Mobile phones bring 'last Shangri-La' Bhutan into the modern world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 2:01am


Sitting in his office in Bhutan's sleepy capital, newspaper editor Tenzing Lamsang muses on the dramatic impact of cell-phone technology on a remote Himalayan kingdom known as the last Shangri-La.

"Bhutan is jumping from the feudal age to the modern age," said Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese biweekly and online journal. "It's bypassing the industrial age."

As the last country in the world to get television and one which measures its performance with a Gross National Happiness yardstick, Bhutan might have been expected to be a hold-out against mobile technology.

While monks clad in traditional saffron robes remain a common sight on the streets of Thimphu, they now have to dodge cell-phone users whose eyes are glued to their screens.

Bhutan has a largely rural population of just 750,000, but its two cellular networks have 550,000 subscribers. And the last official figures in 2012 showed more than 120,000 Bhutanese had mobile internet connectivity.

Wedged between China and India, the sparsely populated "Land of the Thunder Dragon" only got its first TV sets in 1999, at a time when fewer than a quarter of households had electricity.

Thanks to a massive investment in hydropower, nearly every household is now hooked up to the electricity grid.

The radical change in lifestyle has coincided with an equally dramatic transformation of the political system, with the monarchy ceding absolute power and allowing elections in 2008.

The second nationwide elections took place last year, bringing Tshering Tobgay, a charismatic former civil servant, into office.

In a recent interview, Tobgay underlined how he regarded technology as a force for good and not something to be resisted.

"Technology is not destructive. It's good and can contribute to prosperity for Bhutan.

"Cellular phones became a reality 10 years ago. We adopted it very well, almost everybody has a cellular phone, that's the reality."

The prime minister's own Facebook page has more than 25,000 followers.

Lamsang says social media had "a largely positive role" to play in the fledgling democracy as a way of raising awareness in government circles about a range of issues. He said there were now 80,000 Facebook users in Bhutan.


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