Outlawing online gambling a thorny issue

Jomotsangkha-Martshala MP Norbu Wangzom
Home Minister Ugyen Dorji

Home minister suggests tougher laws to tackle growing online gambling issues



Despite being in contravention of the Penal Code of Bhutan, online betting and gambling using WeChat and messenger apps have soared in the country, unfortunately imposing social and economic costs on society.

Gamblers spend a good amount of money on betting as the wins buoy them to keep playing, sinking them deeper into the online gambling mire. However, there are more losers – ruining financially and wrecking them psychologically – than winners thus leading to marital breakdowns, taking one’s own life, and absconding from the country.

The damage of such illegal activities in society could be far more dangerous than what is being reported. But enforcing such a ban and monitoring online gambling is easier said than done.

In response to Jomotsangkha-Martshala constituency’s Member of Parliament (MP) Norbu Wangzom on the preventive measures being taken to deal with the issue to protect people from harm, home minister Ugyen Dorji, in the ongoing Parliament session, told that enforcing a blanket ban on online gambling is impossible.

The challenges are bigger because online gambling is optimized for mobile play and the very nature is that you can take it with you wherever you go. You can gamble it in bed, at work, or home.

The minister said he has also learned instances where gamblers, earning a meager income, have lost millions of money and assets in online betting that has become a matter of concern – state subject – in recent years.

Lyonpo said that the growing online gambling could be attributed to a very light penalty with minimum sentencing of a month to a year imposed against the offenders. The law, he said, is an offense of petty misdemeanor and stronger punishment is needed.

“I think the House should consider law changes to gambling to make sure it keeps up with technological changes,” Lyonpo added. “Unless there is a tougher punishment on the issue, complete prohibition of these portals will be difficult.”

Section 393 of the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004 states a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of gambling if the defendant stakes or wagers something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under the defendant’s control or influence upon an agreement or understanding that the defendant will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.

While a law change could take months or years, Lyonpo urges people to take civic duty to tackle illegal gambling activities. “Parents and teachers should advise their children and students as a potential solution to minimize harm,” he continued, adding they should lead by example without involving themselves in such activities.

Lyonpo said that the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) has recorded 12 cases involving 29 online gamblers and organizers in the past year alone and dealt accordingly. “If caught, RBP will penalize and punish them for flouting the laws.”

“As the home ministry is responsible for amending the regulations, the work has been continuing. For instance, the department of law and order has notified the public twice this year regarding unlawful gambling activities,” he added.

Meanwhile, describing it as a multi-million business with big winners, and big losers, MP Norbu Wangzom said much focus is needed on ways to prevent harm although laws are already in place.

“Some organizers in Thimphu even have a rented house for Marriage cards and dice gambling and making a home for their families. Likewise, online gambling such as playing cards, dice and poker is even becoming more rampant in recent years,” she said.

She added that such activities have not only caused financial problems in family and society but also have many other adverse effects. “While some were detained, some had to abscond from the country because of their inability to pay debts.”

In addition, Norbu Wangzom said ultimately women become victims in many such cases. “Their men come home late and do not invest good time for their family as they become addicted to gambling,” she said, adding more clear stories that can be seen from those people who were gradually getting sucked into this vicious online gambling cycle.