Jigme Wangchuk   

The civil society organisations in Bhutan are jolted by the sudden closure of its network.

A letter from the member secretary of the Civil Society Organisations Authority (CSOA) ordered an immediate cessation of all functions of the Bhutan Civil Society Network (BCSN).

Earlier in an authority meeting, the BCSN was ordered to close its office and take down its website and all its social media platforms.

The BCSN is an informal network of all the CSOs in Bhutan.

The Authority claims that the BCSN’s activities are in direct contravention of the CSOA’s role. But, the order from the Authority has not gone down well with the members of BCSN. They say the order effectively curtails the growing civic space in Bhutan. But the CSOA says the BCSN was playing the Authority’s role.

So, where does the role of the BCSN conflict with that of the CSOA?

CSOA’s mandate

Some observers say the CSOA’s mandate begins and ends with the registration of CSOs and the regulation of the existing CSOs. Coordination and collaboration among CSOs, which the BCSN claimed to foster, is not the Authority’s mandate.

The CSO Act 2007, in its objectives, outlines the Authority’s role thus, “Facilitate the establishment and growth of public benefit organisations and mutual benefit organisations in order to strengthen civil society, promote social welfare and improve the conditions and quality of life for the people of Bhutan.”

Besides, the CSOA has the mandate to ensure “a system of public accountability by providing a framework for responsible and effective self-regulation of CSOs; Protect national and public interest; Facilitate a constructive partnership between the Government and CSOs in order to advance the public interest”.

What was the BCSN?

First CSOs in Bhutan were registered in 2010. As the civil society sector became more diverse and disparate, to keep the sector together as a fraternity, a few CSO leaders came together in 2015 to start what they called the Core Coordinating Committee (CCC) constituted by CSO representatives.

The members of the committee were elected from the CSOs. The CCC marked the beginning of fraternity building for CSOs in Bhutan. Later, the leaders thought that the name Core Coordinating Committee did not sound inclusive and all-embracing. Therefore, at a leadership workshop in 2021, they rebranded the CCC as the Bhutan Civil Society Network (BCSN) to make it more inclusive and representative of the sector.

The operation of the network was managed by the executive committee comprising 10 members – eight elected from the eight thematic groups and two eminent members from CSOs sitting on the CSOA board.

What is the contention?

The CSOA argues that Section 15 (f) of the CSO Act (amendment) 2022 mandates CSOs to operate in compliance with the Act and their own Article of Association and purposes for which they have been established. CSOs coming together and aligning their focus on their own contravenes the provisions of the Act.

The BCSN sees it differently. It argues that there was a need for CSOs to come together as a fraternity because, as a new sector, a sense of fraternity was missing.

BCSN members claim that the network improved collaboration among the CSOs significantly even as the Authority languished without any fraternity-building activities for lack of initiatives and funds. It could not even conduct regular Authority meetings.

The Authority, on the other hand, said that, if registered CSOs genuinely sense similar objectives among themselves, it would facilitate merger or consolidation of CSOs and allow them to operate as a merged CSO. “By doing so, merged CSOs can operate more efficiently and enhance their impact.”

The Authority said it had revised its “registration rules” to limit and avoid duplication of similar objectives among the CSOs.

But why the contention?

The BCSN claims that after the formation of the network, the visibility of the CSOs increased drastically with diverse activities. That was when the CSOA secretariat, which was not able to carry out any fraternity-building activity for lack of funds, took offence.

“It worked as the wisdom house of the CSOs,” claim the BCSN members, who argue that the BCSN does not pose a threat to anyone or the national interest of the country. “We are collaborators, not watchdogs. The group, recognised by the Parliament of Bhutan, is about education and awareness in the context of development that we can augment.”

The CSOA thinks that unregulated CSOs can pose complications in the future.

CSOs think differently.

“Rinzin Rinzin, the former chair of the BCSN, says, “In fact, we helped promote harmony and streamlined development needs and priorities. CSOs add dynamism to development.”

Is informality the problem?

The BCSN members argue that the very nature of civil society is voluntary and informal. Therefore, the BCSN’s existence as an informal group was fully justified. But the CSOA argues that the nature of civil society is voluntary, but not informal.

The Authority said, “The voluntary or self-help groups existed in our communities since the times immemorial and is a cultural element in our society, but with the transition of the governance into democratic set up and with the enactment of the law (CSO Act 2007 and Amendment 2022), all CSOs are mandated to register with this Act.”

It added, “The Authority is the apex governing agency for the CSOs and [is] delegated to administer its affairs in the country for strengthening civil society in line with the regulatory framework.”

The Authority argues that stopping the operation of the BCSN will not limit the right to civic participation and space. It is only terminating establishments without statutory standings in the civil society sector. “It is an effort to enhance transparency and accountability in the sector to improve its governance for more credibility and public trust.”

But CSOs think they have the right to form informal groups.

A CSO leader said, “The Authority as a government agency will not and cannot represent the voice of the CSOs. That is where the BCSN comes in.

“Without BCSN, CSOs will go back to the Stone Age; end up working or acting individually,” said the former chair of BCSN.”

The Authority said, “For vibrancy and dynamism, CSOs have two eminent members, elected from and by the CSOs to the Authority’s composition. The roles of the members are not only to represent the CSOs but also to share and submit the sectors’ concerns and views for better facilitation by the Authority to create and ensure conducive working environment for the CSOs in the Country.”