Bhutan conspiracy trial to begin this week

Woman who worked in Indian Embassy at the centre of intrigue

As a Thimphu court prepares for the opening of a trial against three prominent officials accused of plotting to topple and take over top jobs in the Supreme Court and the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA), the spotlight is on a woman who was a former protocol secretary at the Indian Embassy. Khandu Wangmo allegedly played a key part in the intrigues.

Arrested officials Supreme Court Judge Kuenlay Tshering, Drangpon (Associate Justice) Yeshey Dorji and Royal Body Guard (RBG) Commandant Brigadier Thinley Tobgye face several charges, including “abetting mutiny, nepotism and favouritism, misappropriation of RBG funds and fictitious documents to secure loans”, according to official Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel. All three were denied bail by the Thimphu ‘Dzonkhag’ courts on February 17, and are due to face trial, expected to begin this week.

Ms. Wangmo, a well-known figure in Thimphu as she dealt with senior officials and officials in the Royal court due to her work position at the Indian Embassy from 2012- 2016, is accused of having successfully conned a number of people into helping her.

‘Frightfully manipulative’

The Hindu spoke to a number of diplomats and other officials who had dealt with her during her tenure at the embassy. They described her as “very efficient” and “very plugged in” to the top echelons of Thimphu society, while others said she was “ambitious” and “frightfully manipulative”. “The most shocking part is how she managed to convince and involve some very senior, intelligent officials,” said one Thimphu resident aware of the case. Ms. Wangmo was arrested in 2019 on charges of “seditious allegations”, and continues to be held in custody, facing 11 charges of criminal conspiracy in the latest case. The arrests in February are believed to have come as a result of her interrogation.

During her tenure at the embassy, Ms. Wangmo also underwent training as a “Desuup”, or volunteer who is part of a “Guardians of Peace” programme launched by the Bhutanese King, where she recounts meeting many senior military officials. In an article for the Kuensel in 2015, she had written, “I am a DeSuup ready for action. More importantly, I am a pilgrim in search of relationships that honour and edify. It has been my destiny to weave my own little story into the grand fabric of the illustrious Indo-Bhutan relationship,” signing herself as DeSuup Bumden Khandu Wangmo, Embassy of India.

‘Not a very senior official’

However, officials told The Hindu that she was not a very senior official and had not pursued her links there after her contract ended. “There is no connection with the Indian Embassy- she left from here in 2016,” an embassy official said, when asked if the Bhutanese police had made any formal enquiries with them. A source who had seen the charge sheet in the official Dzonkha language against the three officers, clarified that there was no suggestion of her links with the embassy in Thimphu to the case.

The most serious of the charges relates to a plot to overthrow RBA chief Lieutenant General Batoo Tshering by Brigadier Tobgye, who is in charge of the security of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal and other members of the Bhutanese Royal family.

Mr. Kuenlay Tshering and Mr. Dorji, who was himself married to Ms. Wangmo earlier, were allegedly part of the conspiracy against the RBA chief, which involved using fraudulently obtained documents of a deal for United Nations vehicles to frame him, with the aim of catapulting themselves into the positions of Chief Justice and Court Registrar respectively.

Duped

Giving a detailed account of the enquiry in The Bhutanese newspaper, Editor Tenzing Langsam said that according to their testimonies, the three officials said they had been duped by Ms. Wangmo into thinking their actions were in line with the wishes of some “higher authorities” in Bhutan.

“One familiar technique reported by many who came in touch with her was that she would first show a picture taken with the higher authority followed by dropping the names of the higher authority to indicate closeness. Then later suddenly in the middle of a conversation she would pretend to get a call from the authority and again claim the higher authority was calling her,” while the call actually came from a family member, Mr. Lamsang wrote.

Investigators also looked at the allegation that in 2016, Ms. Wangmo tried to manipulate the Supreme Court Judge now in custody into recommending her for the Chevening scholarship run by the British government. However, the British Honorary Consulate in Thimphu denied the accusation that the prestigious scholarship which Ms. Wangmo received could have been secured through “undue or unfair influence on the selection committee”.

The full array of charges against Ms. Wangmo and the three officials will be known in the next couple of weeks, as the trial gets under way.

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