Bhutan bat­tles to pre­serve its cul­ture as de­vel­op­ment ac­cel­er­ates

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Bhutan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.