MB Subba 

The review of the CSO (Amendment) Bill 2021 by National Assembly (NA) members on November 18 highlighted widespread concerns about activities and financial operations of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the country.

NA members familiar with the issue said that the review meeting discussed the need to set strict provisions to prevent CSOs from deviating from their principles and purposes. The Bill, which was passed by the National Council (NC) in the summer session, will be deliberated in the winter session.

One of the members who attended the review meeting said there were perceptions that some of the CSOs were formed for “a family business”. Concerns, he said, were also raised regarding the prevalence of establishments that seemed to work as CSOs while conducting business.

The member said that CSOs should not be “self-serving” and that they must be true to the principles and cause. He added that concerns were raised about the chances of CSOs becoming “family affairs”.

There are about 54 registered CSOs today, according to the CSO authority.

The alleged lack of transparency in the financial matters of CSOs was also highlighted, according to the members. Citing annual audit reports, irregularities in CSOs amounting to millions were also highlighted.

The members said that although CSOs had breached rules, none had been deregistered. The members discussed the need for strong provisions in the new law to prevent CSOs from deviating from the prescribed activities.

The Bill calls for the deregistration of a CSO if it ceases to carry out its activities set forth in the Articles of Association for a period of two years.

A CSO can also be removed under the proposed law if it uses the money or properties for purposes and activities not specified in the Articles of Association or violates the country’s laws.

Vice-chairman of the House’s Human Rights and Foreign Relations Committee, Bimal Thapa, said that the committee proposed some changes in the Bill to address the current issues.

He said that the committee had proposed that the home minister serve as the chairperson of the CSO Authority. The NC had proposed home secretary for the CSO’s chairperson.

However, some of the MPs were of the view that politicians should not be linked with CSOs.

CSO officials said that they had carried out activities as per the Articles of Association and that their intentions were to serve the society and the members of the associations.

President of the Taxi Association of Bhutan, Rinzin Chophel, said that the CSO was operating as per the Articles of Association.

“We fulfill all the legal requirements at the time of registration and we are audited accordingly,” he said.

Chairman of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Sonam Wangchuk, said that people were recruited through open competition in the organisation. Board members, he said, were appointed to represent different categories of hotels and regions.

Chairperson of the CSO Authority, Phuntsho Wangdi, who was appointed recently, said the authority would review the status of all the CSOs to understand the issues and opportunities.

A new provision in the Bill states that the authority shall supervise all CSOs to ensure their compliance with the obligations under the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering of Finance of Terrorism Act of Bhutan.

Raising money or property in violation of the proposed law has been categorised as a value-based offence in accordance with the Penal Code of Bhutan.

The current Act, which was adopted in 2007, requires the establishment and registration of CSOs to strengthen civil society by developing human qualities and rendering humanitarian services.

Members said that the amendment of the Act was not to curb CSOs, but to streamline their operations.