Lack of clarity on rules for its transaction has led it to become a well-organised crime

Crime: Early this year, a man in Paro who negotiated his three-eyed dzee (cat’s eye) with a buyer landed up with a bag full of cardboard and papers in exchange.

The suspect had allegedly escaped with the dzee after handing over the bag to the man’s relative, the middleman. Sources said negotiations had begun with the stranger a few days before the incident.

After agreeing on the amount, the stranger drove over to the man’s house near Chudzom where the middleman handed over the dzee and took the bag.

Paro police was informed but police said it was reported late and that details were vague.

Paro police officials said investigations are on but no one has been arrested to date, as the owner couldn’t recognise the suspect. “We showed him several photographs of suspects but he couldn’t recognise any,” a police official said.

While it is mandatory for people to seek permission from their respective dzongkhag cultural officers if they wish to take or sell antiques such as dzee, corals, turquoise and pearls in another dzongkhag, not many abide by it.

Department of culture officials said dzee is not included in the cultural property Act but the department had issued circular to this effect in 2012. Failing to do so and if caught would result in a penalty of Nu 5,000.

Currently, the department is working on issuing thrams (ownership certificates) for such antiques including dzee to more than 1,000 people who registered such properties with the department.

However, such measure comes at a time when illegal sale or transaction of dzee has become a lucrative business for many Bhutanese.

But the lack of details on transaction or possession of dzee in the existing Acts has made it difficult for law enforcement agencies to act upon.

Even for the Royal Bhutan Police, lack of clarity on regulations pertaining to transaction of dzee is an issue.

Police officials said they act in line with the cultural property Act and the moveable and immovable property Act of Bhutan while handling dzee cases.

Police said that monitoring and transportation of dzee beyond the country’s border was a herculean task, as the dzee business has now evolved into a well-organised crime.

“If its for sale within the country, the owners need to obtain permission but even with permission its difficult to rule if its for business or personal purpose,” a police official said.

However, police said that as a registered property, people should possess legal documents to prove that it belongs to them.

While police do not maintain separate statistics for illegal dzee cases, the cases are usually registered, as burglary, theft or robbery even though the property involved is a dzee.

Records with police show that theft of antiques increased to 249 cases last year from 91 cases in 2011.

Dzee is the most sought after antique and the increasing transaction of dzee is also attributed to the rising choeten and lhakhang vandalism reported in the country.

Considered precious, illegal transactions take place across South Asia including Bhutan. The number of “eyes,” a circular design on the dzee, is considered significant.

Origin of dzees in Bhutan is not documented but elderly Bhutanese believe that the dzee originated from abroad (across the oceans) and is considered to provide positive spiritual benefits.

Sources said dzee has become a booming business today with the good ones fetching more than Nu 10M each depending on the eyes, texture, colour or length. Middlemen get paid a minimum of Nu 100,000 for each transaction.

Kuensel learnt that the dzee are taken to buyers or brokers in Nepal from which it goes to China. Some Bhutanese buyers sell directly to their counterparts in China while most sell it to brokers in Nepal. In China, the affluent are said to be investing in dzee to be worn as protective amulets.

Besides middlemen, there are carriers who collect the dzee on the buyer’s behalf and are paid a higher commission. These carriers from Tibet and China, according to sources, mostly come to Bhutan on tourist visas.

Observers called for stringent laws and regulations to curb such illegal transaction of antiques or artefacts without which they said it wont be long before the country loses all its valuables.

Police sources said the two men arrested recently in Nepal in connection with dzee theft have been confirmed as Bhutanese citizens. It is suspected that some of the dzees found in possession were taken from Bhutan.

Kinga Dema