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.