DPT vice president involved in Nu 300mn Thimphu land scam
By The Bhutanese | 21 February 2012
The vice president of the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, Chang Ugyen is involved in a Nu 300 million-land scam in Thimphu.
The land scam involves the misappropriation of around 10 acres of government and community land in and around Babesa, Thimphu in 1987.
With land rates crossing Nu 300,000 a decimal, the scam, even by conservative market estimates is worth around Nu 300 million.
The two scams
The scam consisted of two cases and happened when he was the gup of Chang gewog in 1987. In the first instance, Chang Ugyen put seven acres of community land in Lubding, Lungtenphu, under his name and sold it to five buyers. In the second instance, Chang Ugyen converted his 2 decimal plot into three acres by forging documents (over writing on the thram). A special high-level committee first uncovered these cases in 2003 set up to study land misappropriations in Thimphu.
In 2005, the National Land Commission cancelled the thrams of around five buyers who had bought land from Chang Ugyen.
However, after a high court verdict in 2008, the five buyers were given their thrams back as they were considered by the court to be innocent bystanders as they bought the land following legal procedures. The court however acknowledged the right of the high level committee that investigated the case to have cancelled all the lagthrams of those who bought the land from Chang Ugyen.
The National Land Commission then gave Chang Ugyen a final deadline until 2011 by which he was supposed to replace the seven-acre land of equal value either in Thimphu or in other dzongkhags.
Chang Ugyen has so far been unable to replace the seven-acre land because even under the much more moderate government rates of PAVA (Property Assessment and Valuation Agency) the land value amounts to tens of millions.
In regard to the three-acre land, he had given only 10 decimals to former Gup Naku and sold 5 decimals to Dorji Wangdi. Therefore, Chang Ugyen was able to return the three-acre land to the government.
Tampering of records
The special committee of 2003 found that in a 1985 chaza thram, the Land Commission had no records of Chang Ugyen’s seven acre and three acre plots. However, in the 1987 chaza thram, the seven-acre and three acre plots appeared in Chang Ugyens name. These plots were without any Royal Kasho. Only His Majesty the King has the authority to give away government land.
It was also found that there was tampering and overwriting with the 1987 records in the land commission. This was further established when the tampered records were compared with the 1985 records and also the dzongkhag records of the same thram.
Conflict of interest as accused becomes Chang Gup
Coincidentally, in a strong conflict of interest, Chang Ugyen became the Chang Gup in 1985 and was still in office when the tampering happened.
Also in another blatant conflict of interest, the Director of the Land Records, Lhaba Duba, in charge of maintaining the chaza thram received around 2.5 acres from Chang Ugyen from the seven-acre plot.
Lhaba Duba sold the 2.5 acres to a buyer named Pem Choden. The other four buyers of Chang Ugyen’s seven-acre plot were Gopal Waiba (1.5 acres), Gaki (1 acre), Tshering Zam (2 acres) and Thinley Drukda (15 decimals).
Land registered illegally, but transferred legally.
The high level committee’s investigation began as per the 80th session of the previous National Assembly where the councilors deliberated on the illegal use of government land in Thimphu.
The Home Ministry issued an order stating that the high-level investigation committee should survey the government land in Thimphu.
It was found the land was registered illegally but the transfer of ownership was done legally.
Legal blind spot
On April 30, 2008, Chang Ugyen filed a civil case in the High Court dissatisfied with the District Court verdict. However, since the criminal offences of tampering etc were not charge sheeted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), the court could not pass a judgment.
Clause 6.4 of the judgment, says that Chang Ugyen’s criminal activities require to be charged.
“Forgery is not a civil case, why was it treated as a civil case? The Attorney General’s office was asked to bring evidence, why didn’t they do it and follow up? He was asked to be charged for forgery, why didn’t they do it?” asked a lawyer who is aware of the case history.
Though Chang Ugyen has been asked to reinstate the land, the crime of tampering with the original records has not been charge sheeted by the OAG under the excuse of bureaucratic procedure. According to an OAG official, the normal procedure to charge sheet a case of criminal nature is that it has to be investigated by the police or the Anti Corruption Commission and then forwarded to the office. The office in turn would scrutinize whether it merits a full criminal prosecution.
Locals remember the site as government land
Meanwhile apartment constructions have already started at the Lubding site. The area has been divided into five plots on what a local resident said was government land. A cowheard said he used to graze his cattle in this area before which belonged to the government.
Chang Ugyen refuses to comment
A National Land Commission official said, “The 2003 case happened before the Commission was actually established and a high level committee took the decision after a report was submitted.” “The chapter is closed and those land registered illegally by people got canceled,” he added.
A local government official from Chang Geog said that he was aware of government land being sold.
When The Bhutanese contacted Chang Ugyen, he refused to comment.
In general, nobody has the right to sell any community land or give it away to anybody, said the Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Dasho Sherub Gyaltshen. “Even if the government wants to develop a project on a community land, public clearance should be sought and depending on their acceptance can the project happen,” he said.
Holes in PM’s defense of Chang Ugyen
By The Bhutanese | 03 March 2012
The Bhutanese finds several errors and holes while fact checking the Prime Ministers defense of DPT Vice President, Chang Ugyen on the 10 acre Thimphu land scam
The Prime Minister accused ‘The Bhutanese’ of selective reporting and playing with the truth to show the DPT government in a bad light for the story, ‘DPT Vice President involved in Nu 300mn Thimphu Land Scam’.
The prime minister though not denying that there had been irregularities in Chang Ugyens thram defended the DPT Vice President.
This was during the recent meet the press session on Thursday when a reporter from this paper asked about the future course of action by the government on the scam.
Chang Ugyen in 1987 as the Chang Gup has grabbed 10 acres of government land in Thimphu and till date is yet to return 7 acres.
The Bhutanese took down the 22-minute long and three-page transcript of the Prime Minister’s reply and did a basic fact check on his main allegations and points.
The Prime Minister claimed that a High Level Committee from 2003 to 2005 had looked at around 1,305 similar irregular cases only one of which was Chang Ugyen’s.
The Bhutanese has found this is incorrect as the High-level committee (which was from 2001 to 2003 and not from 2003 to 2005) did not find 1,305 irregular cases but only around 50 irregular cases of which one was Chang Ugyens.
Lyonchhen claimed that many of the cases were similar or even worse than that of Chang Ugyen’s.
This is also incorrect since out of the actual 50 cases the biggest land grab of 10 acres had happened in Chang Ugyen’s case. Most of the other cases ranged between mainly a few decimals to 1 or 2 acres. The level of forgery of thram records in Chang Ugyens case was also more blatant then in other cases. Records not only at the Gewog level but also the main thram in the national land commission were found to have been overwritten and even pages had been torn off to hide facts. There was also a blatant conflict of interest as Chang Ugyen was the Chang Gup at the time and he had given 2 acres of land to the Land records director Lhaba Duba. The land records director Lhaba Duba had to compulsorily resign from service.
The Prime Minister also said that Chang Ugyen had approached the Prime Ministers Grievance cell against the National Land Commission’s decision asking to him replace land of equal value. The prime minister said, “The prime minister’s office has given its directives, its views to the land commission,” indicating that a view sympathetic to Chang Ugyen was given.
The Bhutanese has found that the Prime Ministers’ ‘views and directives’ to the national land commission on Chang Ugyen’s land scam case is in violation of the constitution and is also a case of conflict of interest. The constitution allows only His Majesty the King to have any prerogative on issues of granting land Kidu to private citizens. There is a conflict of interest as most members on the commission are civil servants who are accountable to the elected DPT government that in turn is advocating views on the DPT Vice President’s case.
The Prime Minister defending Chang Ugyen said, “Land is a complicated issue, it’s a complex issues and we did not have rules, regulations, machineries and mechanisms to ensure to the extent that nothing of irregular nature occurs.”
The paper found that though measurement techniques were not as advanced like today, the country before the 1987 land scam still had a very strong 1979 land act similar to the 2007 land act. Prior to the 1979 land act the country’s land laws was governed by the ‘Ma Tham Chen’ founded by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century and strengthened and improved on by the 1st King His Majesty Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuk. Even prior to 1979 a detailed registry of thram records separating private land from government land was maintained with the government. His Majesty the Fourth King in a Royal Kasho in 1980 had also made it very clear that land to private citizens could only be issued by the King. In fact in 1984 thrams of several people who had registered land without getting a Royal Kasho were cancelled. Many of these lands were reinstated only after getting the Royal Kasho of His Majesty the fourth King. By 1987 when the scam occurred modern methods of maintaining the records by an educated elite was already well in place.
A key linchpin of the Prime Ministers accusation against this paper was on why was only Chang Ugyen’s case highlighted when there were other cases mentioned in the high-level committee report.
‘The Bhutanese’ first came across the case of Chang Ugyen based on a complainant from Thimphu. As Chang Ugyens was the only unsolved and still ongoing case this paper could get basic information from the high court verdict, which is online, and the agencies concerned. In the course of investigating Chang Ugyen’s story the Bhutanese was informed that a final but old report on around 50 cases was also there. However, despite repeated attempts with the government and especially with the National Land Commission to get the report, it was not given to the paper.
The paper has also filed a written ‘Right To Information’ request given under the constitution with the National Land Commission to get the complete report that also contains all ‘solved cases’. The Bhutanese filed the RTI application with the intent to publish stories on all 50 cases once the government decides to share the complete report with the paper.
However, apart from the fact that the paper had no details on the 50 other solved cases ‘The Bhutanese’ pursued the Chang Ugyen story first simply because information was available in the public domain, his case was the only one that was not solved and the NLC had asked him to refund the land to the government. The land scam story also had good governance implications as the ruling political party had knowingly given the post of ‘Vice President’ to an individual found guilty in a land scam. This is in the face of their policy of zero tolerance on corruption.
The Bhutanese also gave Chang Ugyen an opportunity to state his side of the story but was refused.
The Prime Minister also alleged that the headline ‘DPT Vice President involved in Nu 300mn Thimphu land scam’ gave the impression that DPT had benefitted and that Chang Ugyen had enriched himself of Nu 300mn when he was in the post.
The headline of the story was an editorial decision, which is usually taken in independent media houses around the world, and it was in keeping with the facts of the story.
Also the story in the very beginning mentioned that the scam occurred in 1987 and that the land value of Nu 300 million was by current market estimates. Although going by current quoted land prices the land is actually worth Nu 500 to Nu 600mn but in the interest of not being sensational a conservative figure of Nu 300mn was taken.
Neither the entire article nor the headline suggests that DPT was involved in the scam. The article in fact takes pains to mention at least four times that the scam pertained to 1987 and that the land was still not given back by Chang Ugyen.
The Prime Minister also accused ‘The Bhutanese’ of misreporting the 2008 court verdict saying that Chang Ugyen as the plaintiff had the option of filing a criminal case which he did not.
The Prime Minister’s interpretation of the verdict is contradicted by a written statement of the Office of the Attorney general which says, “it is the opinion of the OAG, the high court merely remarked that unless a criminal charge is filed in accordance with sections 154 and 187 of the civil and criminal procedure code by any party, Chang Ugyen or the government, the court is unable to impose criminal sanction’.
However, even the OAG’s view of voluntary criminal prosecution by either sides is contrary to the law according to an eminent legal luminary still serving in the judiciary. “Even the court’s opinion that a criminal case can be filed is actually binding on both parties and so a criminal case should have been filed, ” he said.
Finally, the Prime Minister claimed that his government after 2008 had fought and defended a civil litigation case filed by Chang Ugyen.
However, in another case of conflict of interest, despite the NLC’s deadline of 2011 to replace the land ending last year, no action has been taken against the DPT Vice President. “If someone does not replace land in the given time then normally NLC has to charge sheet the matter to the court, which has surprisingly not happened,” said a land commission officer.
The Attorney General Phuntsho Wangdi told the Bhutanese “right after the judgment, a judgment report was sent to NLC for information. The Plaintiff was given 10 days petition period to appeal and since he did not appeal the OAG wrote a letter to NLC to implement the judgment.”
A Sad Day
By The Bhutanese | 03 March 2012
If there are those who still doubt the Prime Ministers oratory skills then his 22-minute response on the ‘land scam’ would have erased any doubts.
By the end of his reply he had managed to create a hero out of a former Gup (now DPT Vice President) who had grabbed 10 acres of community land in Thimphu, violating laws and forging records.
Politics and good governance in Bhutan has touched a new low with the Prime Minister, who many respect, defending the indefensible.
More than anything else, it was sad to see Bhutan’s first democratically elected leader frittering away his moral and political capital on an issue that has neither.
Instead the messenger was shot once again with political conspiracy theories that are sounding eerily familiar to that of thick skinned politicians in the South Asian neighborhood when faced with such scams.
The slogan of ‘zero tolerance to corruption’ rings more hollow than ever especially as it is coined by a party that now has a compromised Vice President.
More than the scam and what was right and wrong the loudest voices and assertions coming from the leaders of this government is that this story will not hamper their 2013 prospects. Nobody is saying it ever will.
In real politick terms, given this government’s developmental works especially among the rural majority, and its experienced leadership no amount of corruption stories will ever stop this government from coming back in 2013.
However, a vibrant democracy is not just about winning elections nor having a certain number of MPs in the Parliament. A real and vibrant democracy is about moral leadership, accountability, improving systems, being transparent and most importantly respecting the law both in letter and spirit.
The government, which has achieved a world record majority of creating the world’s smallest opposition party in a democracy, gives the impression that it is constantly under attack from all sides. This flawed perception has lead this government on a war path with almost all democratic institutions.
The media is constantly accused of cooking up stories to bring its downfall unless the stories are in praise of the government. The Constitution this government alleges is being interpreted too rigidly and holding down the government. The Chief Election Commissioner had the privilege of being viciously and personally attacked in the media by the Prime Minister’s office for doing his job.
The Anti Corruption Commission is seen as hampering the government’s decision-making process as a senior minister told a visiting dignitary. The judiciary saw a vicious campaign against it in almost all Dzongkhags when it gave the tax verdict, which on closer observation made the National Assembly the final authority on the budget. Inaccurate statements that the judiciary was stopping national development were released along with a resignation drama.
It seems that no democratic institution can do right by this government and even genuine attempts at strengthening Bhutan’s democracy are looked at through the worst prisms if it is even slightly critical of the ruling government.
With regard to the suspicions on the ‘intent’ of this paper over the Chang Ugyen story, this paper would like to make an open offer to this government. Please share a copy of the ‘high level committee’ report based on the ‘Right to Information’ written request filed by us with the National Land Commission and we will publish all other cases in it too.
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