The Anonymous Bhutanese

Anonymous in Bhutan

When the popular but controversial online forum Bhutan Times (no relation to Bhutan Times newspaper) closed down last year, some predicted the beginning of the end of Internet anonymity here.

What followed seemed to back up this prediction. Bhutanese began passionately debating the tobacco control act on a social media platform, using their own identities and, seemingly, without any fear of retribution.

I think the need to go anonymous can really be misinterpreted by some to think there is a serious lack of freedom to express in Bhutan, but that’s a misconception.
– Sonam Ongmo, former journalist / active social media user.

The trend seems to have been temporary. The use of anonymity on the Internet, specifically when it comes to expressing personal opinions, has found one more platform.

This was highlighted recently, when the prime minister referred to the phenomenon during the national graduate orientation program, as a result of being impersonated on Twitter, a short messaging social media platform that is gaining popularity in Bhutan.

Despite the impersonation, the prime minister pointed out that no action would be taken to close down the Twitter account, given that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression.

The past few months has seen a spike in the number of anonymous users of Twitter. The majority use their anonymity to share opinions on contemporary affairs, many of them to criticise government policies and decisions, or specific public figures, and to share the latest gossip.

While some have bemoaned this increase use of anonymity, some questions that emerge from this phenomenon is what factors contribute to Bhutanese choosing anonymity to express their true opinions, the value of anonymity to Bhutanese society, and how far it should be tolerated.

“People express their views anonymously, simply because they fear that they’ll have to suffer the consequences of their opinions,”said opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay ( in response to whether current legislation is adequate in protecting freedom of expression.

“Our people are concerned, concerned enough to voice their opinions. But they’re scared to criticise, even constructively,” said the politician, who has been using social media platforms since he was elected in 2008. “That’s why many take refuge in anonymity.”

The constitution’s article seven provides freedom of speech, opinion, and expression. Much of the discussions and statements made by anonymous users of Twitter, or even this paper’s online forum, are not defamatory and therefore not breaking laws. The questions that arises is what causes most Bhutanese to choose anonymity.

“I think the need to go anonymous can really be misinterpreted by some to think there is a serious lack of freedom to express in Bhutan, but that’s a misconception,” said Sonam Ongmo, a former journalist and active social media user. She explained that, in a small society, criticism is likely to upset friends and relatives.

“It’s not that there isn’t freedom of expression, but that freedom of open expression will always be something that will not be fully executed by those, who don’t have the courage to do so without sacrificing being liked for who they are, or what they say.”

Given that anonymity is stemming from the small society syndrome, the question is how valuable anonymous comments made in the public forum are.

“As far as I’m concerned, I respect all comments, including those made anonymously. That’s why I’ve never censured the many criticisms that have been lodged against me anonymously on my own blog,” said opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay. “Anonymous comments can be influential, but they’ll never match the power of credited comments.”

The opposition leader has, in the past, credited an anonymous online user for his party’s landslide defeat in the first general elections. The user, ‘commonman’, using the now defunct Bhutan Times forum, achieved an almost celebratory status, after carrying out a sustained attack of PDP in the run up to elections.

Today, another popular anonymous user has recently emerged on Twitter, albeit using satire and parody to comment on society and culture. The user, JigsNews (@JigsNews), who has close to 900 subscribers, pointed out that the anonymous space is simply another public space. “If scientific research can be based on surveys, where people do not have to reveal their identities, an anonymous opinion is as valid as any other opinion.” The user also pointed out that it is wrong to assume non-anonymous opinions are “true” and ethical, while anonymous ones are “bad” and unethical.

“An ethical, compassionate but sharp practice of anonymity, in fact would help open up a society, where anonymity is not needed,”added the user behind JigsNews.

But like opinions expressed non-anonymously, anonymous posters require limitations.

Executive director for the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, Siok Sian Pek-Doji, pointed out that proponents of press freedom acknowledge the need of confidentiality for some sources, based on the nature of information being shared. “But this isn’t an absolute right and there are limitations to anonymity.”

She said that public interest takes precedent. Even then, she added, the need for disclosure must be weighed against the harm of disclosure to the right for freedom of expression. “There are many other limitations as well, but the basic premise is to find that middle path, and to track down anonymous posters only when it’s truly necessary and in the public interest.”

One such incident recently arose both in Bhutan and India. Anonymous users were found impersonating the prime ministers of both countries on Twitter.

Twitter user Anuj K Pradhan (@anujkp), raised the issue on the social media platform several times. He said that impersonation, when not satirical, is irresponsible and dangerous at several levels. “The impersonator has the capacity to strongly undermine the voice and stance of the government, and subvert issues and policies through misstatements and non-factual (information).” He added that, if not condoned, impersonation sets a “dangerous precedent” for impersonation of public figures, government officials, and other personalities, in Bhutan.

“We can learn how to use social media productively and responsibly, so that it can truly become a forum for democratic discourse… all of us need to learn social media use and learn to question respectfully,” said Pek-Dorji. “Obviously, people should be free to speak their minds, but a civil society would, for example, request that we avoid personal attacks (which weakens arguments anyway), and unverified accusations.”

There are currently between 3,000 – 4,000 Bhutanese on Twitter, according to Boaz Shmueli, a trainer at the Rigsum institute of IT and management. But he pointed out that this is only a crude estimate.

There are about 70,000 Bhutanese on Facebook.

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>> Written by Gyalsten K Dorji (@gyalkd) for KUENSEL

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This story from Sonam Pem

Sonam Pem has the distinction of being our very first author on Bhutanomics.

Comments

  1. Anonymous Impersonator says:

    Enjoyed reading this article. I can continue being anonymous and effective than be known and say nothing useful at all. Thank you @gyalkd for this timely article. No personal attacks, no character assassination, just stick to the issue, that will be my thumb rule.
    What about the anonymous impersonators who are also sticking by the thumb rule?

  2. Anonymous 2 says:

    Don’t you think that social standing factors in? People are so scared of insulting anyone superior to them-why? Because they all want to be high ranking as well! Do you think people speak anonymously because they actually want to change things or because they are purely venting their frustrations?!

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