A Land Apart
Despite diversifying its foreign relations, Bhutan, unlike other South Asian countries, continues to strictly maintain its rich culture, language and customs.
Situated delicately on the slopes of the Himalayas, mountainous Bhutan is land-locked between India on the south and west and Tibet on the north and east, making it South Asia’s most geographically isolated nation. Until the 1960s, this factor contributed to its political isolation from the rest of the world. However, after China’s invasion of Tibet, Bhutan decided to expand its foreign relations and avoid Tibet’s fate by strengthening its ties with neighboring India. Investment in infrastructure and linkages to India further improved this newly formed relationship and by 1985 Bhutan had established its first diplomatic links with non-Asian countries.
Currently, along with being an active member of SAARC, Bhutan maintains diplomatic relations with nine other Asian nations and ten European nations, which form the ‘Friends of Bhutan Group.’ These include the Scandinavian countries, Spain and Switzerland and Japan. All these nations contribute towards development projects in Bhutan. However, the Bhutanese maintain strict control over the projects and international consultants hold no decision-making power. Therefore, it is common for development projects, even from powerful international organizations, to be ejected (or halted after implementation) because of potential negative interference. This control often prevents integral development from being undertaken on a large scale by international organizations.
Bhutan’s categorization as a least developed nation (LDC) by the U.N does not bother the constitutional monarchy too much. This is because its main development indicator is not the common GDP benchmark used worldwide but rather a factor called Gross National Happiness (GNH); a term coined by the visionary former King, Jigme Signye Wangchuck, in the late 1980s. The achievement of this unique objective of national happiness is based upon the four guiding principles of good governance, preservation of the environment, economic self-reliance and cultural preservation. These principles take their roots in Bhutan’s strong Buddhist identity and its long period of isolationism before modernization was undertaken in the 1960s.
Despite attempting to build better foreign relations with other countries, Bhutan has shied away from being culturally influenced. Far removed from the cosmopolitan nature of many Asian countries today, Bhutan has successfully retained its native culture and identity. The preservation of Bhutanese tradition and culture is popularly known as Driglamnamza: a distinct manner and etiquette that