Bhutan is one of the most isolated nations in the world. This 18,147-square mile stretch of land (population: 672,425) nestled in the Himalayas between India and China first turned on the television in 1999. A year later, they got Internet access. The social, economic and political changes have been, to say the least, enormous.
“The change that has come with television and Internet is both good and bad,” Thinley Choden, a Bhutanese native who received her master’s degree at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, told me. “It’s good because people, especially the younger generation, can see the world around them and information is easily accessible. It’s good to be informed. Ignorance is no bliss.”
And the bad? “It’s bad because now there is a young generation that is stuck in front of the TV,” Choden said. “The Hip Hop style has been affecting the younger boys. They wear their jeans low and boxers high with big jersey shirts. Student’s English is affected, they have picked up slang from the television and are not using proper grammatical English. The perception of what is good looking, handsome has changed. It seems to be influencing boy’s social interaction with more gangs in school.”
Bhutan’s question is simple: how will they—after watching the rest of the world develop—open their doors to economic growth without sacrificing their national identity in the process? According to the documentary Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, produced by Maui filmmakers Tom Vendetti and Robert Stone along with John Wehrheim, the primarily Buddhist population of Bhutan truly takes “The Middle Path” and its government functions on the principle that “Gross National Happiness” is more important than “Gross National Product.”
As I watched a screener of the documentary, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of Bhutan and the relative simplicity of its people’s lifestyle. But I also saw in Bhutan a reflection of Maui, which ultimately faces the same quandary of modernity. Can our island, which has been protesting growing pains for decades, learn from Bhutan and embrace growth while retaining its culture and resources?
Or is it too late?
“I don’t think it’s too late,” Choden said. “A lot of people are talking about sustainability and there is a dialogue that has been started, but how much is followed by action on the ideas that the words that are spoken, I don’t know. There’s also been a revival of the native culture and how they lived in unison with the environment.”
The idea behind “Gross National Happiness” isn’t new. It was developed and implemented in 1972 by Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The term defined his desire and commitment to build an economy that would serve the country’s unique culture, which is based on Buddhist spiritual beliefs. King Jigme has explained in the past that Bhutan would never field a large military or be a major world power. Rather, Bhutan would rely on its culture to set it apart from the rest of the world.
Gross National Happiness is hard to define, but the idea is that material and spiritual development must occur equally. The “Four Pillars” to guide that growth are Good Governance, Balanced Social and Economic Development, Cultural Promotion and Environmental Preservation.
“Without a good and effective government, without a government that is responsive to the needs of their people, nothing else would move,” Prime Minister Lynpo Yeshy Zimba said in the documentary.
In 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck stunned the nation by announcing his abdication, declaring that there was “no better moment than during a period of peace and prosperity for a leader to step down.” He handed his responsibilities to Crown Prince Jigme Kesar Wangchuck.
The Crown Prince was raised side-by-side with the other children of Bhutan. He received the same government-sponsored education as the other children until he was older, at which time he attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts and later Oxford, where he graduated.
Bhutan, which has been an absolute monarchy, is testing out the waters of democracy. In 2002 officials announced that they were forming a parliamentary democracy, with the King serving as a constitutional monarch. An official Bhutanese constitution should be implemented sometime next year.
“He [King Jigme Singye] wants real power to go to his people,” Dawa Tshering, a former foreign minister, said in a Dec. 7, 2002 BBC News story. “Bhutan is ideally suited for grassroots democracy because the population is small.”
Balanced Social and Economic Development
In the documentary, King Jigme is quoted to say that, “democracy only works in a society which is highly literate, politically very conscious and enjoys a high level of economic well being and prosperity.”
The Bhutan government controls and pays for both healthcare and education. All children, even in remote villages, get the same curriculum. Medical care is free; condoms are available to all villages. What’s more, the government sends respected monks through the villages to educate the people about safe sex, how to protect against unplanned pregnancy and AIDS. They chose to have monks perform this service because many villagers met the idea of contraceptives with resistance because they thought that it went against religious principles.
English is taught along with Dzongkha, Bhutan’s native language, and all children that have attended “modern school” are bilingual.
Hydroelectric power generation is the country’s principle source of income. “We make more than we can consume,” Choden said. “So we sell power to India and then use some of that revenue to get electricity out to the more remote areas.”
What’s more, hydroelectric power has a very minimal negative effect on the environment. The Bhutanese believe that a good environment will bring a good and stable flow of water—in this way, they’ve made protecting the environment profitable.
“Even the boys who would dress up with a Hip Hop style would never show disrespect and wear it anywhere but at home or out at night,” Choden said. That’s because the Bhutanese have a national dress code for all citizens during the day, though people are free to dress as they like at home and when “going out” at night. In addition, all development must abide by Bhutanese architecture standards and traditions.
But even with such strict regulations, the Bhutanese are being reexamined. For example, the phallus has been a symbol often used in Bhutan to ward off evil spirits. It’s also been used in religious ceremonies. But according to the Kuensal, a major Bhutanese newspaper, even though many Bhutanese place phallic depictions and sculptures in their home, they’re now questioning whether such objects are appropriate.
It’s also interesting that polygamy and polyandry are accepted in Bhutan. In fact, in rural areas it’s common for a woman to have multiple husbands—usually brothers. The idea is that if one woman bears their children, everything will stay within that family line.
“If you are thinking a year ahead, plant a seed,” the Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Bhutan, said. “If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking a hundred years ahead, educate the people.”
Currently, forests cover about 72 percent of Bhutan, with nearly 40 percent of the land designated as national parks, protected areas and “biological corridors.” There’s also a mandate that 60 percent of all Bhutan’s land must be forest cover. Since 2002, Bhutan has required Environmental Impact Assessments for all development and industrial activities.
The Bhutanese take the preservation of their land seriously. In fact, because of their shared religious beliefs–which harbor a deep respect for nature–there’s apparently little to no argument between citizens over this concept.
Still, I had mixed feelings after viewing the screener of Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness. While agreeing with many of their goals, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many of their Four Pillars will actually take root in a ground that, for much of the world, is dominated by mass consumerism.
But that may be because I’ve long felt that Hawai’i had the potential to create a self-sustained place that lived harmoniously with its environment while thoughtfully progressing into the modern world. It’s increasingly hard to see that potential in current debates over slashing rainforests for palm oil production, growing corn to make engine fuel and sending fuel-efficient, 40-knot ferries crammed to gills with cars screaming across the water.
Choden, though, was undeterred.
“It’s never too late to change or take a different path,” Choden told me. “Especially with support from policy makers and those people who can make things happen.” MTW