SPECIAL REPORT – Bhutan Drug Abuse

Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema

Shilpa Raina reports from Thimphu on Bhutan’s dark underbelly 

Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema
Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema

Every Monday evening, government official Dasho Paljor J. Dorji turns into a chatty radio presenter for a popular talk show and gets candid with guests. But before signing off, he delivers a social message that invariably revolves around “drinking, driving and drugs” – something that comes straight from a personal tragedy.

Dorji, a special advisor with Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, lost his son in 2013 to drug overdose – a deadly cocktail of alcohol and party drugs led to his death.
“I had six children. Now I have five,” a teary-eyed Dorji told IANS.
“Through this programme, I am sending out the message – don’t drink to drown your sorrows and problems – to everyone out there. There is a misconception of things among youth and I don’t want the parents to feel the pain I do,” he added.

For the world at large, the tiny Himalayan kingdom represents a picture-perfect postcard of Gross National Happiness (GNH) – a term coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened the country to the age of modernisation.

But the picturesque mountainous landscape has a dark underbelly to its self-claimed projection of “happiness” that the world is oblivious to.

According to an official data, in 2010 there were 57 suicides, 65 a year later and a massive jump to 88 in 2012. In 2013, till October, 83 people had committed suicide – a somewhat grim trend for a peace-loving country that is home to around 700,000 souls.
While this suicidal tendency is pronounced amongst youngsters, substance abuse is another worry that stems from rural-urban migration, breakdown of the extended family support system and lack of communication between parents and children.
As per the National Baseline Assessment (NBA) 2009 report, brought out by the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the mean age for the onset of alcohol use was 16 years and use of tobacco, alcohol and solvents was reported by students from Class VI onwards with an increasing trend among those in the senior classes.
“Many Bhutanese youngsters – girls and boys – are taking illegal things like marijuana and prescribed drugs like spasmo proxyvon, relipine and nitrosun. It is majorly because of lack of parental guidance, lack of education and awareness among youth, and lack of youth engagement facilities,” Tshewang Tenzin, a member of the Chithuen Phendhey Association (CPA), told IANS.
The CPA addresses rampant increase of drug and alcohol issues among youth and offers services such as outreach outpatient-based counselling and a residential programme and providing skills training and job assistance to help reformed users successfully reintegrate into the mainstream of society.
“The projection of Bhutan as a country with GNH is a farce,” said a bitter father, who too had lost his son and didn’t wish to be named.
“I am not an expert who can tell you why youngsters are taking drugs. But I can tell you that youngsters are frustrated. There is poverty, unemployment and peer
pressure. They want a life that is happy and desire many things, and when they don’t have those they sniff drugs and live in a delusional world,” he added.
Academician Karma Phuntsho strongly felt that the yawning clash between maintaining traditional values and getting modern is adding up to “psychological”
The widening chasm is leaving the youngsters in a limbo.
“You are in a limbo when for seven hours in school you speak English and when you come out your parents want you to be traditional Bhutanese. This is leading to a clash of identities where parents and children are growing apart,” Phuntsho told IANS.
Dorji admitted his official responsibilities kept him so busy that he never had time to interact with his children.
“I won’t say I was a strict father, but definitely there was lack of communication and hence my son’s death has raised many questions on how Bhutanese parents are struggling to communicate with their children.
“It is not a good sign. We desperately need to overcome it,” Dorji concluded.

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