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Bhutan Experiments in Democracy


A new film called "Travelers and Magicians" captures a rare glimpse of Bhutanese culture. Forested mountains, fertile valleys and a curiously dressed monk have been flashing through some American cinemas, telling the story of a man who re-discovers his traditional Buddhist culture as he pursues the allure of the western world.

Bhutan has changed little over the centuries. It wasn't until the 1960s when paved roads, banks and electricity began to appear. A few years later, some of the first tourists arrived. But the mystery shrouding Bhutan has been due not only to its remote geography.

Kinley Dorji, Editor-in-Chief for Kuensel, the main newspaper of Bhutan says “In the past, Bhutan chose to go into a self-imposed isolation. The thinking was, "Okay, this is a small country. The best thing we can do is hide up here in the Himalayas, to be inaccessible and therefore survive."

Bhutan has one of the world's least developed and smallest economies. Nine out of ten Bhutanese are traditional farmers cultivating mostly rice, peppers and fruit. Even though per capita income is less than 75 dollars a month, hunger and homeless are rare.

The kingdom is slowly building links with the outside world. Kinley Dorji says the Bhutanese government studied other developing nations and created its own approach, what King Jigme Singye Wangchuk calls ‘gross national happiness.’ Kinley Dorji explains: “We saw the world had interpreted progress as economic development and material advancement and we thought there was something missing there. ‘Gross national happiness’ is a reminder of the real priorities in the human life. The whole value system of the society and the policies of the government are all drawn from Buddhism as a spiritual practice. Happiness should be the ultimate goal for human progress -- not economic development.”

Bhutan defines gross national happiness as social sustainable development, cultural preservation, care for the environment and good governance.

Brent Olson is a member of the American-Bhutan Council advisory board and worked with Bhutan to create a photographic archive of its artistic heritage. He says the king recognized that change was inevitable. Mr. Olson describes Bhutan as moving directly from the Middle Ages to the modern world. “For a long time, they [the Bhutanese government] kept broadcast or satellite television under wraps and did not allow it to be developed in Bhutan. But eventually, people where doing it illegally. And it got to the point, ‘Are you going to repress the people doing it or are you going to open up?’"

In 1999, Bhutan became one of the last countries to embrace television. The capital Thimphu connected to the Internet the same year.

Today, the draft constitution is available not only to Bhutanese citizens, but to the world over the Internet. Kinley Dorji of the Kuensel newspaper says “It is a small country that has introduced dramatic political reform in many ways and would like the world to help by reading it and providing feedback. We have not had experience of democratic governance in the past and we would like to learn. It is a very healthy process that's taking place.”

Bhutan has kept a particularly close eye on nearby Nepal, whose decade-and-a-half experience in democracy has largely failed, say many observers. Earlier this year, a threatening Maoist insurgency led Nepal's king to seize power and dismiss the elected government.

Some scholars criticize Bhutan's proposed constitution for failing to address a human rights issue that has plagued the country for the last decade -- the plight of the ethnic Nepali minority in southern Bhutan. According to international observers, the Bhutanese government charged thousands of the mostly Hindu Nepali minority as illegal immigrants who do not speak Bhutan's official language -- Dzonga. Many of the ethnic Nepalese allege political repression by the government.

South Asian political analyst Chitra Tiwari is bewildered that the proposed constitution does not recognize other languages. “When they make Dzonga the national language and Buddhism the national heritage, it sows the seeds of conflict within the minority population.”

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese have left Bhutan for neighboring Nepal since the 1980s. Most analysts say the situation remains unresolved.

Bhutan will likely continue to take small and measured steps toward liberalization. Most analysts expect a referendum on the proposed constitution later this year, paving the way for another experiment in Himalayan democracy.

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