Fighting choeten vandalism

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.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    When we are talking punishments like life imprisonment and National Assembly even discussing a possibility of death sentence in a peaceful Buddhist country; we are discussing a complicated situation. Problem is that it looks simpler than it actually isn’t. If a choeten is not safe in front of the house of the owners; are we looking at a possibility that it be moved inside the house where the owner can protect it in his capacities? One thing is obvious that a choeten in a remote place is not safe like our prayer flags are.

    A remote village or a town can make a point that the choetens are much closer to them and are located at a safe place where its protection can be monitored. And even the police has a tough task in preventing a crime that can lead to life imprisonment if found guilty. When punishment is so tough for such serious a crime, no individual thief will like to be caught easily. This is where crimes get organised in our societies and then, even an act of crime gets corrupted for all the odd reasons. So we are talking a serious mix of crime and corruption in these thefts of ku-sung-thukten.

    And at the same time how is it possible to protect them when they are spread all over the places, in the valleys and in the mountains! And there will be more choetens to come up in future as well. Dealing with thefts and robberies is nothing new. We have been dealing with it from the beginning of civilisation. Every solution planned and installed will have its time period for success and failure. We may even hope that the nangtens may be more simpler if that’s possible. We have seen gold coins of the past turning into plastic cards and even to mobile phone applications. But what get stolen is the value within and it has to be protected. What needs to be protected can be simplified beyond any possibilities of a recovery if that at all can be a solution. Still it remains not a solution.

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