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Bhutan: Not everyone is happy with the Hermit Kingdom

The New York Times ran an article yesterday considering a number of strategies being used to augment measures of national income – notably Gross Domestic Product per capita – with more nuanced measurements that consider more fully the health and satisfaction of a populus. Many of these measures are inspired by Bhutan’s decision in 1972 to pursue a development strategy centered around maximization of “gross national happiness”. This new metric was the heart of a project that tried to open up the “hermit kingdom” very slowly to the outside world, enabling economic development while trying to limit degradation of the environment and preserve traditional culture.

This philosophy has made Bhutan the sweetheart of politicians, thinkers and activists who believe that development needs to account for non-economic factors. Bhutan’s mystique arises not just from its Buddhist approach to development economics, but from it’s decision to open to foreign influences – including tourism – in very limited ways. By charging visitors up to $200 a day “to breathe the air” and requiring fixed itineraries, Bhutan has limited tourism to groups of well-heeled travellers and avoided the army of backpackers that invaded Nepal (before the Maoist rebels chased them out…)

(Michael Hawley’s excellent book of photographs of Bhutan managed to evoke the nation’s inaccessibility and limited openness in its very form. Measuring over two by one meters by weighing in at 50 kilograms, it cost $15,000 per copy. A much smaller edition is available today for a mere $100 per copy.)

But Bhutan’s isolation isn’t purely idyllic – it’s also deeply political. It’s difficult to get news from within the country as the press is almost completely government controlled. (Bhutan News Online advertises itself as “Bhutan’s First Private Online Magazine”, but much of the content appears to be links to government news sites.) RSF says that some criticism of the government can be found in the bulletin boards associated with government-owned news site Kuensel Online – my perusal of the boards finds some criticism of internet service providers, but no demands of an overthrow of the monarchy, for instance…

This might be because dissent hasn’t been historically well tolerated in Bhutan. In the early 1990s, more than a hundred thousand Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were deported and stripped of their citizenship after promoting democracy within the Kingdom. Refugees have faced starvation in Nepal and some are attempting to cross back into Bhutan, facing arrest in the process.

Because Bhutan appears so isolated, it’s a surprise to hear Bhutanese voices online. When Global Voices Online South Asia editor Neha Viswanathan published a fifteen-word “roundup” post on our site about Bhutan’s decision to eliminate some Indian television channels from broadcasting locally, it’s unlikely she was anticipating the post would generate a 46 comment thread of responses.

After a couple of comments about media quality and openness, commenter Dorjee weighed in with “Leave bhutan’s problem to bhutan. Poking dirt nose in others matter do no good.” This comment was followed with a number of others, evidently by Bhutanese readers, who asserted Bhutan’s right to ban whatever it wished, to constrain its media environment, open up to the world in limited ways and generally control its own destiny. All of which I found pretty interesting, as I’ve never seen a group take to the web and demand censorship before. Then again, there are few countries that have consciously decided to protect their cultural heritage with the intensity Bhutan has demonstrated:

WHY should a friendly country like India should poke or bother or have hostile views about to what Bhutan does about the TV channels?? PLEASE remember that the media of freedom and WILL is ENTIRELY to one’s sovereignity, not just the other country or state dictates. If our country, BHUTAN would like to have choice of TV channels, its the Bhutanese citizens who would opt and decide, NO external regime should dictate or tell to what to do PLEASE!! (comment from Nar Rai)

Then commenter Dev Sharma, possibly a Bhutanese refugee living in Nepal weighed in:

Bhutan is still eye wash to internationalcommunity as well the welwishe. What bhutan has done for the people accept the king requied. Let the bhutan be international know in good, today bhutan isknow to other world through the plight of hundred thoudand refugee living in nepal since 1991. It hearts the sentiment of the citizen ofbhutan.

Leader of political party Mr. RK Budathoki was being murder just becasuse of interview given in Nepal channel which was allowed in bhutan. after the interview channaled has been blocked and assassinate Mr.budathoki by RGOB.

(For those not up on their Himalayan politics, RK Budathoki was the president of the Bhutan People’s Party and was assasinated in September 2001 in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal. “RGOB” is “Royal Government of Bhutan”, reflecting Dev Sharma’s belief that the Bhutanese government was responsible for Budathoki’s death.)

The next comment on the thread advocated widespread violence against Bhutanese opposition politicians living in Nepal, and Neha and Rebecca decided to intervene and bring the thread under tighter control. Rebecca observed that several of the comments reflected a sentiment that Bhutan is poorly understood by international audiences – in the Global Voices spirit, she invited Bhutanese to become bloggers and express their views about how their country is percieved. It’s a bit early to know if there’s been any traction for this idea – it’s not clear whether access is widespread enough in Bhutan that blogging is a reasonable option – and we don’t yet know of any Bhutanese blogs.

But the Bhutanese commenters are still following the thread. A commenter, Carol Catty, who identified herself as North American, weighed in with a complaint about Bhutan’s human rights record – Dorjee, our first Bhutanese commenter, responded with: “Carole Catty needs to come to bhutan once and see things yourself or you need to shut your big mouth.”

While this isn’t the level of dialogue I sometimes hope for on Global Voices discussion threads, it’s still an excellent illustration for me of the potentials and possibilities of blog discussions. By providing pointers to internationally controversial issues and giving a space to allow conversation around these topics, we’re finding ourselves hosting conversations that don’t – and sometimes can’t – take place in the physical world. While I can imagine places where Bhutanese nationalists, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees and Indian diplomats could have a spirited conversation, it’s hard for me to imagine being present to witness it, the way I was able to watch this conversation unfold.

Looking at traffic statistics for Global Voices at the month’s end, I see that visitors from Bhutan represented 0.15% of our total visits, ranking 30th in terms of top-level domains sending us traffic. That’s astounding for a nation of 2.2 million people with limited access to the Internet and where most citizens don’t speak English… and clear evidence that some of the Bhutanese who are able to participate in a conversation like this one are strongly motivated to do so.

28 thoughts on “Bhutan: Not everyone is happy with the Hermit Kingdom”

  1. That remains an interesting comment thread to date. Every alternate day, we have a few comments. Turns out that the roundup was covered on Bhutan News Online.

    But I really liked what Rebecca suggested. That the people from Bhutan who were commenting with such passion be encouraged to blog themselves. Within South Asia, there are hardly any blogs from Bhutan…

  2. With so little freedom of speech, I don’t see how Bhutan can claim its people are ‘happy’. A blogger from Bhutan, if he take sto criticising the government, – god save him! Bhutan has no free press either

  3. I am from bhutan, and when we say we’re happy, we are happy, All right!!? Also the freedom of press situation isn’t as bad as Shivaji guy makes it out to be. Sure our only newspaper really sucks, but people don’t get hanged for criticizing the government or it’s action.

    Sheesh.. some people are just don’t think without spouting all sorts of shit.

  4. Bhutan is no heaven whatever the western travellers might imagine. Bhutan even does not know how many people live in their land as the statistics varies from 6 lakhs to 22 lakhs. My estimate is near the higher limit. Bhutan lives in the past and discord is discouraged. Gross National Happiness is a new Brand the ruling class is trying to project. The lot of the people in the rural areas is less said the better. Life in rural Pema Gatshel, Zhemgang etc. is primitive where you need several days’ walk to reach. No medical aid available for rural folks in emergency.Press freedom is absent so does dissent voices. People of Nepalese origin live with constant fear of being persecuted. Bhutan is great when you visit for a week or a fortnight. Once you stay for long you realize the truth of living a hard life.

  5. I am a neopali refugee evicted from nepal, in the past 10 years many of us have died of the absolutist kings evictions, many were also evicted when the king killed 100s of indian assamese fighters last year in war, many were evicted to prepare for killing these people, many were killed in riots and protests in teh 1990s, the king is an arrogant horrible twerp, and people who support his rule, are scum

  6. I am Bhutanese and I so happy that our king and our people had it in themselves, to put those nepali economic migrants, and those thugghish assami rebels in their place. If you want to know about more about Bhutan, why don’t you ask some real Bhutanese people instead of ones with names like Shivaji, and Sharma??

  7. my perusal of the boards finds some criticism of internet service providers, but no demands of an overthrow of the monarchy, for instance…

    This might be because dissent hasn’t been historically well tolerated in Bhutan.

    Wow!!! Just amazing how you are able to draw such a skewed conclusion to serve your equally skewed argument. Did it ever occur to you that maybe, we Bhutanese are happy with our leaders ,and simply not interested in partaking in anarchaic exercise of calling on our leaders to be toppled every chance we get???

    and clear evidence that some of the Bhutanese who are able to participate in a conversation like this one are strongly motivated to do so.

    We Bhutanese have more plenty of opportunities to participate in conversations like this. We are here not because of a lack of opportunities elsewhere (as you seem to imply) but because we love our country dearly and we hate to see it misrepresented. We’ve worked very hard to preserve our tradition, our way of life, and our environment, and we are not giving it up just so so you and your fellow “human rights” activists can fill your insatiable to to feel good about yourself.

  8. It’s interesting, guys – this article is over a year old, and the main observation of it was the hostility with which Bhutanese were responding to a thread on Global Voices. The last two comments here were similarly pretty hostile. I get it – you’d prefer I don’t talk about Bhutan. Wouldn’t it be more useful to engage with the folks I’ve quoted in the piece who had critiques of the government or who left comments concerned about the state of human rights in Bhutan, rather than berating me for my interest in events in another nation?

  9. when tobacco ban was introduced not a single soul protested. that shows the absolutism of the ruling elite. actually alcohol is doing much more damage to the populace but not a single voice raised to ban that also. betel nut chewing is wide spread and spitting is customary. it is more cancerous but no law is enacted. free press is a foreign word. tourism is so much restricted that only few benefit and common man can not earn a dollar. no discordant voice is tolerated. one man posts we are happy so we have to believe they all are. once democracy comes we can see demands and aspirations of its people soar. the people who are singing the programmed tunes will become vociferous and demand everything.

  10. I always love it when Nepali person takes a very Bhutanese name like Sonam and rails against Bhutan’s lack of freedom, and absolutism of the ruling elite. My theory is that he does this because he knows that his word will not carry much weight as a Nepali given the track record of the Nepali people at running their own country.
    As to whether there wasn’t a single protest during the tobbaco ban one only needs to look at news reports from internation media outlets such as the BBC to know that there was. As to the insinuation of free press being foreign concept in Bhutan one only needs to look at the 2006 freedom of press index which ranks Bhutan at #98, far ahead of Nepal (#154) or India(#105) to really know the truth.

    BTW. Ethan if you’d like to read more on this you are always welcome http://www.thunderboltpost.com, just one of freer Bhutan’s many online discussion forums.

  11. The very fact that outside people are bickering about our country shows BHUTAN and its happy people with rich cultures intrigue them! Thanks people! We feel your jealousy! :)

  12. one should talk sense. this is a free forum. one should not presume anything. absolutism gives one the brain washing that any discordant note must be from a nepalese person. do not forget that bhutan was once occupied by few. most were immigrants from tibet and modern day india and nepal. read history. better read between the lines to understand history. do not believe international ratings. the miss universe or the miss world crown winners are never the most beautiful wemen. iraqis are not the villains made out by the western governments and media. that is sheer vested interest. if bhutan’s press freedom is above others as mentioned then the rating agency accounts are surely suspect. and if anyone supports throwing out innocent men wemen and children who lived for generations in a country as alien they are not buddhists. if some did not anti national act they could be sent to prison. but deportaion en masse is the most cruel form of governance. millions of bangladeshis and nepalese are living in india and there is opposition from locals but hardly mass deportation is carried out. even america is full of migrants and an ethnic asian can be the president of that country. once that kind of thing can become possible then only one should talk about humanity, religion and GNH.

  13. Sonam, Your advocating free for all immigration pretty much gives you away as a Nepali. You guys ate and ravaged pretty much everything your land had to offer, so what choice do you have now but emigrate to other countries.

    I’ll just repeat what I said earlier. We in Bhutan worked very hard to protect our environment, our traditions and our way of live. When it seemed easier to cut down of some of our trees and truck them across the border and sell them, we didn’t. When the prospect of making tonnes of easy by letting backpackers trample all over the country seemed enticing, we resisted. So we’re not just going to let you come in and destroy our country too. Sorry, it’s tough but you should really learn take care of your own country first.

  14. Dear Ugyen –

    I understand that you disagree strongly with some statements I made a year ago in this piece. I noted that single, year-old post is considered significant enough news for it to be on the front page of Thunderboldpost.com, where “Akoo” is kind enough to characterize me as “just another bleeding heart liberal blindly taking up cause in order to feel like he was actually making a difference in this world.”

    All of which is fine. I don’t know very much about Bhutan. I’ve written very little about Bhutan. The thrust of the post I made a year ago was less about Bhutan and more about the ferocity of response non-Bhutanese seem to get when we write about Bhutan.

    It’s extremely unfair of you to attack people posting on this site for using “false” names without evidence. The idea that because someone disagrees with you, they’re Nepalese masquerading as Bhutanese strikes me as pretty paranoid – is it not possible that someone with a Bhutanese name might disagree with the opinions you’re expressing.

    When I made this post a year ago, I hoped that Bhutanese would start writing blogs to express their opinions – I’m happy to see blogs like ThunderBolt Post, even if they’re running features about my ignorance. Why not fight the crypto-Nepalese there, instead of on my blog?

    This post is now a year old. I’d urge you to move discussion to your blog rather than having it here.

  15. Dear Ethan,
    Your motivation is admirable and I do appreciate the fact that you admit that your knowledge about our country is limited.. May I point out that if our people are overzealous in defending our country even to the point of extremist attitude.. it is due to the fact that as a nation of six hundred thousand people ..we do not wish to meet the fate of our former neighbors.. for instance Sikim and Tibet.. The former now over run by Nepalese and the latter, I am sure you are aware of.. my best wishes to you on your intrest in human rights..

  16. I saw this post last year but chose not to post a response as it was the same pattern repeating again.

    But even if this post is a year old, it remains in cyberspace for Google to cache or retrieve for anyone searching about bhutan (just as thunderboltpost did and Im sure others have as well).

    So in the the interest of anyone forming their opinion about Bhutan based on internet articles, please be balanced and do thorough research. This article article on opendemocracy.com would explain a lot.

    Its very pertinent to the discussion here and written by a person with his real name and address.

    Thanks for your attention.

  17. i wonder if bhutan can ever be a democracy when each differing voice is pronounced as coming out from an alien national.

  18. Ethan mentioned, “dissent hasn’t been historically tolerated in Bhutan” In fact, we did not know what dissent is, because we lived through peace, until some people of the southern region introduced ‘dissent’ in the country shattering our ‘long-cherished’ peace.

    Nepali speaking Bhutanese were not “deported and stripped of their citizenship”. The King appealed to them not to leave the country, till the government come with appropriate solution, but these people turned deaf ears. When they left the country, they left us destroying our public infrastructure, coercing innocents to join them and stealing the public fund. So Ethan needs to listen to the other side of the story.

    Ethan conceived freedom of press to be the be-all-and end-all of everything. I don’t mean freedom of press is not important. But, the freedom of press that worked in Germany may not work well in Bhutan. Every country has its unique course of development. Ethan should think twice before making such comment.

  19. The so-called refugees should be brought back to Bhutan and dealt as per the law. Most of them are criminals.
    We, the citizens, are waiting that Bhutan government will deal with these criminals. Even the most innocent farmer would know what type of people they were. They would have a long story to tell of how ‘these people in the camps’ came to their villages, thereating to kill them if they did not join their group.
    It is sad that many INGOs ( with their self-interest) is labelling this as Bhutan’s problem. We wish if they could take some time to find out the ‘truth’ before blaming the Bhutanese government for this.

    we strongly mean it. After all, Bhutanese are also humans and deserve to be treated fairly. Person like Ethan cannot blame our country bluntly. He must listen to the other side of the story.

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  24. We are one world and one people. True the modern world has encroached into all nations and that is a problem as far as consumption of natural resource and impersonal values however conversely there is a problem with nationalism that refuses to respect all human beings. We are one people and all should have rights and yet we are choking with emulating the modern impersonal ways. The most important is saving our human family from destruction.

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