Bhutan is more than a “fallen Shangri-La”

By Georgia Kartas | 08 Jul 15

The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan | UQP

Bhutan has long been a source of fascination for outsiders looking in. This Himalayan kingdom is a traditionally feudal society; it was the last country to get television in 1999, and about 10 per cent of its population are Buddhist monks or nuns. Often perceived as an idyllic Shangri-La, Bhutan brought the world the radical concept of Gross National Happiness. Having only recently opened its doors to the outside world, it is easy to paint an exotic, romantic picture of this unique nation.

In The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan, Dr Bunty Avieson presents a much more complex and multilayered representation of Bhutan. It is part memoir, part sociocultural analysis; she shows us an ancient Buddhist culture transitioning to democracy and embracing new media, and the tensions that result.

Avieson is a journalist and academic who worked as an adviser to the Bhutan Observer, one of Bhutan’s first commercial newspapers, from 2008 to 2009. The book takes place in the wake of the nation’s first democratic elections in 2007, the coronation of its Fifth King in 2008, and the wildfire proliferation of mobile phones, internet and social media that has been taking place since 2004.

Together, these events dog-eared the kingdom’s history pages for revolutionary change, and invited particular scrutiny to its realities – both positive and negative.

“Democracy has arrived in Bhutan without bloodshed,” Avieson writes, “but still the birth is painful. The rapidity of change has left many bewildered.”

And that birthing period reveals conflict. The concept of democracy is often conflated with capitalism to bemusing consequences, as one instance in Avieson’s book illustrates.

“Before the elections a police officer told Kuensel’s Kinley Dorji that a cab driver had objected to being given a speeding ticket, saying, ‘wait until democracy comes in and I have the right to break the rules.’”

This confusion is reflected in the journalistic establishment that Avieson works in. The Fourth King in Bhutan established that part of the role of new newspapers is to hold the government accountable. However, the Bhutanese had lived for centuries beforehand governed by a rigid social hierarchy, in which deference to authority was expected and ingrained. So, despite freedom of press having been written into the new constitution, many reporters faced ministers refusing to talk to them, and found themselves unable to ask hard questions of politicians.

The establishment of an independent press unfurled other issues previously uncharted in a public forum. Avieson explains that what makes news in Bhutan are “familiar topics, such as accidents on the main highway, forest fires and fuel prices, as well as distinctly Bhutanese issues: the royal family, tshechus, yak diseases, potato harvests, stray dogs, elephants trampling maize plantations, and Gross National Happiness”.

“She oscillates between admiration for how the Bhutanese talk about the Gross National Happiness endlessly, deconstructing it and applying it to ‘every facet of their new democracy’, and pessimism about a concept that seems vague, unachievable, subjective and unmeasurable.”

But more contentious topics often arise, one of which is the practice of “night-hunting”. Night-hunting is a rural dating tradition that incited controversial debate when another newspaper, the Bhutan Times, linked the practice to rape – not the first publication to do so.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is also a divisive concept. The Fourth King’s vision for a different path to development based on Bhutan’s own cultural values, Gross National Happiness strives for happiness – not wealth – and for policies that do not cause harm to anyone and will benefit all sentient beings.

The author is honest with how she struggles with the idea of GNH. “The more I live with it, the less I understand,” she writes at one point. She oscillates between admiration for how the Bhutanese talk about the Gross National Happiness endlessly, deconstructing it and applying it to “every facet of their new democracy”, and pessimism about a concept that seems vague, unachievable, subjective and unmeasurable.

An example she cites is when the Bhutan Observer interviews rural villagers after the 2005 Gross National Happiness Commission census reports that 96.4 per cent of the population were “happy” or “very happy”. Remembering what it was like growing up in a poor village, the reporter in question believed that government officials were not getting the full story. He was correct; the villagers told him: “of course we are not happy. We don’t have enough food to eat.”

This response – being subservient to authority, and telling them what they wish to hear – is depicted as inherently Bhutanese. But it was a heartening success story for the paper, which published an extraordinary piece on the reporter’s findings.

“Rabi positioned the role of journalist as neutral and safe, outside the rigid social hierarchy that governs so many Bhutanese interactions. This is the independent media functioning just as the Fourth King intended – going beyond the government view,” Avieson writes.

In recent years, Western media has portrayed Bhutan as the “fallen Shangri-La”, simplistically blaming the introduction of television and failing to recognise that Bhutan had serious documented crime long before television arrived. Avieson’s experiences – such as trespassing and theft in her family’s compound, and the domestic violence their helper, Dolma, suffered – lend sharp, personal insight into this.

“Bhutan is as flawed as any other country, dealing with issues of crime, alcoholism, domestic violence, youth unemployment, racial tensions and poverty,” she writes. “If we are to fully appreciate and learn from Bhutan, then we need to look beyond the clichés we have created.”

Avieson is constantly aware of – and reminds us – the limitations of her perspective as a foreigner in Bhutan. That awareness serves to create a neutral yet intimate, realistic yet optimistic account of a nation seizing the information age in a thoroughly Bhutanese way.

The Dragon’s Voice provides us with a more astute lens than one of exotic mysticism, through which we can better understand an ancient, complex kingdom striving to become the idyllic nation it is perceived to be.

The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan is available from UQP.

Georgia Kartas is a Melbourne-based writer and editor interested in literature, digital media and international relations.