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The ruling government needs a lesson on social media networking. And perhaps the best tutor can be the opposition leader.

It is one area where the opposition leader is years ahead of the government. After he started his blog in November 2008, it has become one of the most popular in the country and also among those outside the country interested in Bhutan. One of the first things a Bhutanese journalist does in the morning is to check out his blog.

The opposition leader is also an active twitter user and tweets important sessions live. He is also on Facebook and uses it with equal dedication. Apart from him, National Council Gasa MP Sangay Khandu is the only other notable user of social media among the parliamentarians.

Overtime, the social media has become the biggest strength of the world’s smallest opposition party. The opposition leader uses it to inform, educate, share his opinions, and take stands on issues in his professional capacity. The impact is also very immediate and visible.

The social media also played a very important role in shaping our democracy.

Before the democratic elections in 2008, when the two leading political parties were campaigning, none used the social media to its advantage. Apart from having a party website with the basic information, nothing else was done. All efforts of the two parties then were to use the mainstream media – newspapers, radio and television – to disseminate information.

But the few educated, opinionated and hardcore supporters, most of who are rightly assumed to be civil servants, invaded the social media with their ideas. It happened because civil servants are not allowed to associate themselves with politics in anyway.

At that point of time, the social media, notably the online discussion forums, inadvertently favored the DPT. There were some dedicated but very personal and malicious attempts to defame the PDP leadership. Though no study has been done to know the impacts of the online forums on the outcome of the election, it did go a long way to turn the civil service in DPT’s favor.

After the election it was thus not surprising for the PDP to accuse the civil servants of manipulating the rural electorate.

Interestingly, as if the PDP learnt from that experience, the opposition leader started using the social media. And today, it seems the opposition party has successfully turned a large section of the civil service, and so the educated lot, to its favor. It comes out clearly from the ongoing discussion forums and Facebook movements which have turned against the government.

The movement has become stronger than ever before in light of the government losing the first constitutional case in the country to the opposition and the new tobacco regulations. The government challenging the Supreme Court verdict and condemning the Facebook movement to amend the Tobacco Act has not helped either.

Reproving the Facebook movement, the health minister has called it a movement of smokers. He said this group of smokers is making it look like a movement of the people in a country where the majority of the people are non-smokers.

The prime minister, during the recent meet the press session, declined to accept the Facebook movement as a citizens’ movement. He said that “few people” are trying to “misguide and mislead” the country. Describing it as a “wrong example,” he said it is inspired by what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya highlighting that Bhutan is not a victim of an authoritarian rule.

Such a strong reprimand from the elected government will only add fuel to the fire. On the other hand, the opposition leader has called for concerned citizens for “movements” to ask for an amendment of the Tobacco Act through his blog.

Instead of blaming people calling for justice for a monk sentenced to three years in prison for carrying Nu 98 worth of tobacco, the government should take moral responsibility for coming up with such a draconian law. It should have assured an amendment rather than infuriating more people. Even if the Facebook movement is from smokers, the government has to respect that smokers are not lesser a Bhutanese.

It is also intriguing to note that not a single one of the 45 DPT MPs – except Samdrup Jongkhar MP Ugyen Dorji who uses twitter occasionally – is using the social media to express themselves openly. While we boast of having one of the most highly educated parliaments in the world, where all the MPs have a minimum of a university degree, it is sad to note that no one is engaging in the easily available facility. One can even extend it to mean that the MPs have deliberately chosen to keep silent on issues and if so, it is a disturbing trend.

Therefore, the DPT government should think of engaging itself through the social media outlets. The prime minister and Lyonpo Nandalal Rai are on Facebook. We hope it is a good beginning.

The above post was initially published as an editorial in Business Bhutan on March 12, 2011