A newspaper has recently talked about the ‘herd mentality’ in the Japan Learn and Earn Program (LEP) case.
The paper’s editorial makes a fair point when it says that some people initially wanted to bring Sonam Tamang back, and this stance changed after a professional medical explanation by the Prime Minister.
Similarly, The Bhutanese never advocated for Sonam to be brought back in her current medical condition.
However, the editorial unfairly slips in the opinion that an attempt to bring about accountability to those involved in the Japan LEP case is also part of this ‘herd mentality.’
This, at best, can be ascribed to the inability to understand an issue not investigated or adequately covered by the paper.
Yes, there has always been a herd mentality in the Japan LEP issue, but not in terms of asking for accountability and justice.
When the case first came to public light in 2018, the most popular reaction was to blame the students for being ‘lazy’ and the parents for being inept in willingly agreeing to sign a legal contract.
This was said in the media, in the public and also expressed over dinner conversations.
This became yet another case of our ‘pampered and lazy Bhutanese youth’ unable to cope in the real world of Japan – where all one needed was hard work and the will to do well.
The government, well attuned to the popular public view on this at the time, hinted at the same thing saying Bhutanese youths could not adapt to a ‘culture change’.
It did not matter that the public or government view was not based on facts but a popular view of the ‘lazy Bhutanese youth.’
This herd mentality also fed into an official herd mentality at the government level where Cabinet Ministers came forward to defend the accused Director General of Department of Employment and Human Resources under the Labour Ministry.
Just to make their point and sympathy clearer, Cabinet Ministers in press conferences defended his long professional record and experience and called him a hardworking man.
The ACC, itself, did not conduct an in-depth investigation but limited itself to a few documents, official communication and receipts in Bhutan. ACC did not travel to Japan where the main issues arose.
The quality of the ACC investigation is visible from the fact that it missed forged bank statements caught by the less specialized RBP.
One cannot say if ACC was also caught up in the herd mentality at the time, but it would be a fair question to ask.
However, even the incomplete ACC investigation brought up a lot of issues in the Japan LEP case directly indicting the DG mainly, and a few other junior officials under him. The ACC in the same report also brought up how the DG and the former Labour Minister sought and got financial benefits from an Indian agent in a different case.
The limited ACC report also proved quite a few of the allegations of the parents as being true.
Based on the report, ACC not only brought about legal charges, forwarded to the OAG, but also recommend separate and immediate administrative action against the DG and other officials.
ACC also recommended the suspension of the DG, which is its norm, so that the case and evidences are not tampered with.
The ACC reports combined with some media coverage – including investigative stories by The Bhutanese finally led to the public starting to question, if this case was really about about lazy youth and careless parents or something more malicious?
However, the herd mentality was still there, and especially so in the government.
There was also the subtle impact of the blowback on the three secretaries case during the former government’s time, and so it seems that the government wanted to appear supportive of a senior civil servant.
Despite ACC’s recommendation, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources did not send the ACC report to the RCSC. The ministry instead asked the ACC if it was really necessary and then an enraged ACC asked the ministry to do so in a second letter.
MoLHR simply forwarded the report with no strong observations or position, which in turn influenced the RCSC.
With the herd mentality still strong, RCSC decided to come to the defence of the DG and not only refused to take administration action recommended by the ACC, but it also did not suspend him till the case was over to prevent any tampering with the case.
The government, at the time, even refused to act against the agent despite the ACC even pointing out its very license was illegal.
Parallel to this, there there was also two kinds of herd mentality in the media.
The first was influenced by the public and government views, and so more blame was laid at the doors of the youth, and articles and editorials at the time reflect this.
A second more subtle herd mentality was that one of the accused agents was a former senior journalist with many friends and colleagues in the media fraternity.
This was a visible reluctance in the mainstream media to question one of their own former members – even though the issue was about the 700 students and their parents.
Coverage was limited and the little coverage was mainly ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ stories -by the end of which the audience was still left scratching their heads. In short, there was no in-depth investigation.
For The Bhutanese – we were crystal clear that this was one of the biggest stories of our times, given the serious issues involved and also the number of victims – be it medical cases or those allegedly misled and cheated.
We did around 30 plus mainly investigative and evidence based stories over one year, including reactions from the government.
The stories showed fundamental flaws in the LEP program and how students ended up making money for the agents and language schools, but could barely learn or earn themselves. It also uncovered various abuses in the program.
A recent and separate NHK Japan program held this to be true for many other nationalities as well.
The Bhutanese stories also covered the findings of the Parents’ Committee investigation in Japan as more than 500 youths came forward (593 now and counting) to join a lawsuit against the agents.
The combination of the ACC report, investigation by The Bhutanese, RBP investigation and most importantly the voices of the parents and students finally put forward the reality of the LEP case.
The case of Sonam Tamang has further magnified the issue and put a face on the story.
The public has gradually realized that the LEP issue is not about lazy Bhutanese youth anymore, but about our youths being cheated with support from a government agency and officials.
With this realization there are voices demanding for justice and accountability- be it in the real world or social media.
To tag this awakening as a ‘herd mentality’ does a grave disservice – to not only the students and parents but also the truth.
The writer is the Editor of the paper