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Calls Mount to Preserve Bhutan's Traditions as Youth Embrace Western Styles

The youth in Bhutan have been quick to adapt to Western styles, raising concern for many in the deeply conservative Buddhist nation, one of the world's last remaining holdouts to the forces of globalization. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.

Just a decade ago, it was more common to see people in this rustic capital walking around with longbows slung across their shoulders, an emblem of the national pastime of archery. But, more and more, the longbows are being replaced by guitars.

Singye Namgay, a 16-year-old Bhutanese musician, says he no longer stands out when he strolls around town with his guitar. Thimphu is filling with teenagers in ragged jeans and t-shirts, strumming folk tunes like a small platoon of Bhutanese Bob Dylans.

Bhutan, a tiny, isolated Himalayan nation sandwiched between India and China, is starting to open its doors to the world.

"The radio stations here are playing English songs, especially, and a few number of Bhutanese songs, I guess," Singye says. "Television is [also] there - American Idols and stuff like that."

These influences are fairly new to most of Bhutan, which did not officially have satellite television and the Internet less than a decade ago.

Compared to the rest of South Asia Bhutan's modernization appears to be in slow motion.

But with its first-ever national election recently concluded, Bhutan has ended a century of rule by absolute monarchy and ushered in an era of democracy.

Some analysts say that democracy in Bhutan could speed up the onslaught of Western culture in a country where preserving its distinct culture is one of the guiding tenets of growth.

Bhutanese authorities no longer strictly enforce the national dress code: ankle-length dresses for women and a knee-length bathrobe-like garment, called a kho, for men.

Dorjee Tshering, director of Bhutan's culture ministry, says the dress code is not just about fashion, it is about national identity. He says the forces of globalization can be a threat to Bhutan's culture, especially among the nation's youth, who are usually quick to adapt to change.

"At one point we really felt the threat of losing our culture," he said. "I think the pressure from outside cultures is so much that now with television and with us opening to some of the things being made available to, especially, the youth who want to be part of the global culture. That can be a threat."

But he says Bhutan's increasing access to the rest of the world gives the Bhutanese a chance to expand their culture. He says foreign influences can blend with Bhutanese culture, not obliterate it.

Bhutan's government occasionally steps in to stifle influences it does not like, as it did a few years ago by banning several cable channels, including MTV music videos and the wrestling series known as WWE.

The bans annoy many young Bhutanese people like Namgay Zam, a radio announcer for one of Thimphu's new rock stations, Kuzoo FM.

"The youth were dropping out of school and they were aping hip-hop culture - dressing that way and speaking the lingo," he said. "So the government thought it was high time they did something about it, so all the music television stations got removed, so you cannot watch it anymore. Who are they to decide what it is not good for the masses? I think all of us are intelligent enough to know what is right and what is wrong, what to take in and what not to take in."

As the sun falls behind the snow-capped mountains surrounding the capital, groups of teenagers in baggy jeans and concert t-shirts start filtering in and out of Internet cafes and discos to puff on imported cigarettes.

Cigarettes are banned in Bhutan, but the ban on them, just like the dress code, is loosely enforced.

It is yet another symbol of Bhutan in transition.

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