Bhutan: The Last Shangri-la?

opinion February 18, 2013 00:00

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With the visit of Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan to Thailand in June 2006 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of His Majesty the King, the Thais suddenly became aware of their fascinating neighbour to the northwest and its "Prince Cha

A few months later he was named the 5th Dragon King of Bhutan. He was educated at Wheaton College in the US and also, like former PM Abhisit, is a graduate of Oxford University.

Globally Bhutan is famous for its king having introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as an alternative to the western materialistic construct of Gross National Product.

Bhutan is also known as the “last place on the roof of the world” and the “land of the Thunder Dragon.”

It shares many things in common with Thailand. Like the Thais, the Bhutanese are rightfully extremely proud of never having been colonised. They have a strong historical tradition of Buddhist monastic education. Like the Thai monarchy, the Bhutanese one is highly respected and revered.

As Thailand shifted from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Bhutan underwent a similar process much later in 2008. Like King Chulalongkorn, the Fourth King of Bhutan in the 1980s introduced reforms to secularize education. He is also the king who presented the vision of Gross National Happiness and started the process to move toward a constitutional monarchy.

However, unlike Thailand, Bhutan is remote and isolated, much poorer economically, far less developed in education, and with a totally different approach to international tourism. Also its monarchy is only 100 years old, having recently celebrated its centennial.

In 1960, there were only 11 schools in the whole kingdom with around 400 pupils. Bhutan did not open its future university, the Royal University of Bhutan, until 2003.

Interestingly, all public education in Bhutan is free and the language of instruction is English. Educated Bhutanese impress visitors with the quality of their English language skills.

Because of issues of educational access in remote areas, Bhutan faces major challenges in achieving Education for All. Some students in remote areas must walk several hours to reach the nearest school. Despite such obstacles, now about 81 per cent of primary age children are in school. However, among the adult population over 30, some 84 per cent have had no schooling at all.

In numerous other respects Bhutan is more like land-locked Laos. It is extremely mountainous with only 8 per cent of the land arable. Thus, it must import rice. Its major source of foreign exchange is the export of electricity to India through the development of hydroelectric power. As Laos aspires to be the “battery of Southeast Asia”, Bhutan aspires to be the “battery of South Asia.”

To preserve its pristine culture and natural environment, Bhutan has an extremely cautious and restrictive policy on tourism to keep out the “riffraff” and backpackers. This may partially be driven by their having seen what happened to Nepal and related cultural and

environmental deterioration there.

Tourists to Bhutan must purchase a minimal package that costs (for a single traveler) $290 (Bt8660) per day during the high season or $240 (Bt7166) a day during the low season. Given this strict policy, tourists pose little threat to Bhutan’s precious cultural and environmental landscapes.

Bhutan has many rich cultural forms which its educational system is designed to preserve. It has strong oral communication traditions such as folktales and proverbs. Its monastic education emphasizes spirituality and morality. Its national sport is archery. With its modern education, it is seeking a Buddhist middle way between the modern and the traditional.

In terms of learning more about Bhutan, interestingly the world’s largest book, 1.5 metres by 2.1 metres, weighing 60.3 kilograms, is about one of the world’s smallest countries. Richly illustrated, its title is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom. After many years of helping develop Bhutan’s extremely artistic and attractive textiles for export, Russ and Blythe Carpenter produced a wonderful read titled The Blessings of Bhutan (2002). Also Bhutan has unusual and attractive postage stamps which it markets globally.

There is also a delightful book titled Bhutan Ways of Knowing (2008) where many Bhutanese intellectuals and writers share their rich culture and its traditions such as rimdro, ceremonies and services to show respect and reverence for spiritual communities and persons.

There are also two fascinating films related to Bhutan both with a popular sports theme. The first is titled “The Cup” (1999) directed by the Bhutanese monk, Khyentse Norbu, about several monks who become addicted to watching the World Cup on television. It is actually partially based on true events.

The other film is titled “The Other Final” about a football game between Bhutan and Montserrat, the world’s two worst football teams.

Interestingly in terms of actual happiness, Bhutan ranks eighth in the world in subjective well-being. Despite this impressive ranking and Bhutan’s visionary ideal of Gross National Happiness, there is a dark little-known side to Bhutan related to a group of more than 100,000 “refugees”, most of Nepalese ethnicity, who were in seven camps in Nepal. As of late 2012, more than 60,000 of these individuals had resettled in the United States. There is debate about whether many are true refugees since most are Nepalese and many such individuals may have illegally migrated into Bhutan.

Related to future Thai-Bhutanese relations, there would be potential for Bhutanese to come to Thailand to help with English instruction – and in exchange Thai students could have a wonderful experience studying at the Royal University of Bhutan and enhancing their English while learning about Bhutan and its rich cultural traditions.


GERALD W FRY Distinguished International 

Professor Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development,

University of Minnesota