Saving Shangri-La

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

Sangay Chamo, a 15-year-old who lives in the rolling green hills of western Bhutan, leads a life remarkably similar to that of her great-grandmother nearly a century ago. The farmer's daughter lives in her ancestral village, reachable only by foot on a narrow dusty track. Here, every house is built in stone and wood and decorated with images of demons and dragons.

Sangay dresses in a centuries-old kira outfit: a long, colourful, sarong-type skirt worn with a short jacket. Every day, she and her mother collect water from the old communal village pump. And every few months, she attends a traditional Buddhist festival in the town below, an event she describes as 'my favourite thing'.

But Sangay expects her life to change. Last week, Bhutan, which had been ruled by kings for more than a century, became the world's newest democracy. In the run-up to the country's first elections, politicians promised a rush of modernisation - more roads, more electricity, more jobs - in this tiny Himalayan country.

'We're hoping for a road,' Sangay said, beaming as she pointed at the dirt track winding from her village down the peaceful valley. 'And shops. I hope Bhutan will have lots of shops.'

New roads and shops might not sound like much, but in remote Bhutan, often described as the world's last Shangri-La, they could constitute a very great change.

The five kings who have ruled Bhutan, wedged between India and China, have fiercely guarded it against the outside world. Until 1974, no foreign journalists were allowed inside the country. Television was banned until 1999. Visitors are still banned from climbing many of the country's sacred mountains.

The kings legislated on many aspects of life, from clothing to building design. The result is a country of exceptional, unspoiled beauty with an undiluted indigenous culture.

The largest buildings are not hotels or office blocks but dzongs: huge, whitewashed fortresses that house Buddhist seminaries, temples and administrative offices. Every house and building is built in a handsome old style; even petrol stations have decorative painted roofs and the country's only airport must be the prettiest in the world.

In Bhutan, most men still wear the gho: a kimono-type gown worn with knee-length socks and brogues. Women wear the kira.

Archery, a game that reached its apex in England in the Middle Ages, remains more popular than football or cricket. A few years ago, when a traffic light was erected in the capital, Thimphu, there was an outcry: today, cars are directed by smartly dressed, elegantly waving street police. No one expects any of this to disappear overnight. The party that won the election, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, has sworn that it will adhere to the king's vision of how the country should be.

Soon after the election result was announced, Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's first democratically elected prime minister, said he would 'look to the future with confidence and knowledge that we will have the guidance and wisdom' of the king. Bhutan's election body is expected to certify the victory on Saturday, giving the party the go-ahead to form a government.

Mr Thinley has been described as the more royalist of the two prime ministerial candidates, even though his rival, Sangay Ngedup, leader of the rival People's Democratic Party, is the brother of the fourth king's four wives, all sisters.

As a former prime minister, Mr Thinley was a close adviser of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. He was one of the architects of the nation's efforts to measure its growth and prosperity in terms of happiness. The notion of gross national happiness was developed in the reign of the fourth king, as an alternative to economically orientated development measures.

But sticking to the king's vision of Bhutan will itself not preserve the nation's unique identity. It was the fourth king who decided - against the wishes of most of his subjects - that Bhutan should switch to democracy, before he ceded power to his 28-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.

This was not, analysts say, because the king believed Bhutan should modernise. His decision was probably prompted by the fates of other Himalayan Buddhist states. In 1949, Ladakh was divided by India and Pakistan. In 1951, Tibet was taken over by China. Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975. The king may also have wanted to avoid the kind of anti-royalist uprising seen recently in Nepal.

But while it was not the aim of the end of the monarch's absolute rule, the most obvious result of democracy will be modernisation and development.

'Bhutan will modernise more quickly now for sure,' said Kinzang Dorji, Bhutan's previous prime minister, as he walked into the beautiful 18th-century dzong in Punakha, a village about 75km northeast of the capital.

'That's what the politicians are promising people,' said the courteous statesman, dressed in a red gho with an orange shawl.

'The challenge will be balancing economic development on one hand with cultural values and with the natural environment, which is so important to us.'

Apart from road building, modernisation is expected to come most quickly through the development of Bhutan's tourism sector. For years, the sector has been kept small: despite the country's much feted beauty it still only receives some 20,000 visitors a year.

This is in part because of a requirement visitors must spend at least US$200 a day, a condition likely to remain in place. But tourism has also been scaled back by the limited road network, which makes building hotels in remote areas difficult, and by the location of the only international airport in a narrow valley: only the national airline lands there; foreign carriers refuse to make the perilous descent.

Now, however, politicians are promising a new international airport, which is to be built in the south. With new roads, hotels are expected to be built in remote areas.

'There are many parts of Bhutan currently inaccessible to foreign visitors,' said Thinley Dorji Wangchuck, managing director of the Bhutan Tourism Corporation, a private company. 'Tourism is going to open up hugely and we estimate it could create about 100,000 new jobs.'

They will be needed. Bhutan is one of the wealthiest countries in South Asia, with a per capita income of US$1,400.

But in urban areas, unemployment is rising among the young; for those aged 15 to 24, it stands at more than 5 per cent. Employment among Bhutan's graduates is rising, too.

Om Pradhan, chairman of Druk Holdings and Investments, a company set up by the king to manage companies in which the government has a whole or partial stake, said that in the coming months Bhutan's economy would open up to domestic and foreign investment - which would stimulate the private sector, which is currently tiny.

'I'd love to be a businessman,' said Rudra Deb, who works in his brother's shop in Thimphu selling dried cow gut, a Bhutanese delicacy. 'But doing business in Bhutan is impossible at the moment.'

It is in the countryside that development is most needed.

Great strides were made in Bhutan during the fourth king's reign. Education and health care became nearly universal and life expectancy rose from less than 50 to more than 65.

But about a fifth of the population lives under the poverty line. Almost all the poor are subsistence farmers who, because of Bhutan's limited road network, lack access to markets. It is for this

reason the new prime minister has promised to build new roads.

Though this will lift many people out of poverty, it will also bring with it social changes, such as increased migration to towns. And with this, Bhutan's unique culture will begin to be eroded.

Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of the Kuensal newspaper, said this process began before the advent

of democracy. Television had already changed village life, he said, citing the introduction of global ideas of beauty.

The folk songs of his youth, he said, 'used to describe women with faces like the moon - healthy, plump women. Now even in remote villages, ideas of beauty are changing.'

The process of modernisation had in the past been slow, he said. Now, with politicians dependent on pleasing the populace, the pace of change would quicken.

'All that really matters is that Bhutan keeps its values,' he said. 'I hope the average farmer who once considered himself healthy and happy will not become dissatisfied.'