving healthy check and balance system to promote accountability, transparency and public confidence in the criminal justice system, others perceived that such incidences manifest institutional ego and lack of objectivity, thereby robbing people off their faith in the institutions. Some viewed it as unconstitutional.

However, ACC winning the Trongsa land fraud case, which they prosecuted after OAG dropped must have given them the moral reasons to pursue what they believe is right.

But the court also pointed out anomalies in laws, particularly the Anti-Corruption Act and ruled that ACC and the Parliament should amend the Anti-Corruption Act to ensure the care and custody of immovable properties once ACC seizes it.

The Court also ordered ACC to take administrative actions against its officials, who violated section 107 of the Act by failing to advertise the notice of seizure through two media houses as required. It stated that ACC officials should follow the rule of law when they function and abide by the provisions specified in the law. The officials were also ordered to be fair and just and respect people’s right.

The commission officials spent time and resources in investigating boulder businesses in the southern dzongkhags, which did not result in any conclusive outcome, as the government allowed the businesses to resume.

ACC investigation revealed syndicate corruption in the export from Phuentsholing, Samtse, and Gelephu, as it found that Bhutanese exporters bribing officials across the borders to allow trucks to ferry more than the prescribed load or carrying capacity.

The illegal payment system, according to the commission, had also evidently driven exporters and contractors to devise devious schemes to conceal income and evade statutory tax, which is a breach of Income Tax Act of Bhutan depriving the State of its lawful revenue in millions. ACC officials said bribing foreign public officials is a corrupt offence under Section 44 and 45 of the Anti-Corruption Act of Bhutan 2011.

But those in business claimed it affected the business.

Going by the reports of corruption reported from financial institutions, it is evident there is a weak internal control system, as officials could easily manipulate the system and embezzle huge amount of public money.

Two women working for Bhutan Development Bank Limited’s (BDBL) Tsirang branch were alleged of embezzling public funds amounting to more than Nu 17 million (M). The women, who were working as tellers, embezzled the money in a span of seven years from 2012 to March 2019, issuing fake deposit receipts to customers without crediting into accounts and thereby pocketing the cash given for deposit. The victims were illiterate.

In another case, an accountant of Samdrupcholing drungkhag misused and embezzled more than Nu 8.4 million (M) government funds through fraudulent and deceptive practice. The Royal Audit Authority (RAA) unearthed the embezzlement.

Whatever the internal issues may be, Bhutan’s corruption perception is improving in international front. In Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2018, Bhutan had moved to the 25th place, a notch up from the 26th place in the previous year, indicating a triumph in fighting against corruption.