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Embracing social media

October 18, 2011

Many Bhutanese are protesting on Facebook against the arrest of a Buddhist monk, who has been sentenced to three years in jail for holding three dollars' worth of tobacco.

Bhutan has 62,060 Facebook users
Bhutan has 62,060 Facebook users

Earlier this year Kinley Tshering, a media consultant in the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, started a Facebook page in protest of a stern law passed by the government which banned public smoking.

More than 50 people have been jailed as a result of the law, which also allows police with sniffer dogs to raid homes in search of illegally imported tobacco and makes holding as much as a carton of 200 cigarettes a jailable offence.

Bhutan is in the league of lower middle-income nations
Bhutan is in the league of lower middle-income nationsImage: DW-Montage

Tshering decided to form a Facebook page as a digital protest - an unprecedented move in this Himalayan kingdom of 700,000 people wedged in between India and China. Within months, the page had several thousand followers and was the talk of the town, signalling how a younger generation is embracing social media and democratic rights, confidently challenging an established order of elderly and mostly conservative leaders.

Facebook opposition

The prime minister has also signed up on Facebook, a signal that the leaders of his country believe its popularity cannot be stopped.

Bhutan's opposition leader Tshering Tobgay counts Facebook as an important media, as "It opened the floodgates for open criticism of the government." He said, "People feel they need to be more vocal. Only two years ago, criticism - constructive or not - was quite anonymous."

The Himalayan nation held its first democratic election in 2008. Dupthob Tashiyangtse, a lawmaker from a remote rural region in the east of Bhutan, recounted how, after he was elected, villagers started making all kinds of demands including asking him to charge their mobile phones or pick up their groceries. "People are now coming forward. They are more demanding", he said.

Young generations embrace social media and democratic rights
Young generations embrace social media and democratic rights

Growing popularity

The new taste for popular debate is not restricted to the urban, educated elite; village migrants studying in college towns are also embracing Facebook. And the government is smoothing the way, setting up computer centres in many rural areas.

Nonetheless, the number of people connected to the net in Bhutan is still relatively low. According to socialbakers.com, the isolated South Asian country has only 62,060 Facebook users. This figure, however, is growing rapidly.

Agency: Reuters / ai
Editor: Grahame Lucas