A year after the legalization of television in Bhutan, Orville Schell, longtime observer of Asian affairs, returned to this sequestered kingdom to assess how it was faring with its new digital influences. He also examined the new challenges facing the nation in meeting a growing demand for information technology.
Schell, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, most recently is the author of Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood (Henry Holt & Company, 2001).
Looking down from Kungachoeling Monastery through fluttering prayer flags to the blindingly green rice paddies of the Paro River Valley below, one feels utterly escaped from the surly bonds of Earth. Not far from me, a solemn monk lights incense before the Buddha. In the silence of this remote and lovely refuge–one of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan’s hundreds of functioning Tibetan Buddhist shrines–computer chips, frequent flyer miles, the World Trade Organization, and IPOs seem part of another world.
Especially here on the Indian subcontinent, awash in corruption, ethnic struggle, illiteracy, pollution, poverty, and the clash of civilizations, Bhutan’s pacifism, paternalism, and egalitarianism stand apart. It is hardly surprising that people here often speak of “the outside world” as if it were another celestial body. Under the spell of this tranquil monastery, the unexpected hum of distant engines is like an unwelcome tocsin awaking one from reverie. I spot a minuscule white dot against a peak as one of Druk Air’s two small planes drifts down out of the cumulus clouds toward the country’s only airfield.
The yearning of postmodern Westerners to escape the velvet shackles of our hard-won progress to places like Bhutan is hardly new. In 1921, when the British governor of Bengal, Lord Ronaldshay, visited Bhutan, he too felt intoxicated at the idea of leaving the aggressive, modern world behind. “Just as Alice, when she walked through the looking glass, found herself in a new and whimsical world,” he effused, “so we, when we crossed the Pa Chu [and entered Bhutan], found ourselves as though caught up on some magic time machine fitted fantastically with a reverse.”
From such accounts, a Western fabric of mythology was woven, one that allows the tourism industry even today to proclaim Bhutan as “the last Shangri-La.” No larger than Switzerland but with a population of less than 700,000, Bhutan is, in fact, a place of peace and natural beauty. Indeed, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck refers to his country as “a paradise on earth.” It boasts awesome snow-capped mountains, including Gangkhar Puensum, which, at 22,623 feet, is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Climbers are not permitted to scale these peaks lest they “disturb the spirits.” It has abundant wildlife, including 165 species of mammal, like the endangered snow leopard, golden langur, and takin. Because a 1995 law mandates that 60 percent of Bhutan’s land must remain forested (while another 26 percent is already protected as parkland), it has extensive virgin forestlands. And its pastoral villages are filled with friendly people who show few signs of modern dispossession or malaise, perhaps because their government spends almost 18 percent of its national budget on education and health care (compared with only 2 to 3 percent for a country like China).
“The real appeal of Bhutan is that we feel human,” says Tshewang Dendup, a graduate of the documentary film program at the University of California, Berkeley, who now works at the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. “Maybe we are somewhat isolated from the world, but we feel part of a living community that is not just connected by wires. That’s why 95 percent of us exchange students return home. By and large, you would have to say people are happy here.”
But “one way or another, change is coming,” King Wangchuck told the former New York Times South Asia correspondent Barbara Crossette a few years ago. “Being a small country, we do not have economic power. We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role, because of our small size and population and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor we can fall back on . . . which can strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty and our different identity is the unique culture we have.” And so the government has kept a tight grip on matters of culture, which have grown out of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism. In 1999, only 7,000 foreign visitors were granted visas, and for 2000 the figure rose only to 7,559. Police are empowered to detain any Bhutanese not wearing official national dress, the robelike gho for men and the jacket and apronlike kira for women. It was perfectly in keeping with this strict but benign paternalism that the King should proclaim that “gross national happiness is more important than gross national product” because “happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity in our national development process.”
“Happiness has usually been considered a utopian issue,” acknowledged Bhutan’s foreign minister, Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, at a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) meeting in Seoul, Korea, in 1998. But he emphasized that because an “individual’s quest for happiness and inner and outer freedom is the most precious endeavor, society’s ideal of governance and polity should promote this endeavor.” What is needed, he continued, is “to ask how the dramatic changes propelling us into the 21st century will affect prospects for happiness [and] how information technology will affect people’s happiness.”
These were good questions, because only half a year later the Internet and television, both locally broadcast programs and imported cable channels, were due to arrive, and it was tempting to view Bhutan as a kind of a nouvelle canary in the cyber mine shaft. So, just a year after the advent of these two tectonic technologies, I traveled to this Buddhist kingdom, which had been so determined to maintain its own identity, to see how it was weathering the penetration of the information and entertainment highways.
One thing was immediately obvious: whereas the old controls on trade, tourism, and foreign investment had depended on limiting physical access, Bhutan was now confronting new and more elusive kinds of globalizing influences that would not be impeded by mountains, rivers, and jungles. TV and the Internet had radically recast the terms of intrusion, and many Bhutanese were worried about what Dasho Meghraj Gurung, the managing director of the country’s postal service, Bhutan Post, characterizes as “the negative aspects of modernization” and “the mad race for the acquisition of material things in life . . . which lead to a lack of public accountability.”
Walking past the main intersection in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, only the most attentive person would notice the small blue and white sign that hangs unobtrusively beneath a second-floor window announcing a cybercafé. Upstairs, there is only a small room decorated with a single Buddha image dangling from a wall switch and three homemade booths equipped with ancient computers. Pema Wangchuck, a shy 20-something who had been trained in India, tells me that he opened the cybercafé in this rented room a month ago, making it one of the first two Internet beachheads in Thimphu. He charges 3 ngultrum ($0.07) per minute to go online.
“Until recently, all I knew of the Internet was what I read in books and magazines, but I believed the Internet was something extraordinary,” Mr. Wangchuck says. “Now, as I understand it better, I see that it really is a boon. If people learn how to use IT, the benefit could be infinite, because it will help break our isolation and give us easy access to the world!”
When I ask him if his customers come in just to surf the Net, he somewhat despondently replies, “It’s so expensive that they get nervous about the cost. So it’s mostly just girls who come in to answer a little email. It’s not yet for everybody’s pocket. Most will have to just remain excited.” Mr. Wangchuck says that the main challenge confronting his incipient business is simply connecting to the Internet–all 32 dial-up lines to DrukNet, Bhutan’s only ISP, were busy so often.
DrukNet was inaugurated on June 2, 1999, as part of the silver jubilee of King Wangchuck’s coronation (druk means “dragon” in Bhutan’s official language, Dzongkha). It was initially conceived as providing only intracountry email service, a hermetically sealed communications system that would keep the rest of the world at bay. But the king finally concluded that Bhutanese should be able to navigate the entire World Wide Web like most other people. The DrukNet inauguration ceremony, which was attended by chanting monks and Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the eldest of a quartet of sister-queens, heralded the king as the “Light of the Cyber Age.”
Despite the royal fanfare, DrukNet functions much like any small ISP. “I don’t think we’ll make any profit for several years, but we must factor in the social service aspect of our business,” says Ganga Sharma, a young engineer of Nepali extraction who was trained in the United States as a Fulbright Fellow at the Florida Institute of Technology and oversees DrukNet’s hardware. As we talked, he stood admiring his Dell PowerEdge Server at the telecommunications division of the Ministry of Communications. Its blinking lights indicated that all available lines to the outside world through British Telecommunications’ Concert UK hookup were being used by Bhutan’s 600 Internet subscribers.
Part of DrukNet’s mandate is to provide, at the same cost, service from any point in Bhutan. This means that someone going online in a provincial town over a local phone line connected by microwave links to the capital pays the same phone and user charges as someone next door to the server. The hope was, and still is, that more schools, tour companies, businesses, and government offices around the country will thus be encouraged to go online. If successful, DrukNet will help Bhutan leap-frog the landline phase of the telecommunications revolution and go right to microwave links.
When I raise the question of access to undesirable sites–no small concern in a traditionalist country that has been so dedicated to filtering out objectionable influences–Mr. Sharma acknowledges that DrukNet did censor certain sights with some X-Stop gateway hardware from a company in California. No one I talked to, however, including the vice minister of communications, seemed deeply concerned about the kinds of First Amendment issues that such censorship would raise in the United States.
At the end of 2001, DrukNet had almost 1,000 dial-up customers. Bhutanese tour and trekking companies, the mainstay of the country’s fragile economy, have become some of the Internet’s biggest enthusiasts. Where previously they had to fax brochures to hundreds of overseas travel agents and call clients, now, the manager of one trekking company told me, the use of Web sites and email has reduced their international phone bills by 90 percent. By the end of its first year, DrukNet hosted 15 new Web sites.
One of the leaders of Bhutan’s cyberrevolution is 38-year-old Umesh Pradhan, a bright Nepali with a master’s degree from George Washington University. After working with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Mr. Pradhan set up a software consulting and training firm. But with the arrival of DrukNet, he rented a two-room suite at Jojo’s, Thimphu’s first shopping arcade, moved in eight computers, and opened an Internet café. When I visited Jojo’s, it was under construction, but it would soon have a laundromat, a nightclub, a restaurant, and a food court, as well as Mr. Pradhan’s InfoTech Solutions Café.
In the spring of 2000, something quite unexpected occurred. Kuensel, Bhutan’s only newspaper, happened to mention Mr. Pradesh’s café. The BBC picked up the story from Kuensel‘s Web site, and then Time magazine ran an item. Suddenly quaint little Bhutan, hitherto known to the outside world as the last holdout against the wages of technolust, became something of a cybercelebrity. Alas, the publicity may have been global, but it hardly brought a stampede of customers to Mr. Pradhan’s café.
“The problem is that there are only three or four people in Thimphu who are real IT pros, and there is not yet any real entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Pradhan complains. “The government has spent all these years putting its heads in the sand, and now the gap is growing. The question is: could they really catch up and take advantage of this revolution?”
But there is another question: did they want to catch up? Or did Bhutan want to continue marching to a somewhat different drummer? After all, gross national happiness may not be advanced by jumping too recklessly into the gale-force winds of the global marketplace and technological change.
Mr. Pradhan is clear about what Bhutan should do, and he sees people’s interest in email as having already “broken” initial resistance to the Internet. He stands in the hallway outside his “café” with his American friend Bob Morgenthaler, a sometimes consultant and something of a Bhutan groupie, and unrolls a set of floor plans for the future. Gesticulating grandly, he and Mr. Morgenthaler describe which walls they are going to knock down to expand the café, where the food court is going in, and how other shops will turn Jojo’s into “one-stop shopping.”
“I don’t buy this pure Shangri-La thing,” interjects Mr. Morgenthaler. “To publicize Bhutanese culture and give it a stake in the cyberworld is to save it. I mean, there are already over 20 video rental stores in Thimphu. Some people here have seen more video movies than anyone on the planet! And don’t forget, lots of people have long had satellite dishes. A small place like this needs the Internet even more than a large place. Bhutan’s one college will never have the library resources of a big university abroad, so the Internet is the perfect answer.”
The presence of DrukNet has started to have a catalytic effect on sleepy Thimphu. For example, Bede Key, an English expatriate who worked with the British Voluntary Service Overseas and then married a Bhutanese woman, set up the Visual Institute of Technology with a Bhutanese partner, Singye Dorji. Their goal was not only to train Bhutanese to use computers, but to develop an indigenous software industry.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” admits Mr. Key, whose drip-dry white shirt, black trousers, tufty hair, and manner of speaking in acronyms would enable him to share in the community of international geekdom anywhere. “Eighty percent of Bhutanese language software is developed outside the country,” he says, with outrage tingeing his voice. “The challenge is to redress the balance and to build self-reliance here by developing the export of IT.”
As Mr. Key sees it, the foundations for this seemingly improbable dream are actually pretty solid. “Bhutan has a very young population [45 percent of its citizens are under 15 years of age] and growing unemployment among its rapidly increasing class of educated young people,” he says. “And there are probably a good number of ex-pats who wouldn’t mind doing a little time here in ‘Shangri-La.'”
As reluctant as some in the government might have been to open Bhutan to the outside world, the minister of communications formed a division of information technology to help plan Bhutan’s technological future.
“I admit I’m a computer buff,” says Kinley Dorji (Dorji is a common Bhutanese surname), the head of the division, as we meet in his small office, where he sits in his gho in front of a new computer monitor. “But we’re just beginning. How are we going to do it all? Right now I have no idea.” The bright, energetic Cornell University MBA gives a self-deprecating laugh. “We also have to develop a private sector, because sufficient motivation will not come out of the bureaucracy. But our market is small, so it’s hard to find people to fund projects. We need to prove that we are entrepreneurs before we’ll ever get capital. So possibilities of success are not immediately great.”
I ask Kinley Dorji about resistance to getting Bhutan online.
“Things are moving too fast even for America, so imagine how people feel here!” he exclaims. “Sure, our government is a little reluctant. What they say is: Do we know enough about IT to avoid harm? Everyone worries about pornography. TV and the Internet will, of course, infringe on the time people spend at monastery festivals.
“We should give credit to our government’s policy and the way the idea of Bhutan as something unique has helped protect us. The answer isn’t to say that we don’t want the Internet and all that it brings. At some point, more involvement with the world is inevitable. Instead of looking at it with fear, let’s look at it as an opportunity and trust in our record of balancing things. Remember, most remote islands connected to the Internet long ago. It kills distance. Think of it! It’s a bit utopian but a powerful image of the Internet’s promise.”
If Druk Air–with only several flights a week, the smallest national carrier in the world–can be described as “small pipes,” the Internet offers Bhutan large pipes. But perhaps the largest pipes now linking Bhutan to the outside belong to another arriviste medium. Until spring of 1999, Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world without television. At the same time that the Internet was inaugurated, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) started a nightly one-hour TV news and variety show. But the effect of this event paled in comparison with the jolt caused by the arrival of cable television from beyond Bhutan’s protective mountain ranges. While some had already bought illegal satellite dishes, it was not until several local cable companies set up shop that ordinary people truly entered mondo cable.
Dago Beda, the cheerful and energetic managing director of Etho Metho Treks and Tours, is an astute business person who basically fell into the cable business. In 1999, she and her partner, Rinzy Dorji, began hooking up local subscribers to a satellite dish.
“We weren’t sure what would happen,” she coyly tells me in her office overlooking Thimphu’s only movie theater. “But then all the government said to us was, ‘No overhead lines, please.’ So we took the lines down. We’ve done a lot of digging for underground cables since!”
Everyone, it seemed, was a bit surprised when the government did nothing. “We just started to do what we wanted, but we ourselves thought that BBS should have done cable,” Ms. Beda continues, shrugging diffidently. “Finally, they made some rules. So we applied and then got a license.”
Thus was born Sigma Cable Service, offering 26 channels, including Home Box Office, Star Plus, BBC, Turner Network Television, Cartoon Network, MTV, and ten pay-for-view channels. Sigma charges 1,500 nu ($52) for a hook-up and a 200 nu ($7) monthly subscription fee. By the beginning of 2002, Sigma had signed up about 3,000 subscribers.
“But you know, when TV finally did come on in June 1999, I really felt a little sorry,” she says, suddenly turning somewhat triste. “Gone are the days when we were so naive, when people just talked together, read, and gardened rather than let the TV tell us how it should be. Now we’ve entered a new world.”
If she feels so ambivalent about this “new world,” why did she become part of the cable-ization of Bhutan?
“Well, I thought better us than someone else,” she explains. “We, at least, can control things. Once we attain our target, I want to review all our channels. We want the BBC, Hallmark Channel, and Nature, but I want to get rid of the action and professional wrestling channel.” She grows increasingly indignant. “I want to say to our viewers that they should not watch this trash! I mean, we still have a moral duty to our kids, and we do care for our country! We can always go to the government and ask them to control it.”
It was confusing to hear Ms. Beda criticize something being shown on her own cable system as if she were somehow not involved with it being there. When I point out the obvious contradiction, she just sighs. “The problem comes from too much freedom. TV has happened outside, and it’s going to happen here,” she says. “But how do we go about keeping TV or the Internet in balance? Maybe it can happen differently in Bhutan. So far, we have managed, because if there is one thing we Bhutanese have, it’s our culture to anchor us against the world.”
But this cultural safeguard is precisely what the advent of the Internet and cable threaten. In fact, since the advent, nothing has agitated the Bhutanese quite so much as the sudden appearance on their screens of beefy World Wrestling Federation ogres body-slamming each other in a way that is hardly calculated to earn much good karma.
The Sigma office is on Thimphu’s main street in a dusty shop where a pack of young children are often playing on the stoop, sometimes dressing up like American professional wrestlers and imitating their theatrical style of fighting. When I visit one evening, I find a bored young woman, Deychan Dema, inside behind a rickety table with a phone and an order pad with carbon paper. (Bhutan is the only place where I have seen carbon paper in the last decade.) The office is decorated with a few tattered posters and the de rigueur portrait of the king above gritty shelves of soft drinks and beer. A glassy-eyed boy sits before a new color TV, surfing desultorily, with a remote, between TNT, the Cartoon Network, MTV, and an action film.
Rinzy Dorji, Ms. Beda’s partner was out of the office. In fact, he had been out ever since a saboteur mysteriously started cutting Sigma cables several days earlier. Like a county lineman, Rinzy Dorji was trying to restore service to those customers deprived of their nightly 26-channel fix.
“When football is on, people now stay up very late,” says Ms. Dema, a neighborhood girl hired to answer Sigma’s phone, sheepishly. “And kids know exactly when the World Wrestling Federation is on. I like wrestling and Popeye.”
“In terms of actually putting controls in effect, I think the government sort of gave up on TV,” complains Kinlay Dorjee, who works for the World Wildlife Fund. “We have strict controls on foreign investment, although I hear this may change. But we have no such controls on television. And now we are also getting hooked on the Internet. Suddenly we find ourselves stuck in front of so many screens! It has become a kind of compulsion, so that we feel it was almost like ignoring God, or Buddha, to not answer our screens!”
Actually, it may not be long before Bhutanese have only one screen to answer. While cable service presently has no connection to the Internet, part of the reason that Ms. Beda and Rinzy Dorji were interested in cable was because they understood that ultimately it could provide pipes for the Internet as well.
Kinley Dorji, the Columbia University-educated editor of Kuensel, has equipped his office with new computers, many of which are linked to the Internet over modem. He is an articulate man of about 40 whose wire-rimmed glasses and tousled hair provide an interesting counterpoint to his pert, gray gho with white cuffs.
As we sit chatting in his office, I ask him how he views all the changes rocking Bhutan. “TV and the Internet are very new to us, and their impact on family and society has not been fully understood,” he says without hesitation. “After all, we are talking about a traditional society that only recently came out of isolation. We feel vulnerable. In the past, we always saw these threats in the form of physical occupation. But with TV and the Internet, we must now fear a new threat–a kind of aerial threat.”
A wistful look began to furrow Kinley Dorji’s brow. “It’s not that TV and the Internet are bad, but that we’re so small, unprepared, and vulnerable. To use things like TV and the Internet intelligently and not lose our uniqueness, our people need to be better educated. If you let a subsistence Himalayan farmer watch sexy girls in five-star hotel pools, . . . ” his sentence trails off. “Well, you have to ask: do human beings ever learn without going through these mistakes themselves?”
This issue is being pondered by Karma Ura, an Oxford-educated author and the director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a government organization that is very much involved in questions of cultural preservation and national identity in Bhutan. “I thought, well, since the king is controlling things at the helm, he should control TV, too,” says Mr. Ura. “But then, he let go. If all barriers are broken down, then all decisions will become economic.” It is rare, indeed, in Bhutan to hear anyone criticize the king so directly.
When I ask Yeshey Jimba, Bhutan’s minister of finance about cable and pro wrestling, he pauses. “There is no doubt that TV is now uncontrolled,” he finally replies. “But to do anything about it leads to criticism of being authoritarian, and we Bhutanese are freedom-loving people.” He smiles wanly. “Anyway, in certain ways I think the days of such control are over.”
Indeed, when I ask him about the prospect of allowing foreign investment in Bhutan, he hints that it would not be long before changes would be made here as well. Until 2001, Bhutan had a uniquely strict policy against foreign investment; the only outside development monies permitted were aid projects funded by the United Nations and such benign countries as Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland. This policy changed when two Bhutanese companies engaged in the development of the country’s tourism infrastructure were permitted to form joint ventures with several Singaporean and Indian investment groups to build first-class resorts and hotels.
When I ask Mr. Jimba about the Internet, he flips his bright orange minister’s sash, or kabne, over the shoulder of his checkered gho and points proudly to a new computer on his desk. “I’ve only had it two days,” he crows with pride. “We have to embrace the Internet, learn from it as much as possible, and use it to good effect. But we must also inculcate respect for our culture and values in our people, thereby building up our own strength and resistance.”
As we talk, I hear the chanting of monks begin from across the courtyard of the Taschichoedzong, the fort-cum-monastery that was the ancient summer residence of the government and clergy and that presently houses the offices of the king and Je Khenpo, Bhutan’s spiritual patriarch. Mr. Jimba is himself a practicing Buddhist, as are most officials in Bhutan’s government. As soon as he notices me listening to the chanting, he triumphantly proclaims, “You see? Right over there, we have monks! Buddhism here won’t weaken!”
In the contest of cable TV and the World Wide Web vs. Buddhism, it’s hard to say which will prevail. The fates of other traditional societies, from Alaska to Bali, Mongolia, and Tahiti, that are struggling to keep their cultural balance through “selective modernization” do not inspire great optimism. But Bhutan is a curious holdout where the kind of go-go entrepreneurial energy that has besieged so much of the hyperkinetic global marketplace has been kept in abeyance. Bhutan, a small, reluctant Buddhist refuge, seeks to measure its progress in long-term kalpas (a measure of millions of years in the Buddhist faith) of good karma and gross national happiness rather than in quarterly corporate bottom lines. But now, as the siren song of the outside world’s infatuation with IT (never mind global terror) begins to reverberate throughout Bhutan, even in this once quintessentially isolated Himalayan land, a debate about globalization is gathering intensity.
Unlike countries where the only concern is how to get a bigger piece of the global market, Bhutan, at least, is debating the wager. In fact, the deputy minister of communications, Leki Dorji, tells me that he has undertaken a survey on the effects of the Internet and TV and is hoping to organize a media-advisory committee to “do some soul-searching” about formulating a coherent media policy. In almost every conversation, two starkly contradictory imperatives are implicit: control heterodox influences from outside lest they corrupt Bhutanese culture, or open up to gain the obvious benefits of the larger world’s hybrid vigor.
But one would have to conclude that Bhutan has passed an important milestone in convergence with the outside world. Even one of the architects of gross national happiness, current chairman of the Council of Ministers and foreign minister Jigmi Thinley, agrees. “We can continue to be cautious, but being cautious does not mean shutting our eyes,” he tells me in his office upstairs from the National Assembly.
“Shutting our eyes and cloistering ourselves as we did at one time during the policy of isolation served us once. But then we took the conscious decision to strengthen our sovereignty through involvement in the world. That means some intrusion, and we are prepared for that.”
What about maintaining the integrity of Bhutan’s vaunted traditional culture?
“Some people tend to look at culture as static, but actually culture is always evolving,” he replies emphatically. “It is a tool, and when a tool becomes obsolete, you have to change it.”
Perhaps, then, for this hesitant land to be electronically linked to the outside is not so bad. After all, such interaction does not involve invading armies, legions of businessmen, or phalanxes of ganja-fueled backpackers. On both the Internet and TV, unwelcome intrusions by real people can still be kept at bay.
“Yes, we need money, but we should never forget that money is not the end,” emphasizes the division of information technology’s Kinley Dorji. “Whenever indigenous people meet with outsiders, the indigenous people seem to lose. The difference between a physical occupation and a virtual one could be huge. So, while it still may be hard to get to Bhutan physically as a place, we may nonetheless connect it more closely to the outside world.” He pauses a moment and then adds somewhat tentatively, “Maybe I just see the bright side.”
When Queen Wangchuck, who like her three sisters now has an email address, attended the opening of DrukNet in 1999, she optimistically described “Bhutan’s dream for the Internet” as being a window through which her people “will gain access to the whole world without ever having to leave the tranquility of their tiny remote villages.”
The thought of cable television and the Internet tamed and harnessed to minuscule Bhutan’s humanism is an enchanting dream. But the real question is not simply how well the government succeeds in controlling traditional physical invaders, but whether the Bhutanese and their culture will be strong enough to resist virtual influences.
“The challenge is this: can a nice tshechu dance at a monastery compete with the World Wrestling Federation?” asks Kay Kirby, a former Los Angeles Times editor who married a Bhutanese and moved to Thimphu more than six years ago. “Since people are very aware here, if any place can survive the onslaught, Bhutan can. Until now, Bhutanese culture has held its own. This may be wishful thinking, but I have hope.” Everyone, it seems, is a little suspicious of optimism.
By the end of 2001, the BBS had expanded its nightly television programming. But the most seductive entrant in the television wars was still cable. Around Thimpu, it was all too familiar a sight to see young Bhutanese boys dressed up like Andre the Giant, the Undertaker, or Dude mock body-slamming each other as they played, as if the Lord Buddha was the patron saint of the World Wrestling Federation.
Internet use in Bhutan, too, is growing rapidly. In September 2001, DrukNet added another upstream provider–KDTI in Japan–and had almost 1,000 dial-up customers and about 40 Web sites. A survey by the Bhutan division of information technology found an acute shortage of people trained in IT skills. This, despite the fact that, in addition to the pioneering Visual Institute of Technology, Bhutan now boasts six private IT training institutes. Also, the first two cybercafés in Thimphu now find themselves in competition with four other upstarts, including one run by Bhutan’s postal service and another called Digital Shangri-La. Mr. Pradhan’s Internet café at Jojo’s is going strong, with several new rooms of computers; he is even providing computer-literacy training to a complement of Bhutanese policemen.
Perhaps for this small landlocked kingdom, the arrival of the Internet and cable TV will be providence. Indeed, even as virtual video images from outside the country were cascading into Bhutan at the end of last year, the country’s tourist industry was contracting, hammered by the global economic downturn, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and technical problems with tiny Druk Air. As of the beginning of October, only 4,460 tourists had managed to arrive physically in 2001, just more than half the number of the previous year.
“Yes, we are vulnerable,” admits Mr. Dendup at the BBS. But he insists that with one cross-country road that is blocked by snow in winter and landslides in summer, and with one airline composed of only two planes that often cannot fly because of bad weather, technology is just what Bhutan needs. “For example, take my father who is a priest at a temple,” he playfully told me several months ago. “When I recently bought him a CD player, he didn’t even know what it was. Now he brings it out every time monks come for a puja ceremony. And what does he play? Religious music! He has taken this new high-tech thing and put it to his own uses! We have a saying in Bhutan: ‘If it is medicine, you should take it from an enemy. But if it is poison, you should refuse it from a friend.'”
“Gross National Happiness,” by Orville Schell. Originally published in Red Herring, January 15, 2002.