Making fronting a fourth degree felony will criminalize innocent Bhutanese business people

The National Assembly has introduced an amendment to make fronting a fourth degree felony offense which means imprisonment from three to five years with no Thrimthue.

Fronting means a person running or owning a business without a license in his or her name.

The target is foreign nationals running shops and business establishments under Bhutanese licenses in border town areas. (However, the definition captures everybody.)

Currently there are very tough trade rules that lead to cancellation of the license, Nu 10,000 fine, cancellation of other licenses and non-eligibility for future licenses.

The only problem is that no one really implements them in and all out manner in our border areas, and as usual, our law makers think the problem can be solved with tougher laws and punishments.

However, the problem is that there are around 40,000 business licenses in Bhutan and a large number of them are not in the name of their real owners.

Most of these ‘fronting businesses’ are not even in the border towns but right inside Bhutan even in remote villages.

This is usually due to family reasons with a license in the name of the father or husband but a wife or children running the business. Sometimes it is more distant relatives.

Licenses are also given or loaned to fellow Bhutanese family members, friends, neighbors etc.

There are even many cases like bar licenses being rented out for a monthly rent by one Bhutanese to other as bar licenses are no longer issued. It is usually the poor or marginal people running these tiny establishments.

To get an idea, walk into any three or four establishments in Thimphu and observe the license on the wall and the people running the business. Of them, at least in one case, the license holder and the person running the business will be different.

Then walk to the taxi stand and you will find a similar situation with many taxis being rented out by one Bhutanese to another with both trying to make a living.

This is the case in many other businesses where both parties are Bhutanese.

If you thought a few dozens locked up under the Tobacco Act was bad enough then this new amendment can lock up thousands of innocent Bhutanese.

It is no coincidence that the National Law Review Task Force members that recommended this amendment all get their monthly pay from the government.

It is not a coincidence that the MPs proposing this amendment in Parliament get their pay and perks from the government.

It is also no coincidence that in all the years not a single big fish has been caught for actual industrial fronting in our border region that actually harms the country.

The people caught are only small fishes and shops in the border areas.

In Bhutan, one major reason why the private sector does not grow is that the people in it, mostly trying to feed their families without relying on government paychecks, are seen as half-crooks by the government system.

They might as well make it official now and start locking up business people on any slightest pretext.

We can then keep on relying on foreign governments for handouts until the next century.

By Tenzing Lamsang

The writer is the Editor of the paper and the views are his own.

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