The Changing Face of Bhutan

As the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom cautiously opens itself to the world, traditionalists fear for its unique culture

Tradition and change coalesce (young monks at a religious festival sport trendy shades, masks and a swastika—for Buddhists, a symbol of good fortune) in the remote, majestic country its citizens call Druk Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon." (Josef Polleross/Redux)
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He has explained his push to democratize Bhutan as a safeguard against the risk that some future monarch might be incompetent or worse. But his desire to maintain the nation's sovereignty likely influenced his decision. Recent decades have proved disastrous for other Himalayan Buddhist states. Tibet was taken over by China in 1950, self-governing Ladakh was divided between India and Pakistan in 1949 (with China grabbing a portion from India in 1962), and, in 1975, India annexed the kingdom of Sikkim, following a steady influx of Hindu immigrants from Nepal that left Buddhists in a minority. The hope is that a democratic Bhutan would more readily elicit world support if its sovereignty were challenged. "Democracy may not be the best form of government," Penden Wangchuk told me, "but it is the one accepted by the world."

But Bhutan's path to democracy has been bumpy. In the 1980s, perhaps motivated by a desire to avoid Sikkim's fate, the government redefined citizenship to exclude those who could not claim Bhutanese parentage on both sides. Southern Bhutanese, most of whom are Nepali-speaking Hindus, were also required to produce a tax receipt from 1958 (the year a nationality law first defined what it meant to be a Bhutanese citizen). The government said it was attempting to control illegal immigration; southern Bhutanese protested that legitimate citizens were also being forced to leave. For two years, beginning in late 1990, refugees poured out of southern Bhutan and into Nepal, where camps were set up to house them. Today there are some 107,000 people in those camps, although how many are originally from Bhutan remains a topic of impassioned dispute. The U.S. government has offered to accept as many refugees as would like to come to the United States. In the meantime, Maoist groups operating from Nepal have threatened to disrupt the elections. On January 20, four bombs went off in Bhutan; the police said they suspected that Nepal-based Maoists were responsible.

The fifth king, who has already taken charge and will be officially crowned this spring, has not deviated from his father's policies, including the former king's approach to the refugee problem. He also apparently endorses his father's environmentalism. Not only is logging strictly supervised, but a draft constitution, expected to be approved this year by the new National Assembly, requires Bhutan to maintain 60 percent of its land as forest. Yet some citizens worry that the newly empowered electorate's demand for basic services could threaten the nation's remarkable range of native plants and animals. Bhutan boasts 360 varieties of orchids, 650 species of birds and such rare fauna as the snow leopard and the red panda. "If every village has to be connected by roads, electricity and medical facilities, it will not be a very pleasant thing environmentally," said Lam Dorji, executive director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, a private environmental group. "We are in a fragile mountain ecosystem."

None of the Bhutanese citizens I met seemed particularly enthusiastic about their impending conversion to democracy, an observation with which Dasho Kunzang Wangdi, the country's chief election commissioner, agreed. "People are perfectly comfortable with the way things are," he told me. Both of the political parties vying for control of the National Assembly this month share an allegiance to the royal vision. "We are not starting a party because we have a better vision; we are starting a party because the king has ordered it," said Tshering Tobgay, a founder of the People's Democratic Party. "Do we have an ideology other than we want to continue what the king is doing?" He smiled, amused, perhaps, by the notion that a politician might criticize the king. At least in the short term, a democratic Bhutan may not look so different from the Bhutan of today.

Arthur Lubow wrote about the correspondence between Vincent van Gogh and the artist Émile Bernard in the January issue.


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