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From the reports of choetens being vandalised and robbed off their nangtens (inner relics), it seems like the miscreants are on a choeten-robbing spree. In one week, 10 choetens were robbed in Mongar. That is a big number to comprehend.

The irony is that the choetens were renovated and restored to its original grandeur with new nangtens installed. Choeten robbery or desecration of religious monuments is a serious crime. The penalty of committing an act of theft of ku-sung-thukten from a private or government owned lhakhang or choeten is life imprisonment. The punishment is scary enough to deter people from even thinking of attempting, but from the reports, it is not a deterrent factor.

In Mongar, where choeten vandalism or robbery is happening at a rampant pace, people were imprisoned for life, even to double lifetime imprisonment. One even earned 12 life imprisonments for his crime. Surprisingly, more and more choetens are being ransacked not even sparring the once renovated and dedicated to a noble cause.

Something is really wrong.

That desecration of religious heritage was becoming a problem was long recognised. The Royal Bhutan Police had been particularly focusing on preventing this. For a Buddhist society like ours, robbing choetens or lhakhangs is beyond our imagination. But this is happening and happening rampantly, even with stringent laws and punishment. The National Assembly even proposed introducing the death penalty for those robbing national treasures.

Since 1987, a total of 3,429 choetens were vandalized.  In the past two years, as of May, a total of 565 choetens were vandalized or robbed. Police are seeing a drop in crime rates, but an increase in offence against ku-sung-thukten or statues, scriptures, choeten and lhakhangs.

Recognizing that this is becoming a serious issue, the police had even considered installing close circuit televisions to deter and reduce vandalism. A special investigation team was also formed to investigate vandalism of choetens. In the meantime, there is a collective pain caused by the loss of important treasures, local or national.

There is a huge market for relics and dzees that are usually installed as nangtens in religious structures like choetens. At the rate choetens are robbed of their nangtens, the market is thriving and encouraging miscreants to commit the crime for monetary gains. Despite our efforts, it is safe to surmise that there is a thriving sophisticated smuggling ring. They are fed by miscreants who risk their lives for easy money.

It is clear that choetens and lhakhangs are robbed for their relics, dzees and corals being the most common. In fact, those being caught have confessed to that. In other words, we have identified the cause of the problem. What we are lacking is in finding a solution.

Our laws are silent on the dzee business within the country. Those dealing with it, if caught at the border gates or at the airport, are questioned often leading to seizure of the items. The dzee business within is done from homes. That is why there is a thriving business of dzees.

Some of them could have come from the hundreds of choetens vandalized over the years.

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