Weak enforcement of laws has left the country gripped with a gambling addiction

Lifestyle: A mother was unable to answer her daughter’s call, the last phone call she made just before she ended her life.  A husband doesn’t know where his wife has absconded to, while a father moves out to keep his children safe from their mother.

All these families have been dealt with the same card. They staked their luck on a deck of cards, in a game called ‘marriage.’

Gambling in Bhutan is not new.  Once relegated to festivals and fairs, the game that was played for recreation has today manifested into an addiction that has left families shuffled.

However, this issue has not received the authorities’ attention, despite the National Assembly (NA), the country’s highest decision-making body, discussing it in eight sessions since 1967.  Noting that the Third King had issued a decree prohibiting gambling activities in the country, the NA banned it completely in 1977.

The home ministry has issued circulars to reinforce the ban since 1999, but the NA, on December 26, 2006, established that gambling had been continuing, because the authorities concerned had not enforced the circulars and notifications strictly.  It resolved that gambling activities would not be permitted in towns at any time, and penalties would be imposed on house owners, who rented their apartments for such activities.

But despite all the resolutions and circulars, police have to date reported only three cases of organised gambling, one each in the districts of Haa, Mongar and Wangdue.  The last case was reported in Wangdue in December 2013.

Why the ban cannot be enforced?

Police officials say they can act only when a complaint is filed, and only when it occurs in public places, not private residences, unless they get a tip off. “Nobody wants to report to police, except when the spouse is involved,” chief of police, brigadier Kipchu Namgyel, said, adding that it’s usually the husbands who file complaints.

“When we do receive complaints or credible information, we conduct raids but it’s not successful, because in organised gambling, there’s always someone to alert them,” he said. “By the time we’re there, everyone’s gone.”

Police, however, manage to nab the kingpin, he said, and as per law, send the case to court. “Since it’s a petty misdemeanour, they pay a fine of Nu 9,000 for the three-month jail term, which is nothing when they earn about Nu 100,000 a night in a game of marriage.”

Section 393 of the Bhutan Penal Code states: “A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of gambling, if the defendant stakes or wagers something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance, or a future contingent event not under the defendant’s control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that the defendant will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.

Section 394 grades the offence of gambling as a petty misdemeanour. “So, it’s the law. Police implements the law, courts interpret the law and everyone’s doing their mandate,” brigadier Kipchu Namgyel said.

For this to be addressed, he said there was a need for a sense of responsibility among the people to come forward and report.

Gambling turns into monetary cases

However, when cases do get reported, they come to courts as monetary disputes. “It doesn’t come in as one, but invariably you know that it’s a gambling case,” a judge, who has handled gambling cases, said. “If it’s gambling, law says it’s illegal and it will be written off.”

Court officials said loans between private individuals are on the rise, and one of the main factors contributing to the increase could be gambling. The judiciary’s annual report, 2014, states that there is a 24.06 percent increase in private loans. From 3,846 monetary cases in 2012, the number shot to 6,133 in 2013. Last year, there were 5,065 monetary cases

“After the moratorium on bank loans, there has been a drastic increase in private lending and borrowing, which may be attributed to gambling,” the annual report states. “Many took advantage of the situation in the hopes of making money, by using the existing loopholes in the provisions of the Movable and Immovable Act 1999, Financial Services Act 2011, Penal Code of Bhutan 2004 and the Evidence Act of Bhutan.”

To control such type of loans, judiciary officials said, they were working on introducing a system of checks and balances, which might include compulsory registration/notarisation of the loan agreement, based on the loan amount involved.

Absconding borrowers 

But even before the system is in place, the judiciary is confronted with another reality.

“Our people are now absconding after taking the money, and those with judgments are left without being able to do anything,” a judge said.  The High Court can execute an extradition treaty only for grave crimes, such as terrorism, and not for cases, such as gambling or, in this case, monetary disputes.

What the lenders do, according to the judge, is they add the capital and interest as one amount, since private individuals are, by law, not allowed to charge more than 14 percent interest on loan per annum.

But in gambling cases, the interest rates are more than 14 percent a month, which is later, disputed in the court, the judge said.  The court, however, has to honour the evidence Act, he said, which states that a written agreement shall be valid, if it’s legally executed with a legal stamp.

Although illegal by law, the main problem, according to judges, is that nobody wants to take accountability on gambling. “It’s the question of implementing the law.”

Who the absconders leave behind

It’s not just the moneylenders, who are left behind with a verdict in their hands.

For the last two years, Pema (name changed), a former civil servant, has been trying to clear the debts his wife incurred from gambling.  A man he had never met walked into his office one day and alerted him about ‘people’ hounding his wife.

A father of two sons, Pema calls the moneylenders loan sharks.  By the time he learnt about it, his wife, also a former civil servant, had been gambling for two years.

Today, he doesn’t know where his wife is.  What he knows is that she has lost all their assets – jewelry, houses and land.

“Everything… she gambled away everything,” he sighed. Before his wife left the country, he said, he had to buy back their sons’ cars more than 10 times. “Every time she gambled and lost the cars, I bought them back.”

But that wasn’t all.

His wife had got their elder son sign to the money lending agreement as a guarantor. “My son listened to his mother and signed, but the amount had accumulated to more than Nu 200 million,” he said.

That’s when he said he had to get in to bail his son out, even though by then he had already left his job.

When an arrest warrant from the court reached his house, his wife was long gone. “She was in India for some time with her gambling friends; now I don’t know where she is,” he shrugged.  Counting them on his fingers, he said, he knows of at least five people, besides his wife, who are on the run today.

He said gambling sessions are today played at stakes as high as Nu 500,000 to Nu 1M and sometimes run from night until morning.  Apartments, Pema said, are rented out solely for gambling sessions, where the host serves food and drinks, and earns more than Nu 20,000 a night. “These gambling dens also have moneylenders nearby, ready with a small printer and legal stamps to lend money.”

But since it all happen in homes and involves spouses or family members of top government officials or influential people, the authorities haven’t been able to clamp down on it as aggressively as it has for drugs.

The National Assembly in 2006 authorised police to raid any apartment or room being used as a den, and charge the gamblers, organisers and owners of the apartment to court.

However, while police wait for a complaint to be lodged, gambling has continued.  In 2012, the home ministry made another attempt to curb gambling, and claimed to have reviewed laws and conducted studies.

But just like its earlier circulars and the NA resolutions, this effort too remained on paper. Given the problems associated with gambling, which a judge described as a hydra extending its tentacles, people like Pema insist that the issue gets some attention now. “Someone has to do something about this; it’s ruining families,” he said.

Although compulsive gambling is diagnosed as a mental health problem, psychiatrist Dr DK Nirola said no one has to date consulted him with this problem. “I think people refuse to accept that they have a problem.”

By Sonam Pelden