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Gross National Happiness

How One Tiny Nation Keeps Globalization in Check

December 26, 2000


THIMPHU, Bhutan -- The Bhutanese have little trouble believing in magic.

The famous Takstang monastery, known as Tiger's Nest, perched high on the face of a cliff, got its name when the religious figure who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century flew in on the back of a tigress, people say. The nation's most sacred object is the vertebra of a saint which, as everyone here knows, is naturally shaped in the image of a goddess.

But modern times in this tiny Himalayan kingdom have brought more materialism than miracles.

"These days people are becoming so greedy," said Jigme Zangpo, governor of Paro Province in western Bhutan. "Materialism forces us to make quick money."

Teens want their MTV. Young men want fast cars. Even some monks want to get rich.

It wasn't like this before. Squeezed between India and China, the world's two most populous countries, Bhutan has chosen a path divergent from most of its Asian neighbors, placing environmental protection above commercial interests, spiritual wealth above worldly gains and most of all, clinging fiercely to its cultural identity while globalization eats away at cultures much larger than its own.

The mantra of Bhutan is to maximize "gross national happiness," a phrase first used here in the late 1970s but forgotten until several years ago. Foreigners view it as the epitome of all that is right about Bhutan. But as the nation strives for a happiness that cannot be measured in monetary terms, some of the country's 600,000 people are finding they need a lot more than what they have to be content.

For centuries, Bhutan, about twice the size of Vermont, was a feudal society that had seen few 20th-Century conveniences and even fewer foreigners. In the 1960s, it started modernizing, putting in basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and telephones. The first batch of students was sent abroad for higher education.

Today, an unusually high number of civil servants have Ivy League degrees, possibly the most of any country made up mostly of yak-herders and consistently ranked by the United Nations as one of the world's least developed.

But while slowly opening itself up to the outside world, it has always given priority to asserting its unique culture. It's something which gives Bhutan "some sort of separateness or distinct identity," said Ugyen Tsering, the foreign secretary.

Protecting its cultural identity is also a matter of political survival.

Otherwise we would just disappear in a sea of humanity," Tsering said in an interview at his office in Thimphu's dzong, a centuries-old fortress-like building housing the political and monastic authorities.

But since television and the Internet arrived just last summer, finally allowed in to celebrate 25 years of the reign of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, change has not been so easy to control. Families are fighting over television programs, with the younger generation wanting "Friends" and MTV and the adults wanting CNN or Hindi movies.

"No country can say no to all of this," said Tsering, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley in the late 1970s.

He insists Bhutan is not resisting the forces of globalization, and in fact, has made English the medium of instruction at schools. Instead, the issue is how to take the good without the bad: "Can globalization make a small country like Bhutan disappear?" Tsering asked. "Or can it play a positive role?"

Bhutan is betting it can have the best of both worlds: modernity with tradition; development without ecological disaster. So far, most would agree they're succeeding, but not without careful planning.

Buildings must be in the traditional architectural style. Cultural preservation is ensured by adherence to driglam namzha, an ancient set of rules for dress and etiquette. In public, men must wear the robe-like gho and women the long, elegant kira.

The rules are specific. Worn with knee socks, the gho hangs down to the knees and is not very warm. But men may wear long underwear tucked into their socks as of the first day of winter, which officially begins when the central monk body leaves Thimphu (pronounced, "TIM-pooh"), and travels to the warmer climes of Punakha, the ancient capital.

Some young Bhutanese don't take the regulations seriously, often wearing jeans or sweat pants under the gho. A few flaunt the rules altogether, even though fines can be given for violations.

At the Atsara Cyber Cafe, Tenzin Wangchuck, 20, is wearing khakis, an earring and a corduroy jacket with "Harley-Davidson" embroidered on the back. Asked why he's not in the national dress, he answered, "Let's say I'm feeling sophisticated.'"

But others understand and agree with the rule. "It's our national identity," said 19-year-old Sangay Wangdi.

Would he rather be wearing jeans? "Of course," he replies without hesitation.

In the late 1980s, driglam namzha met a more potent form of resistance from a large segment of the population -- the estimated one-quarter of Bhutanese who are Nepali-speakers and mostly Hindu instead of Buddhist. Many felt the dress code went against their cultural customs.

Concentrated in southern Bhutan, they started to organize politically, especially after Bhutan stopped teaching Nepali as a third language in schools and then, in 1988, conducted a census, ostensibly to root out illegal immigrants. However, thousands of Nepalis who had been in Bhutan for generations did not have the proper documentation.

Demonstrations and acts of violence erupted. Tens of thousands of southern Bhutanese fled to Nepal. Amnesty International says some were forcibly expelled, but Bhutan says they left voluntarily.

Nearly 100,000 ethnic Nepalese demanding the right to return to Bhutan now live in refugee camps in Nepal. The two governments have been negotiating on-and-off for a decade about verifying their claims and repatriating the legitimate claimants, but run into one snag after another.

In early December, two U.S. State Department officials, Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary for South Asia, and Julia Taft, Assistant Secretary for refugee issues, visited Thimphu in hopes of pushing the government towards an agreement with Nepal, even though Washington has no diplomatic ties with Bhutan. In fact, Bhutan has relations with only 19 countries.

Of all the intractable refugee problems in the world, "this is one that can be solved," said Taft. She believes Bhutan genuinely wants to resolve the problem.

"They're getting a bad rap in various fora on human rights issues," she said.

Tsering, Bhutan's Foreign Secretary, indicated Bhutan wants to proceed carefully.

"Bhutan has worked very hard to survive this far. We cannot lose our identity and sovereignty to large-scale immigration," said Tsering. "We have to accept the cultural scenario; at the same time, we have to safeguard from the possibility that our country will be forever changed."

Signs of tensions between the ethnic majority and other ethnic groups are not obvious today. Ethnic Nepalis work in the army, government and private business, said Tsering. Yet, Bhutan leaves all of the back-breaking manual labor, such as construction and building of roads, to immigrants who come mostly from Nepal and India.

At All-Stars disco, one of two here in Thimphu, not a gho is in sight. With American pop tunes blasting, girls in tank tops and platform shoes and guys in T-shirts and jeans are making their own contributions to gross national happiness.

All-Stars is open just twice a week. Lack of activities and employment prospects for youth is a growing concern, especially considering that 42 per cent of the population is under 15 years old. Drug use has emerged, with some teens sniffing substances and smoking marijuana, which grows wild in Bhutan and traditionally is used as pig feed.

Another issue Thimphu and a few other cities are starting to deal with is urban migration and the usual associated problems, such as lack of affordable housing and petty crime.

Although Thimphu would barely qualify as a "city" to most Westerners -- having just 40,000 people, one main street and not a single traffic light -- to peasants throughout Bhutan, its lights are bright and its job opportunities and 30-odd cable channels just about irresistible.

While TV has certainly seemed to capture young and old alike, the Internet has been slow to catch on, partly because of the expense. Plus, the original interest in the Internet was to connect to the outside world, but television has proven far better and faster in that regard.

"There was keen interest in the Internet last year," said Rogier Gruys, an IT consultant to the Bhutanese government. "Now they realize, 'So what, I can surf Yahoo.'"

But Bhutan is starting to realize the power of networking for domestic communication, said Gruys. In a country where roads are few, and some villages are several days walks from the nearest road, applications such as e-government and tele-medicine are drawing great interest.

Perhaps the trend that has been most upsetting to the Bhutanese is the theft of religious objects. Burglaries of some of the country's 2,500 monasteries and 13,000 chortens, or stupas, all of which are supposed to contain valuable religious relics, have become increasingly frequent in recent years.

"People think if you break one stupa you can be a millionaire," said Zangpo, the governor of Paro Province. "During our times, we are becoming more jealous and competitive."

In rare instances, monks themselves have been implicated. Zangpo is afraid people are starting to lose faith.

"So far we have blind faith. The moment you see a red robe, whether they are young or old, that is a Buddha who will engage in no wrongdoing," he said.

At 24, Gem Thinley has known only the monastic life. Becoming a monk at age 5, he now lives at Kyichu Monastery near Paro. When the wind blows or dogs bark, he can't sleep at night for fear that thieves are trying to break in.

"If a robber comes, either he will die or I will," Thinley said, as a dozen crimson-clad monks and nuns in the temple took a break from an afternoon of praying and chanting.

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