Episode 5: A Closer Look at Bhutan
Through the Eyes of a Journalist and Musician
July 1, 2021 — Freelance journalist and musician Kunga Tenzin Dorji, also know as Supe, talks about his view of Bhutan, its potential and challenges and the role of media in the development and opening up of the country as part of A Closer Look, a 5-part series by the Asia Society Switzerland, the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich, and the Schweizerische Asiengesellschaft. The series sheds light on different Asian countries from the perspective of leading local voices. Season 1 covers Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Brunei, Bangladesh and Bhutan. (1 hr., 3 min.)
Our key takeaways
Bhutan’s strenghts vis-à-vis India and China
Bhutan is a small country, totally landlocked and wedged between the world’s two most populous and fastest growing countries, China to the North and India to the South. There are limited interactions with China, and India is still regarded as Bhutan’s big brother due to historical reasons.
In the 1950s when China was reputed to be hegemonistic, taking over their neighbors, such as Tibet, Bhutan was wary of China. At this time, Bhutan allied with India, which just became independent in 1947 and appeared to be a far more friendly nation to deal with. Historically and culturally, Bhutan has more affinities towards Tibet though.
There has always been a danger for Bhutan with no military and economic power to be overwhelmed by India and China, as Supe explains. In this sense, the only way to survive as a sovereign nation was to be different: Supe sees the distinct way of life, which gives Bhutanese their unique national identity as Bhutan’s greatest strength and asset in ensuring survival as a sovereign nation. At the same time, it is one of Supe’s greatest concerns as Bhutan might get left behind the rest of the world that is rapidly changing.
The biggest misconception about Bhutan
According to Supe, there are a number of misconceptions around. But the greatest one is probably that Bhutan is this wonderful country, with unlimited happiness, where everyone is content and smiling all the time, which is not necessarily true.
Bhutan’s opening up and the role of media
In the 1960s Bhutan’s opening up started. Changes that took place in Europe over hundreds of years, took place in Bhutan “in a flash”. Radio broadcasting in Bhutan began in 1973. Television and internet did not come to Bhutan until 1999. The introduction of TV and internet (as elsewhere) brought a lot of change to Bhutan.
As Bhutan was evolving "quickly", people are used to seeing change and accepted change quite willingly. But this does not mean that Bhutan modernized blindly, says Supe: it was planned and deliberate taking into account learnings from other countries.
Supe’s generation (born in the 1970s) also turned into agents of change. There was this drive to change to catch up with the rest of the world. Many were given scholarships to study around the world and came back with ideas. But even though these ideas and technologies may have come from the outside, the will to change and the direction of that change has mainly come from within the country, highlights Supe.
Nowadays, Bhutan’s young people, like in other countries throughout Southeast Asia, may follow Korean pop culture and US pops stars, such as Justin Bieber (who is quite popular), but they still associate with Bhutanese customs, such as wearing a traditional dress when going to the temple or school. This is most likely due to Bhutan’s distinct way of life, the king still serving as a role model in many aspects, and the school curriculum that teaches about the Gross National Happiness (GNH) studies, such as values and attitudes.
However, while society has been open to change, that has not translated into the whole-of-government. The government as far as the bureaucracies goes, the executives, they’re extremely guarded, traditional and resistant to change, says Supe.
Media and film industry
Radio is extremely interesting in Bhutan as most people, including in rural areas can afford it. Until about 2008, all media was state-owned and run. Just before the political change in 2008, it was understood that Bhutan needs a wider and more prominent media. In that phase, the media was pushing for more space and change, and one could apply for licenses.
The film industry also developed rapidly producing around 10 movies a year by 2010. As in most countries around the world there is commercial and the arty cinema in Bhutan. The commercial cinema rules however and has gone into the direction of Bollywood. Popular narratives are generally on topics surrounding love and romance. Before Bhutan had the ability to make its own movies, Bhutanese grew up on "a staple diet of Bollywood movies", says Supe.
The Happiness Index
The country’s political and economic decisions take people’s individual happiness into consideration. For this purpose, Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index in the 1970s, which has received lots of international attention.
To better understand the logic behind this, one has to look at the context when and why it was introduced. In the 1970s, when the GNH Index was developed, Bhutan was doing very bad measured by traditional economic indices, but was still a fairly happy nation (people had land, etc.). So the index was introduced at a point to include other points of interests as measurements.
Bhutan’s biggest issue: Bureaucracy
Bhutan has similar problems as many other countries, such as increasing debt, unemployment, poverty and corruption. According to Supe, corruption is not that much of concern given that Bhutan is a small country and most people are respectful and to some extent fearful to the king. The biggest issue is however Bhutan’s old bureaucracy system (with British roots, inherited from India), which was initially designed to keep local populations in check and bureaucrats in control. This bureaucratic system has survived until now, undergoing little change. Supe thinks that the country could do far better if bureaucracy improves.
Excursion to Bhutan
Supe highly recommends visiting the Phobjikha Valley – a spectacular wide valley at an elevation of 3’000 meters, where you also find the very endangered black-necked cranes
And try eat: Ema Datshi – the national dish of Bhutan “wild, hot, it’s difficult to eat and will bring tears to your eyes, but worth the experience”, recommends Supe
What to read and watch
Anthony Bourdains’ series Parts Unknown on Bhutan, who gives a good assessment of Bhutan
The History Bhutan, by Karma Phuntsho
So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, by Barbara Crossette, for a better understanding of geopolitics of Bhutan
The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden, fiction and quite revealing about Bhutan’s society and culture
Kunga Tenzin Dorji (Supe), a self-confessed jack-of-all-trades, is a freelance journalist who received the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Prestigious Journalism Award (2016). He contributes to various publications, writes scripts, narrates documentary films and used to host a talk show on Radio Valley 99.9 FM. He is also one of Bhutan’s best-known rock musicians and has acted in several films.
Simona A. Grano is Senior Lecturer at the University of Zurich (UZH) and Director of the Taiwan Studies Project at UZH. She completed her Ph.D. in Chinese Studies at Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Italy. She has held research positions and taught China Studies and Taiwan Studies at her alma mater, at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and at the National Cheng'chi University in Taiwan. She has also been a visiting scholar at the University of Hong Kong and is a research fellow of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), in Tübingen, Germany as well as a research associate of SOAS for the year 2021. Simona's regional expertise centers on the People's Republic of China as well as on Taiwan and Hong Kong. She is the author of Environmental Governance in Taiwan: a new generation of activists and stakeholders, which has been published in 2015 by Routledge. Her new co-edited monograph titled Civil Society and the State in Democratic East Asia: Between Entanglement and Contention in Post High Growth (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) analyzes the dichotomy between civil society and the state in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.