For a country and society where ‘everyone is related’ or where ‘everybody knows everybody’, conflict of interest becomes an important and pertinent issue.
While it is good that family and other social ties in Bhutan are strong, it is also important to see that these ties are not misused to subvert the law.
This is also why many ordinary Bhutanese, without the right connections, complain of the ‘phone call’ syndrome where people with the right family and professional connections can jump ahead of them on any queue.
However, Bhutan’s officialdom, be it in the civil service, judiciary, corporate sector and others still don’t look at conflict of interest as a serious issue.
The latest case of conflict of interest is the former Director General of Civil Aviation named in the Audit report on the construction of domestic airports from 2010-2012 agreeing to call for a controversial arbitration on the finding of the Royal Audit Authority in his new capacity as the DG of the Construction Development Board.
It will be interesting to see the RAA, a constitutional body answerable only to the Parliament and Court of Law, having to come before an arbitration committee of the CDB called by someone, who himself is the subject of the RAA report.
Earlier, another strong case of conflict of interest was the OAG going to court on behalf of some ministers against the ACC on their suspension. Many would also say that the OAG which is directly accountable to the office of Prime Minister was involved in a conflict of interest by giving an all clear chit to the Gyelpozhing accused.
In the judiciary it is unheard of judges in Bhutan withdrawing from adjudicating a case where a family member or close associate is a litigant. In fact a close study between some controversial judgments and the relationship of the judge to the litigants could throw some uncomfortable answers.
Even in the world of cut-throat business and tenders family or other relations make a big difference in weather a company can bag an order from a government agency or not.
In the past it was not uncommon for senior officials and even ministers who were privy to information on the setting up of a lucrative companies buying huge amounts of shares in it.
Gyelpozhing in one sense is a huge conflict of interest issue with serving ministers and senior bureaucrats applying for and accepting land not meant for them at the time.
One problem is that in a society where it is becoming clear that the powerful do not even follow written laws, conflict of interest is treated more of an ethical and moral issue that can be ignored without any repercussions.
Therefore, more often than not officials and agencies do not take any proactive measures to counter conflict of interest.
This is why even today there are many cases of corruption, nepotism, abuse of power and violation of rules where the beneficiary is a close family member, friend or professional associate.
It will not be uncommon for heads of agencies or senior official making decisions, policies and even laws in favor of people or companies they are close to.
In Bhutan’s context conflict of interest is also a social problem. For a society that claims to be a GNH friendly one there is a lot of unhealthy material competition. Some civil servants often complain how they are looked down upon back in the village by their relatives when they bring home an honest pay, while their more corrupt or controversial counterparts are feted for bringing more than their fair share of the bacon.
Civil servants or public officials who can help more of their own by even violating rules are regarded as the ‘useful ones’ and are held in high regard. In that sense also conflict of interest and nepotism are closely interlinked in Bhutan.
This feudal and selfish thought process of ‘might is right’ and looking out for one’s own only cannot be accepted in a modern nation based on the rule of law.
Conflict of interest in Bhutan is not only an ethical issue but it is also an issue which if not addressed will harm the rule of law and good governance and encourage corruption, nepotism, abuse of power and loss of faith in the system.
All agencies, be it in the government, judiciary, corporations and even the private sector need to recognize and prevent conflict of interest.
“If I, taking care of everyone’s interests, also take care of my own, you can’t talk about a conflict of interest”
Disgraced Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi