Bhutan battles to preserve its culture as development accelerates
Apush for growth could destabilise the delicate cultural ecosystem, but officials vow to keep its unique identity alive Alexandra Topping in Ura, Bhutan In the village of Ura, nestled in a sweeping valley in central Bhutan, the locals are celebrating. Men wearing grotesque masks and brandishing huge wooden penises leap through traditional dances. And in the villagedzong – its monastery, fortress and spiritual centre – locals in national dress eat, drink and gossip.
But overseeing the celebrations at Ura’s annual three-day festival, Tashi Wangyal, a member of the national council, the country’s upper chamber, explains that this year it has been difficult to find enough young men to perform the traditional dances. Those who have moved away have been urged to return for the festivities. “How do we prevent the fissures between modernity and tradition opening out?” he asks. “Bhutan has a distinct culture, language and tradition. We do not have military power, we don’t have economic power but we do have culture – and that is what keeps us distinct, and safe.”
As Bhutan – a nation best known for valuing GNH, gross national happiness, above GDP – accelerates its development, its government and people have engaged in a new fight to preserve its culture and keep its unique identity alive.
In a bid to fight globalisation with a form of Bhutanese “glocalisation”, the government has passed a heritage sites bill, which protects its cultural traditions as well as its monuments. It has its own broadcast channel, the Bhutan Broadcast Service, and insists on national dress in government meetings and in schools. The tourist board is pushing homestays – a Bhutanese version of bed and breakfast – in an attempt to bring money to rural areas, while giving value to a traditional way of life.
Poster child for development
A nation of only 740,000 people, Bhutan is already a poster child for development . On target to meet all eight millennium development goals, its poverty rate has halved in less than a decade, to 12% in 2012 from 23% in 2007. Healthcare and education are free, and since 1980 life expectancy has increased by 20 years and per capita income by 450%.
But economic growth has stumbled in recent years. The economy is expected to grow by 7.3% in 2014, but a heavy debt burden and a currency shortage forced the government to push through an $88m (£53m) stimulus package last year. Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, admitted last year that too much focus on GNH rather than providing basic services could be “a distraction”, causing some to worry that a new push for growth could destabilise the country’s delicate cultural ecosystem still further.
Mass migration from villages to urban centres is a key concern. The UN human development report in 2009 revealed that rural-urban migration in Bhutan – which got its first television sets in 1999 and held its first democratic elections in 2008 – was one of the highest in south Asia. This year’s World Bank report (pdf) found that only 37% of rural households said they were happy, compared with half of households in cities. “Low living standards, lack of alternative job opportunities, especially for young people, and unhappiness is contributing to increased out-migration as well as families’ breakdown and loss of communities’ vitality,” said the report.
With greater development comes greater expectation, says Sangay Khandu, an MP in Bhutan’s national council. “You promise a road, the next thing people want is a car to drive on that road; you promote telecommunications, the next thing they want is a mobile phone. The reality is that people want comfort, they want the benefit of development,” he says.
Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is one of the fastest growing cities in south Asia, expanding at a rate of about 10% a year. Although attempts are being made to curb its growth (pdf) – strict building rules, tax breaks for businesses in other towns and rural areas, new roads and planned regional airports – its brights lights are still a draw for a population who, until recently, might have lived several days’ walk from the nearest road.
A new road is bringing change to Merak, a stop on one of Bhutan’s most celebrated treks in the remote far east, and a bone-jangling three-day drive from Thimphu. Here, narrow paths wind past the carved wooden houses, and many of the semi-nomadic local Brokpa (highlander) people wear the traditional dress of the region while tending their yaks. But the road means the village is only an hour’s trek from the junction. Electricity arrived in 2012.