Apart from formal charges by ACC, the vast majority of around 700 students under the Bhutan Employment and Overseas ‘Learn and Earn (LEP)’ program had joined legal complaints and lawsuits in Thimphu and Japan against BEO and its Japanese partner SND.
BEO and SND stand charged and accused for a host of wrongdoings by ACC and the parents and students respectively. The Bhutanese itself has done around 30 news stories from 2018-2019 detailing these issues, accusations, investigations and the government’s response.
In all of this, the case of Sonam Tamang had become the tip of the spear and a lightning rod that drove public interest around this much larger case.
The worse thing that could have happened for BEO and SND was for Dhan Maya to reach Japan and make accusations against the agents.
However, it is now clear that the agents have possibly converted their biggest weakness into a strength in the way Dhan Maya Tamang and her son Pasang Tamang’s trip has been assigned to them by the Labour Director General Sherab Tenzin through a formal letter, and how the agents have successfully restricted access of media, information and people to Dhan Maya and her son in Japan.
Journalists Association of Bhutan, Executive Director and social media personality, Namgay Zam in a 28th July facebook post on her page wrote,“Following the piece by The Bhutanese on Dhan Maya not being allowed to speak to the Japanese media, I will confirm that I was told by both Dhan Maya and Pasang the day before they flew to Japan that the Labour “Dasho” told them to not make a big issue out of their situation in Japan as it would negatively impact the other Bhutanese there. They were told to think about the others instead of Sonam in a coma in the hospital. This made me see red.”
This means that right before the trip it was impressed upon both Dhan Maya and Pasang that any statements or controversy would harm other Bhutanese students by a senior Labour official.
This is a patently false statement by the MoLHR ‘Dasho’ as the case of Sonam Tamang has no bearing on other Bhutanese students and in fact a majority of students are suing BEO and SND.
Also, Dhan Maya has never talked about the legal case or other issues so far, focusing only on meeting her daughter and getting her back.
The Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR) has repeatedly said it paid for the air fare and DSA for 20 days and had arranged the trip including two earlier trips. It has also said that it pays around 30 percent of Sonam’s medical bills.
Prior to the trip Mrs. Yumiko Kan, a social worker, said Bhutanese students and people in Japan including herself will be receiving Sonam’s mother and brother in the Fukuoka airport.
She had said “We are also preparing to look for an apartment for them in Fukuoka. Maybe for a few days we will be booking a hotel room and by end of this month we will be able to find a good apartment for them. We are arranging for one Bhutanese girl to accompany them and she can also speak Lhotsampkha.”
She said since there will be no official accompanying them, they will help them as far as possible.
She asked The Bhutanese paper to let Dhan Maya and the brother know that students and supporters are going to help them in Japan. The paper passed on the message and details to Dhan Maya.
Yumiko had said that they can ask the immigration officers in Japan to extend their visas since the labour ministry in Bhutan has given them only a 30-day visa. She said she will become their guarantor and then extend their visas because she thinks that 30 days is not enough for them to solve their problems.
She had said Sonam’s mother can stay in Japan for a longer period until her daughter recovers.
Yumiko and others were also preparing for a meeting with Bhutanese students and Japanese people who are supporting Bhutanese students in Japan to discuss on how to support Sonam Tamang and her family in Japan.
“We do not want Sonam’s mother to suffer a lot so we are preparing to support her. Seven Bhutanese students will support the mother directly and the rest will also help,” Yumiko had said.
She said the supporters of Sonam will start collecting donations and for now they have collected some money.
Yumiko had said that she hoped that Sonam’s mother is willing to talk to Japanese journalists on what happened to Sonam Tamang.
“I do not want these kinds of things to happen to other Bhutanese students or any other Asian people in the future and I also want to let the Japanese people know what is happening,” said Yumiko.
True to her word, Yumiko San and others turned up at the airport on 27th July to receive Dhan Maya and had taken charge when the local partner agent of BEO which is SND represented by Mr. Endo turned up with a translator and took charge of Dhan Maya and Pasang based on a letter from the Labour DG Sherab Tenzin.
Mr. Endo also prevented NHK, a national public broadcaster of Japan, from interviewing Dhan Maya falsely saying that NHK has to get permission from the Bhutanese government first.
This is according to the Japanese social worker Yumiko Kan and a NHK journalist who were there.
Yumiko said that the agent representative said that they plan to take Dhan Maya and her son to Nagasaki city which is around 4 hours from the hospital.
The letter was written by the Labour DG Sherab Tenzin to Honorary Consul Ryoichi Nagata on 26th July and it says that BEO and SND have appointed a Mr. Takeda Takashi as an interpreter and coordinator. The letter also says that Mr. Minemori Endo (of SND) will be looking after the two family members from time to time.
This is though the MoLHR on 26th July itself had put up a Facebook post on its official page saying that the BEO agent is suspended till further notice.
This by extension also means SND as BEO’s Japanese partner no longer has legal standing.
This letter means that the Labour DG has allowed the suspended agent BEO to direct Dhan Maya’s stay in Japan, though the MoLHR is paying for the air tickets and DSA.
The Honorary Consul addressed in the letter is also not an official diplomatic position as certain civilian supporters of Bhutan in Japan are given this recognition.
The Labour DG himself is charged by ACC for favoring BEO and his case is currently with the OAG.
The RCSC, despite a recommendation from ACC, had declined to suspend him till the trial is over.
The government had also supported him calling him ‘hard working’ and someone with experience.
In past investigative stories done by The Bhutanese the SND agent has been accused of taking illegal commissions of up to Nu 96,000 per Bhutanese student from language schools.
Yumiko Kan had earlier sent to The Bhutanese an audio recording of a language school owner admitting to paying 7 mn Yen to SND and also saying that other schools pay too.
This adds to the tuition cost of Bhutanese students.
The Parents’ Committee earlier alleged that during its visit to Japan many Bhutanese students came forward saying that unknown to them SND had also been taking commission from their work wages which meant they did not get full wages.
A Japanese legal team at the request of Bhutanese students and parents is also drawing up legal papers to sue SND pro bono in Japan.
The Bhutanese did an online story on Dhan Maya not being allowed to talk to the local press there and being whisked away by the agent based on a letter of the DG.
This resulted in much outrage and by the next day the agent had changed his tune and agreed to look for accommodation near the hospital.
The agent over the phone also agreed to fix an interview time with NHK but this is yet to happen.
Meanwhile, the agent is restricting the access of Yumiko Kan and other critical Bhutanese students to Dhan Maya as they want to help her and also brief her on certain hard facts.
Though an in principal agreement was there to discuss a possible interview with NHK the interview is yet to happen and the local press access to Dhan Maya is still restricted as of today.
However, Namgay Zam was able to get in touch with Dhan Maya and on a facebook post on 29th July she wrote, “She (Dhan Maya) says the agent let them stay at their own place of choice (with Sonam’s roommate) and did not threaten them in any way. The place is about 20 mins by car from the hospital.”
With the huge public interest in Bhutan it is now in the interest of the embattled agent to not only restrict any strong statements from Dhan Maya but now also ensure a positive image of themselves by helping or appearing to help Dhan Maya.
They are attempting to do this by restricting access of people, information and media to Dhan Maya and Pasang that would give them an accurate picture of what really went on and also get alternative sources of help so that they don’t have to be beholden to the agent.
By preventing others like Yumiko from helping, the agents, though without legal standing, are playing the exclusive facilitators and thus they appear to be the only ones helping Dhan Maya. Even the local translator and ‘coordinator’ has been appointed by the agent.
Yumiko Kan has established a Bhutan Help Desk to help Bhutanese students in Japan and she, like the students and parents, have been highly critical of BEO and SND. She even met the Lyonchhen and ministers to alert them on the plight of Bhutanese students in Japan.
Yumiko Kan earlier alleged that the language schools had paid hefty commissions to the agents to get Bhutanese students. Yumiko had the Makuhari Language School owner, on tape, admit to paying a commission to SND (partner of BEO) for Bhutanese students in Japan.
The commission was around 140,000 Yen (Nu 90,218) to 150,000 Yen (Nu 96,656) for each Bhutanese student. The language school owner said that just her school paid 7 mn Yen in commission to SND and she said other schools also paid tens of millions in commission for Bhutanese students to SND.
She made the recording when she went to confront the school management for withholding the passport of one of the Bhutanese students who had failed to pay tuition fees.
She said that a similar practice of taking away the passport could be happening in other schools as well –which is illegal and is often done by human traffickers.
Yumiko had said that said since millions were paid in commission to the agent, this could be the reason the Japanese schools are charging high language fees and overtaxing the Bhutanese students apart from the exorbitant fees charged in Bhutan.
The school owner on the tape also said that many language schools complained that SND agent does not care for Bhutanese students despite such heavy commissions and the SND’s Mr. Endo even failed to visit the school when some Bhutanese students had got TB.
The Parents’ Committee on their part found that SND had been collecting a commission from the pay of Bhutanese students too. The students found this out when certain deductions were being made from their pay and on enquiring the company told them that it was being sent to the agent. The students had to then find different jobs on their own to avoid paying the commission.
If the above is true, then it can be assumed that commission was probably collected for Sonam Tamang too and some of her wages may also have seen deductions increasing the financial burden on her.
The LEP case of Japan, apart from the coma of Sonam Tamang has seen two deaths, 30 TB cases, two paralysis cases, two mental breakdowns and many traumatized youths.
Yumiko alleged that the LEP program was a scam from the beginning. She said Bhutanese students were lured with false promises and expectations but when they reached there they were overcharged by the schools, most of them were struggling to find a job, and the living condition was pathetic and people were having difficulties in meeting the expenses after having to pay the loan.
The NHK Japan public broadcaster recently did an investigative story into the larger LEP program involving several countries showing fundamental flaws in the program and the exploitation of foreign students (see pg 1 main story).
Before leaving for Japan Dhan Maya Tamang in an interview to The Bhutanese said she will be meeting her daughter Sonam Tamang after almost a year. “Finally I am going to see my daughter. I am very thankful to the government and all the people around who has helped me and my daughter. Without them, it would not have been possible for me to be with my daughter for a longer duration.”
“I will be staying strong, which I have been till now, because I will have to look after my daughter and I will have to bring her back home after she recovers,” said the mother.
Dhan Maya Tamang after meeting her daughter Sonam Tamang on 27th July had been distraught since then.
Dhan Maya had been crying and talking only about Sonam, according to the younger brother in Bhutan.
The mother apparently did not realize how serious her daughter was and the meeting shocked her.
Sonam Tamang has been in coma since September 2018. Her older brother had earlier said it was 99 percent brain damage.
An official from the labour ministry had said they cannot send an official escort with them because of less budget since it is the third visit and sending an official will be difficult for them. A labour official said that Sonam’s mother and brother have been given a 30-day visa and they can extend their visa with the Japanese immigration office.
“However, we cannot guarantee the visa extension since it depends on the Japanese government,” said the labour official.
The Labour Ministry said pays around 30 percent of Sonam’s medical expenses. Last year the medical bill, from September till November, was around Nu 65,615. In a month, the bill amount comes to around 40,000 to 60,000 Yen.
Around 70 percent is met from her own medical insurance which is a Japanese government medical insurance.
When the coma first happened BEO in a press release in 2018 had said that Bhutan Centre for Japanese Studies (BCJS) contributed 500,000 Yen (approximately Nu 320,000) to support Sonam and other unforeseen costs.
The BEO in an update said the amount has been kept with the SND in Japan to be used to support future emergency situations like repatriation of the patient to Bhutan and recently in-addition, the BEO has kept a provision of Nu 500,000 more.
The BEO said it has also supported the Sonam’s relatives in terms of documentation required for visa, flight etc. The BEO said it has also kept the Labour Ministry fully informed of the situation through email and other forms of communication.