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Anxious Himalayan Nation Prepares for Unprecedented Hosting of Dignitaries

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan prepares for the 16th summit-level meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimphu, 24 Apr 2010
The Himalayan nation of Bhutan prepares for the 16th summit-level meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimphu, 24 Apr 2010

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The Himalayan nation of Bhutan is gearing up to host the two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation annual summit of leaders beginning April 28. Officials in the small and remote country are billing the event as a "coming of age" watershed for Bhutan, which rarely finds itself in the international spotlight.

This sleepy capital in a Himalayan valley with an elevation of more than 2,300 meters high, is home to 100,000 Bhutanese who do not have much experience playing host to visiting dignitaries. A president or prime minister from a neighboring foreign country might drop in every few years, but never have seven heads of government come calling simultaneously.

The Secretary of the Information and Communications Ministry, Kinley Dorji, tells VOA News that makes the SAARC summit an unprecedented event in Bhutan's history.

"It's the biggest meeting we've held, we've ever held," he said.  "And it will be the biggest for a long time because I don't see Bhutan being able to host any of the larger international gatherings."

During the quarter century of SAARC's existence, Bhutan repeatedly backed away from taking its turn as summit host, citing lack of infrastructure and inability to provide adequate security.

Visiting leaders will stay in a complex recently built to house Bhutan's Cabinet members.

Every hotel and guest house in Thimphu has been booked by delegation members and the more than 100 visiting foreign journalists.

That has shopkeepers in central Thimphu delighted.

Tenpa, who uses only one name, runs a small store selling traditional and modern garments, as well as a bit of jewelry.

The merchant says many visitors will surely drop in to his shop and he is expecting a bonanza of additional sales.

Not everyone is caught up in the whirlwind. For Buddhist nun Mindu Zangmo, walking back to her monastery from a hospital visit, it is all a bit confusing.

She says she has no idea what is SAARC but if all these important foreigners are coming, she figures, it must be good for Bhutan.

Many others seem to agree with that optimistic assessment. Hundreds of civil servants, students and recent graduates have volunteered and undergone training to become cooks, butlers and janitors to provide manpower at summit venues.

In addition to host Bhutan and the seven other SAARC countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - there will be a number of official observer delegations: Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

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