Wednesday, May 15, 2013
In 1776 the British colonies in
rejected tyranny and established a democratic republic, to the consternation of
monarchs everywhere, and the Western World embarked on its “Great Experiment.”
Two hundred years later, in a tiny, ruggedly beautiful, and culturally Medieval
Asian country, a monarch began to dream of his own experiment, and in 2006, to
the consternation of his people, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated
his hereditary power to further his plan for a new constitutional government,
turning the venture of the Americans on its head. America
It would be difficult to deny the similarities between issues the early Americans faced, like the need to build both industry and infrastructure, and what the Bhutanese confront today, but the overall essence of Bhutanese politics is unique and the results of reform will prove telling for any third-world country in its emergent years. King Wangchuck and his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck are attempting to develop practical applications for idealistic political theories that few Westerners can view as less than extraordinarily naive, but early observations offer encouragement.
In 2005, King revealed his proposal for a new constitution to the people of
, a document loaded with
democratic reform (Kingdom). The
constitution took decades of thought and soul-searching to produce by the old
King, who upon his installation in 1972 as the fourth monarch in a kingdom
established by the British in 1907, almost immediately announced his Gross
National Happiness Index (GNH). This quirky title applies specifically to
Buddhist Bodhisattva Wangchuck’s policies, but also expresses his personal
approach to reform. The rather nebulous concept has gelled over a period of
years into a solid body of constitutional policy supported by the “Four
Pillars” of GNH, cultural promotion, good governance, equitable economic
development, and environmental preservation (van Willenswaard 2). Bhutan
Wangchuck knew that small, isolated countries like his, subject to the pressures of Asian politics, have rarely managed to pass the threshold into modernity without revolution and severe social disruption. He carefully designed a new democratic government and constitution for his country, beginning from the assumption that happiness supersedes other more conventional measures of wealth, particularly targeting the standard economic pulse of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as incomplete in scope. During the intervening years between Wangchuck’s initial proffering of his philosophy a cottage industry has arisen to apply flesh to the framework, with a small horde of Bhutanese intellectuals providing contributions, centered at the ubiquitous “Centre for Bhutan Studies,” an independent “think-tank” that enjoys substantial government support. The discussion has become endemic in public discourse, with threads of GNH woven into every aspect of conversation from Bhutanese newspaper coverage, to debate in legislative bodies (“Daydreaming,” People’s 1-28).
In 2006 Jigme Singye Wangchuck became the first absolute monarch ever to relinquish power as part of his commitment to reform, turning the reigns of government over to his son in hopes of affording him experience as head of state before conversion to a new democracy. Jigme Khesar has since proven an enthusiastic purveyor of his father’s ideal. The new constitution, ratified on 18 July 2008, includes much dear to Westerners like limiting powers between branches of government, and separation of church and state (Kingdom). Policy developing from the seed of GNH has included wealth redistribution, protective environmental law, and relocation of rural populations disrupted by infrastructure projects, a ban on public smoking, and a national dress code. The object is to ease
international stage and into the modern era without thoroughly disrupting its
largely agrarian Buddhist culture (Larmer 128-149). It remains to be seen how
this will work. Bhutan
Not everyone likes the changes in
inside the country or from an international perspective, and the Wangchuck camp
acknowledges its plan as highly ambitious. Many Bhutanese view the whole notion
of democracy with a jaundiced eye, expressing a conservative preference for a
status quo supported by their religious appreciation for the King as a
Bodhisattva, the “Druk Gyalpo,” or Dharma King of Bhutan (Larmer 131). Foreigners
remain skeptical. Observers point out that idealistic doctrine notwithstanding,
the country still faces a virtually non-existent infrastructure, a
long-standing low-tech agricultural economy in a mountainous geography,
political realities for a strategically important zone surrounded by powerful
and at least latently hostile countries, and internal ethnic concerns the
handling of which has brought perhaps the harshest criticisms of Bhutan since
ratifying its new constitution. Bhutan
Daunting matters abound. Poverty hampers any development effort in
, a country with a GDP of
only $3.294 billion in 2008, and little level ground with which to work. Very
few passable roads exist, with goods often transported by foot or in small
carts, and though 12% of the GDP comes from hydroelectricity exports to China
and India, only about 12% of total electricity produced is used in country
because the bulk of the population has no use for it. For perspective, in a
country about the size of Switzerland, with a population just under 700,000,
there exist only about 11,000 television sets, 30,000 telephone connections,
and about 5,000 km of paved roads (“World,” sec. 5; National). Bhutan
The low-budget lives of many Bhutanese raise issues when government efforts at planning come to play, for instance, when in attempts to prevent dislocation of rural populations resulting from infrastructure projects, officials shuffle farmers to ostensibly more productive land. The principle behind this move keeps economic disruption from forcing impoverished subsistence farmers to enter dead-end pursuits in the lower strata of the urban milieu, and to keep the crop base that feeds the population viable. The politics of this kind of forced removal often engenders contention, especially when it involves minority ethnic Nepalese, as it frequently does, whom the Bhutanese simply deport, often to countries that do not accept them. This presents only one of the issues that come to the fore in the play between Bhutan and China, and Bhutan and India, both of which neighboring countries see Bhutan as a useful buffer, and often dispute Bhutan’s authority (Walcott 3).
In spite of problems with implementation,
notable progress pursuing “Gross National Happiness,” and other governments and
institutions are taking notice. Life expectancy ballooned 72% since 1972. Adult
literacy has risen by 42% to 59.5% of total population (Walcott 5). Planners
have made long strides in areas such as taxation, land preservation, and
economic and infrastructure development. The whole undertaking still seems a
work in progress, and lively debate dominates local discussion. Two political
parties have formed, if only to apply an ideal, since the parties display
little difference (Larmer 130). Satisfaction still eludes some, but Bhutan ’s
government seems genuinely committed to felicitous reform, establishing
vigorous commissions and accessible avenues of communication. Reassuring his
tentatively willing subjects, Jigme Singye Wangchuck said: Bhutan
“looking at the improvement in the living standard of our communities, which were never heard of before, we are reassured without any doubt that our goals will be achieved well in future just as in the past. We now understand more about our incomplete works, our inabilities and the problems that arise with development activities” (qtd. in Nishimizu, sec. 5).
In spite of his choppy English, Wangchung’s evident concern for his people comes through as nearly palpable as he encourages them to ease into embracing an expansive new way of life.
The crux of
and the policies it engenders is a respect for traditional culture. Both the
elder and the younger Wangchuck exhibit awareness that entrance to the new
global forum is both necessary to his country’s well-being, and inevitable in
some form or another. In the past, development efforts in Bhutan Third
World countries have come from the top down, planned and executed
by economists and technocrats with little regard for cultural matters viewing
traditional culture as a superfluous impediment (Daskon 168-9). The
orchestrators behind GNH policies want to pioneer a method of both measure and
practice whereby the religious, rural, traditional culture of and its
people participate actively in the emergence of the country onto the world
stage. Physical and economic development are viewed as secondary to points of
national identity, comfort, and welfare, and projects focused on developing a
sense of cultural pulse are initiated before rushing in with bulldozers and
bank loans. This is in stark contrast, one might note, to proceedings in many
of the most troubled parts of the world. Bhutan
Even accounting for physical development headaches, perhaps the most ambitious of these cultural projects is the nearly 300 line GNH Index questionnaire aggressively disseminated across all societal lines. The index represents a substantial departure from measurements that account for only economic measurements of progress, and exposes a much gentler philosophical basis. Added to what most Westerners wound normally consider germane to economics, the GNH Index survey seeks to measure such variables as the number of yaks owned by a household, room occupancy in the house, the popularity of traditional festivals and activities, health and meditation practices, and in short, happiness (“Gross”). “We have to think of human well-being in broader terms," said Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley,
minister and ex-prime minister. "Material well-being is only one
component. That doesn't ensure that you're at peace with your environment and
in harmony with each other" (qtd. in Revkin, par. 13). The objective is
not to make the country rich by
materialistic standards, but rich in a broader, metaphysical sense. Only after
exhaustively measuring and merging the broad Bhutanese cultural climate as well
as possible do officials allow necessarily disruptive projects or policies
allowed to commence. Bhutan
Others in the international community have taken note, with discussion of GNH cropping up everywhere from United Nations fora to political discussion in the
(Revkin). In his recent London
Financial Times piece, Simon Briscoe even pointed out the similarity between U.S. Bhutan’s overarching programs and the possible
new president finds himself forced to pursue (par.10). America
The Bhutanese, it appears, are chasing democracy because the King says they should. Likely no one but the Dharma King, the “King of the Way Things Ought to Be,” could have convinced his conservative, impishly Buddhist people in favor of the drastic transformation inherent in the changeover he has instigated.
Up to now, the Wangchungs’ plan seems effectual. Though the pace of life remains comparatively slow, the new mingles with the old, with Buddhist teenagers break dancing on the new television program “Bhutanese Idol,” to the bemusement of their elders, and Western styles tentatively emerging in city centers (Larmer 127). Standards of living, health, and felicity are rising in spite of transformation and an expected modicum of turmoil. Unlike other developing countries suffering severe population disturbances while elites wrangle over resources, in
, families continue to hold
strong, and the countryside atmosphere remains stable. Education and literacy
have become both valued and broadly supported. Revolution and upheaval are
nowhere in sight. Disagreements find redress in a newly empowered and revamped
court system. Happy reform gains new ground in every aspect of Bhutanese life
with each fresh glance. Bhutan
The new administration always meant for its country to mount the world stage, and as it does, the West takes it all in, to the extent that
garners attention at all. Many of Bhutan ’s renovated policies show a
recognizably Western influence with a singularly Bhutanese spin. Maybe we
Westerners would do well to study the Bodhisattvas’ logic before we rush into
sweeping changes of our own. Bhutan
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’s Enlightened Experiment.” National
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