Photograph by: Lynsey Addario, National Geographic March 2008
Bhutan, a small mountain nation situated in the Himalayas between China and India, is in the midst of a political transition from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary one. What's unusual is that the monarch, rather than an outraged citizenry, was the primary force behind the reallocation of power. In 2006 Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan, stepped down to make way for his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, whose official coronation will be held later this year. Representatives of the upper house of parliament were elected in 2007, and in March 2008 almost 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to select members of the lower house, rounding out the newly empowered governing body. The results were a surprise even to experts, who expected a close race: One party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, won 45 of the 47 seats. The final tally came after a correction narrowed the winnings of the minority party, the People's Democratic Party, from three seats to two. That party's representatives initially resigned to protest alleged campaign violations, but later agreed to take their seats and form a small opposition party. International observers reported that the elections met international standards.
Despite these developments, Bhutan's century-old monarchy won't be completely marginalized: The opening words of Bhutan's constitution refer to royal guidance as a blessing, and even as it moves toward democracy, the country is celebrating its centennial under monarchical rule. While public sentiment about the new form of government is mixed, the king's promotion of parliamentary rule has a certain historical symmetry: The monarchy was established by a vote in 1907, when a gathering of religious, governmental, and leaders of prominent families decided to put a hereditary absolute monarch in place and installed Ugyen Wangchuck as the Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King.
The parliamentary elections are part of the monarchy's multigenerational effort to carefully manage Bhutan's modernization and engagement with the outside world. In the mid-20th century the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, started a nationwide development program that included building roads, expanding education, and in 1971, the year before his death, gaining membership in the United Nations. His successor redefined the terms of development in 1972 with the introduction of a concept he dubbed Gross National Happiness, signaling that development in Bhutan would be measured by more than simply an increase in economic output.
Although the mountain nation, about the size of Switzerland, has a reputation among travel agents as the world's last Shangri-la, and the government has distinguished itself with its focus on happiness, Bhutan does not have a perfect human rights record. Concerns about the country arose in the 1990s after it expelled more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis.
Larmer, Brook. "Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment." National Geographic (March 2008), 124-149.
"Bhutanese King Steps Down Early." BBC News Online, December 15, 2006.
Sengupta, Somini. "Heavy Turnout in First Bhutan Election." New York Times, March 25, 2008.
"Phuentsholing Result Reversed." Druk Phuensum Tshokpa press release, March 29, 2008.
"Bhutan Opposition Resigns Amid Vote Row." Yahoo! News, March 30, 2008.
"Bhutan Gets Opposition as MPs Withdraw Resignation." Reuters, April 2, 2008.
"Preliminary Statement: National Assembly Elections Demonstrate a Clear Commitment of Voters and State Institutions to Support Democratic Change in Bhutan." European Union Election Observation Mission, March 25, 2008.
Background Note: Bhutan. Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, U.S. State Department, July 2007.
"Countries at the Crossroads: 2007 Country Report—Bhutan." Freedom House.
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The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are sustainable socioeconomic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance.
The concept of a government promoting happiness as a goal is compelling, but how can progress toward achieving it be measured? As one indication, Bhutan’s 2005 census allowed citizens to report directly on their moods. According to the results, slightly more than half (51.6 percent) said they were happy, another 45.2 percent claimed to be very happy, and just 3.3 percent reported being not very happy. More recently international gatherings in Bhutan, Canada, and Thailand have been held to explore the concept of GNH and how to develop a more rigorous index by which to chart it.
Third International Conference on Gross National Happiness
Bhutan’s traditional culture is full of fanciful lore that stretches back centuries. The Bhutanese name for their land, Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon, derives from a legend in which a Tibetan saint, while consecrating a monastery, heard thunder, which he believed to be the voice of a dragon. Supernatural tales have elevated the profile of some of the country’s key religious and tourist sites, such as the Tiger's Nest monastery, where Guru Rimpoche is fabled to have landed astride a flying tigress and then set out to promote a Tibetan form of Tantric Buddhism. Other temples display stones said to hold imprints of Rimpoche’s body. A revered religious teacher from the 16th century, Drukpa Kunley, known as the “Divine Madman,” is credited with exploits full of graphic sexual imagery that may offend some people’s sensibilities. Phallic paintings of Kunley’s "Flaming Thunderbolt," commissioned as good-luck charms, still adorn the outside of homes across Bhutan.
Besides the country’s affection for its ancient lore, Bhutan is steeped in many other customs. Traditional Bhutanese dress, still worn regularly, consists of an intricately woven tunic called a gho for men and a gown called a kira for women. Scarves of specific colors indicate the position one holds in the government. Only the king and the Je Khenpo, the top religious figure, for instance, are allowed to wear a yellow scarf.
Traditional Bhutanese homes feature thick walls of earth, stone, or timber, as well as ornate windows and roofs with decorated eaves. Bhutanese rooftops often double as drying racks for peppers, a key ingredient in the nation’s cuisine.
As part of his effort to cultivate democracy, Bhutan's fourth king increased access to modern media, including television, newspapers, and the Internet. In recent years independent alternatives have also been established, such as the Bhutan Times and Kuzoo, which delivers music and cultural discussion by radio and allows Bhutanese to debate and post personal profiles on its website.
Despite these advances, the government banned some TV channels for broadcasting violent wrestling shows and other content regarded as being too sexually provocative, and the country has received low marks for press freedom from some international monitoring groups, including Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House. The Bhutan Broadcasting Service, originally a mouthpiece for the government, now touts its independence, although many people distrust the claim. And Kuensel, a government newsletter that advertises its editorial autonomy, is still viewed by many as heavily influenced, if not directly censored, by the government.
Culturally, the country is embracing creative outlets made possible by modern technology, with movie production a rapidly expanding art form. Although the first Bhutanese film wasn’t released until 1989, it wasn’t long before films such as Phörpa and Travellers and Magicians drew international attention and acclaim. A partial list of Bhutan's films can be found online. Current commentary on Bhutan’s film industry is available here. Some filmmakers’ works reflect Bhutan’s close cultural ties with India—they’re peppered with musical numbers, which help ensure their success.
Despite the attempt to institute democratic practices, Bhutan still receives low marks for liberty in many people’s eyes. In particular, the country’s treatment of ethnic Nepalis in the 1990s drew condemnation and created a huge refugee population that remains in political limbo, still housed mostly in camps in eastern Nepal.
In 1989 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck made aspects of traditional northern Bhutanese culture mandatory nationwide. The government explained its actions as necessary to preserve the distinct cultural practices of a small country in a region surrounded by political giants such as India and China. However, many ethnic Nepalis in the southern areas of the country thought the strict requirements would undermine their ethnic identity. Among other things, the cultural code, called driglam namzha, mandated that men wear the gho and women wear the kira—a style of dress foreign to the ethnic Nepalis. Given that, starting in the 1970s, the government had instituted a series of increasingly restrictive citizenship laws, many ethnic Nepalis, most of whom are Hindu, saw this latest order as an attempt to drive them from the country. After an official petition to the king failed to relax the rules, protests spread, and some ethnic Nepalis became militant. The government responded with force, driving tens of thousands of the ethnic Nepalis from their homes -- spurring condemnation from international human rights organizations.
Today some 106,000 refugees live in camps in eastern Nepal, unable to return to their homes. In 2006 the United States offered to accept some 60,000 refugees for resettlement. At first this offer, and similar ones from other countries, was met with violent protests by militant groups of refugees, who vowed to hold out for the right to return to their homes in Bhutan. But in late 2007 there were signs that some refugees would agree to be resettled.
A Note About ".bt" Web Links: In preparing this GeoPedia, it became clear than many websites with valuable information are occasionally inaccessible. The sites below, which end in .bt (the country code for Bhutan), contain primary-source information and important commentary. If a site is unavailable, please try it again at a later time.
Other National Geographic Resources
"Bhutan: Kingdom in the Clouds." National Geographic (May 1991).
Last updated: February 6, 2008
Keywords: Bhutan, Druk Yul, Democracy, Development, Gross National Happiness, Cultural Preservation, Film, Media, Human Rights, Ethnic Nepalis