COLUMN ONE : Bhutan: a Shangri-La No Longer? : The tiny, cloistered kingdom is struggling to modernize. Poverty, bootleg Western culture and claims of rights abuses threaten its image as a Himalayan paradise.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the world readies for the 21st century, this nation is expending energy keeping parts of the 20th century out.

It has no television station, and satellite dishes are banned except for diplomats and foreigners. There are three lawyers. And the only newspaper comes out once a week. Political parties are outlawed, the head of state is an absolute monarch, and there is a national dress code. The capital has one traffic light--which is not plugged in.

In this cool, green nugget of the eastern Himalayas, watered by hissing cataracts, lives a hardy, placid Buddhist people who eat fiddlehead ferns and yak meat and who can point out the treetops and mountains where evil spirits dwell.

Snow leopards and white-tailed monkeys bound through forests of juniper, larch, blue pine and rhododendron. Buddhist prayer flags flutter by the thousands from hillsides. Towering above valleys made verdant by monsoon rains, snow-dusted peaks soar 23,000 feet into the sky.

"If there is a Shangri-La left in the world," an awe-struck conservationist from the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute wrote after a visit, "it is Bhutan."

But now Bhutanese leaders are asking if Shangri-La can withstand the onslaught of rap music, "Judge Dredd," Jean-Claude Van Damme and other invaders of contemporary culture and market economics.

And there is this more fundamental, troubling question: Is, or was, Bhutan really Shangri-La?

Though astonishingly beautiful, it is one of Asia's poorest countries. Further, at the start of the 1990s, a mysterious exodus took place here that some say resulted from ruthless "ethnic cleansing."

Today, 86,000 ethnic Nepalis are hunkered in U.N. refugee camps in southeastern Nepal; they claim that they were expelled from Bhutan or terrorized into fleeing by Bhutan's army and police.

Shangri-La? Bhutan is more like a gulag with a view, suggests the State Department's 1995 Human Rights Report, compiled from interviews outside the country.

But the country's leaders deny the claims, and independent proof of the most serious charges is scanty or nonexistent.

The United States has no embassy or diplomatic relations here, and until this spring, an American human rights reporting officer had not visited in four years.

"It's the budget squeeze," explained a U.S. diplomat based in neighboring India.

A self-willed hermit kingdom until the 1960s, the country that calls itself Druk Yul--Land of the Thunder Dragon--is struggling to modernize without losing its soul.

The successful precedent of 19th century Meiji Japan, a Shinto-Buddhist monarchy, springs to mind. But Japan is not a remote land of just 600,000 people shoe-horned between China and India.

"The one word for Bhutan's story is survival--a tiny country in the midst of two giant powers," said Kinley Dorji, a Columbia University Journalism School graduate who edits Kuensel, the tabloid that is Bhutan's only newspaper.

"A yam between two stones" is how some Bhutanese describe their homeland. But over the past decade, the greatest challenge has come over the western mountains--from Nepal, a Hindu land with more than 30 times Bhutan's population and a prolific birthrate.

In 1974, waves of immigrants from Nepal overwhelmed the native hill peoples of the then-Indian protectorate of Sikkim and compelled the chogyal, another Himalayan Buddhist ruler, to abdicate in all but name. A year later, a referendum abolished the 330-year-old dynasty, and Sikkim was absorbed as India's 22nd state.

Snowbound, isolated Tibet--font of Bhutan's dominant language and script and of its religion and culture--vanished as an independent entity earlier. In 1951, Tibet was overrun by Communist China and made a vassal "autonomous region" ruled from Beijing.

Ladakh, another erstwhile Buddhist monarchy atop the "Roof of the World," fell under the sway of the Moguls centuries ago and is part of India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

*

Today, only Bhutan survives as a sovereign Himalayan realm whose state religion, Mahayana Tantric Buddhism, blends mystery, ritual, mantras, mandalas and belief in supernatural gurus able to turn into griffins or eagles.

Bhutan's sober, hard-working monarch, who turned 40 on Nov. 11, knows all about the fate of the other Buddhist kingdoms that once ruled Himalayan heights.

With Time, Newsweek and shortwave radio, he keeps tabs on the world. And when you get down to it, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said, his country and Southern California share the same problem: a massive influx of illegal immigrants.

"I feel the No. 1 problem of the 21st century is going to be economic migration," the sovereign said in an interview.

Being swamped--by immigrants or foreign popular culture and fads that seep in through broadcast media and videotapes--is a preoccupation of the king and his ministers.

Though tough and cheerful, Bhutanese have a fatalistic proverb: "If a bird has to die, you don't need a catapult to kill it."

"We are in very grave danger, in my view," said Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering, 60. "This immigration is a tidal wave, and I don't know how we can stop it."

Worried about the survival of their rustic culture, some members of the Tsongdu, or National Assembly, even argued strenuously but unsuccessfully in the summer to ban imported bows, which they believe pervert Bhutan's home-grown variety of archery, the national sport.

Many other watchdog laws have been enacted, such as a building code that requires Bhutanese wooden-frame windows, cornices and other motifs of traditional architecture.

"Otherwise, it will all evaporate in this process called development," Home Minister Dago Tsering explained.

But whether change will be all that manageable in this country slightly larger than Switzerland seems dubious. As ever, tonsured Buddhist monks wear their traditional raspberry-red robes--but the youngest now may sport baseball caps or zip around on imported motorcycles.

Bhutanese are not supposed to own dishes allowing them to watch Star TV, CNN and other satellite broadcasts--so a trade in imported videocassettes, including blue movies, is booming.

Even in Bumthang--the isolated central vale where Guru Rinpoche, the Tantric saint who converted Bhutan to Buddhism in the 8th century, left his imprint on a rock while meditating--Bhutanese have choices: They can listen to national radio broadcasts, which began five years ago, or, if they have access to one of the region's 20 VCRs, they can rent Van Damme in "Cyborg," classics of the World Wrestling Federation or other bootleg videos from Calcutta.

If broadcast television ever comes to Bumthang, "life as we know it will end," predicted Pem L. Dorji, the chief district official.

In some spots it already has.

In the southern city of Samchi on the Indian border, a region more open to outside influences, budding teachers at the National Institute of Education hosted a talent show this autumn that included two students lip-syncing M.C. Hammer's 1990 rap hit "U Can't Touch This."

For some in the audience, this was a cultural bombshell.

"The craze for Western culture is the aspiration of the young these days," Nim Dorji, a normally jovial cement plant manager who was the evening's guest of honor, said with a frown. "Girls would like to look like Whitney Houston. If he is a politician, a man would like to look like Ronald Reagan. Or maybe Bill Clinton."

In a state decision made for economic and cultural reasons, TV has been kept out of Bhutan until the government can develop its own broadcast system using ground transmitters being built for the national telephone network.

In 1992, dismantling of private satellite dishes began by royal decree; only a dozen or so are left.

"This is what we're afraid of: 'Dynasty,' 'The Bold and the Beautiful' and all these soap operas," said the foreign minister, who confesses that he is a "Wonder Woman" fan. "It creates expectations."

It sounds paternalistic. But given their geographical predicament, small size and widespread poverty, Bhutanese will tell you that the free-wheeling openness and divisiveness of Western-style democracy and freedom are too risky. In unity, they say, lies their survival.

As they try to channel change, Bhutan's leaders have decided it is better not to kindle dangerous hopes.

Statistics show Bhutan is the poorest country in the Indian subcontinent after Nepal. The average Indian earns more than a Bhutanese: $310 a year versus $180.

"Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product," the king has said.

But even in terms of GNP, Bhutan has made strides.

"Three decades ago, we were still a feudal country," the king noted.

In 1961, there were only a dozen schools and institutions of higher learning; now there are 288 and almost 80,000 primary school pupils. Until the 1960s, Bhutan had almost no roads. Now, because of building by the Indian army--for whom this country is strategic ground facing China, New Delhi's adversary in a 1962 border war--more than 1,900 miles of one-lane paved ribbon have been gouged into the mountainsides.

Bhutan's 11,000-member civil service is of admirable efficiency and probity given regional standards, and the trend is to make it even leaner. A privatization campaign has led to the sell-off of almost all state-held industry.

Bhutan may be the only country where forests are getting larger--from 64% of land area in 1961 to 72.5%.

"Two of our resources we are not using, and that consciously: tourism and timber," Trade, Industry and Tourism Minister Om Pradan said. To do so would threaten Bhutan's way of life and pristine landscapes, he said.

*

Though there is no formal constitution and the king is legally an absolute monarch, he acts in consultation with assembly members, two-thirds of whom are elected by the people. District and local committees deciding on development, Bhutan's No. 1 national priority, now have more than 3,000 members, all elected.

The king has pressed hard to get his subjects more involved in affairs of state. But there is no doubt in his mind that monarchy, not parliamentary democracy, is the best way for a poor Asian state like Bhutan to progress.

"Democracy is the best form of government as long as you have a perfect society," he said.

Pinso, 22, a tractor driver in the town of Jakar, would agree. He earns 1,500 ngultrum ($50) a month hauling stones from farmland. His life is simple: work, dinner, then sleep. He's never seen a TV. He likes Bhutan the way it is.

"The king is like a god. I respect him that much," Pinso said.

But by all accounts, trouble came to Shangri-La in the late 1980s.

On the border with India lie the Duars, flat, hot and malarial lands. Though part of Bhutan, they have little in common with the rest of the country. Historians say that, even in the 1920s, workers from Nepal were brought in to drain swamps; Hindus speaking a language related to Hindi, they had little in common with Bhutan's ruling Drupkas, Buddhists with a language akin to Tibetan.

In 1988, a national census was taken, and word got out that there were 100,000 illegal Nepalis in Bhutan.

What happened next in this neglected land then becomes murky. The next year, a royal edict made the traditional Drupka male, ankle-length kimono, or gho, and the kira, or long woman's dress, mandatory for Bhutanese when visiting government offices, monasteries, schools and public gatherings.

Offenders were subject to fines, which police enforced with zeal, since they were allowed to keep half the money. Nepalis in the south complained that they were forced to follow Drupka dress and customs.

Worried, as ever, about the deluge from outside, Bhutan's leaders ordered out ethnic Nepalis who they said were illegal immigrants, though some had been settled on the Duars for decades. The Bhutanese toughened citizenship rules.

In September 1990, protests broke out in the south. Several thousand demonstrators marched in from India and clashed with the Royal Bhutan Army.

Protesters demanded democracy--which, for Bhutan's leaders, was the same Trojan Horse that doomed Sikkim.

"It was rebellion. Not in the sense that people took up arms, but in that it was planned and meant to overthrow the established order and establish one of their own," said Brian C.J. Shaw, an honorary research fellow at the University of Hong Kong's Center of Asian Studies.

Militants from the Bhutan People's Party, an ethnic Nepali group, decapitated officials and kidnapped suspected police informers across the unpatrolled border to tea estates in West Bengal, where they were tortured and some were executed. On the Bhutanese side, authorities muzzled Kuensel's coverage for a year. Nepali-language broadcasts of All-India Radio were jammed, Indian human rights activists said. And "ethnic cleansing" began--or did it?

"There was a clear policy to evict," asserted Ravi Nayar, head of the New Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, who swam across a river, his laptop computer on his head, to investigate what was going on in southern Bhutan in the early 1990s.

But Shaw, a Bhutan specialist who visits regularly, counters that, though he has found evidence of police abuses, the Bhutan People's Party's charges of an organized government terror, rape and mass deportation campaign are "the policy of the Big Lie."

Bhutan's foreign minister also dismisses the claims.

By 1991-92, the king was touring the south, imploring ethnic Nepalis who were legal citizens not to leave. As for those now huddled in camps in Nepal, Bhutan contends that most are Nepalis lured by free meals, medical care and shelter. Talks with Nepal on the issue stalled five months ago.

Even after visiting the sweltering, low-lying Samchi district, where ethnic Nepalis farm cardamom, rice, bananas and other crops, it is impossible to reconstruct what happened years ago.

The U.S. position on Bhutan has been trenchant: "basic human rights remain restricted" with no trials by jury or freedom of peaceful assembly in the American sense and a system of forced labor in lieu of taxes, the 1995 State Department rights report says.

About 400 ethnic Nepalis remain jailed as "political prisoners," New Delhi-based activists say.

Bhutan contends that the detainees are guilty of "anti-national" or terrorist acts. Some have languished in jail for four years, Chief Justice Sonam Tobgye acknowledges. It was only in 1992 that authorities, responding to pleas from Amnesty International, stopped shackling inmates.

*

For U.S. officials, a visit to Thimphu in April by the ambassador to New Delhi, Frank G. Wisner, was an eye-opener, offering new insights into Bhutanese views.

The Americans had relied for at least four years on outside sources, especially refugees interviewed by staffers from the embassy in Katmandu, Nepal, to draw human rights conclusions about Bhutan, one U.S. official said.

But after Wisner's visit, and the direct pleading by the Bhutanese of their case, U.S. officials concluded that they must tone down next year's report.

"It doesn't make sense with 600,000 people, half of whom are illiterate, to have a Western political system," a New Delhi-based U.S. diplomat said. But, he said, a "conundrum" remains: "Why did 80,000 people abandon their homes and farms? I'm convinced they're hiding something they did down there in '90-'91."

Meanwhile, to foster national reconciliation, the king has granted royal pardons to more than 1,600 "anti-nationals," despite grumbling from extremist Drupkas.

He said he is acting for the sake of unity and to put his kingdom's ethnic trauma firmly behind it.

Bhutan Facts

The Bhutanese call their nation Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Land: 18,150 square miles

Population: 600,000

Capital: Thimphu

Money: Ngultrum

Gross national product: $500 million (estimated, 1993)

Economy: Agriculture, tourism and forestry

Military: 5,000 (1993)

Languages: Dzongkha, Gurung, and Assamese

Source: 1995 CIA World Factbook, 1996 World Almanac; ABC Clio Inc.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°