Tuesday, November 15, 2016

How Bhutan has kept its identity

Government officials at Punakha Dzong
As you come out of the Paro International Airport in Bhutan, the first thing which strikes you is that the Land of the Dragon (Druk-yul) is different from any the other place you may have visited: though a modern State, it has kept its caché, its architecture, its traditional dresses, its language.
As importantly, Druk-yul has also kept its independence, which has not been the case of its once powerful northern neighbor, Tibet.
While both Himalayan states functioned in a complete autonomous (and often reclusive) manner for centuries, Tibet became a colony of China in 1950.
One question comes immediately to mind, how did Bhutan manage to keep its ‘independence’?
Tibet’s recent history is too well known: a brutal force, with its own strategic and ideological designs, took over the peaceful land of the Dalai Lamas. in the name of ‘liberation’. The Communist invasion was so violent that more than one million Tibetans perished during the first decades.
It is perhaps due to some kind of good karma that Bhutan did not have to go through such an ordeal, though its location is extremely strategic. Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, sandwiched between Haa district of Bhutan and Sikkim, commands the entry to the vulnerable ‘Siliguri Corridor’.
India’s support to the Happy Kingdom has been vital. Article I of the 1949 Treaty of Peace and Friendship says: “There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Government of India and the Government of Bhutan,” while the Article II assures Bhutan against any interference : “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan;” however during a few decades, the Royal Government agreed “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”
In 1971, it is Delhi who sponsored Bhutan’s candidature to the UN; it was then wisely decided that Thimphu would have no diplomatic relations with any of the permanent members of the Security Council (India has had an embassy in Thimphu since 1968).
In 1981, Bhutan became ‘global’ and joined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and a year later the World Health Organization and UNESCO. An active SAARC member, Bhutan has today diplomatic relations with 52 states and the European Union.
But this does not explain how Bhutan has kept its Buddhist tradition so remarkably alive.
My conclusion, after a 10-day sojourn in Bhutan, is that the Royal Government has successfully managed to tackle the ‘migrants’ issue.
‘Migration’ is everywhere a sensitive matter. Take a look at the world press: the French authorities have decided to evacuate over 2,000 migrants from a makeshift camp located near the Stalingrad metro station in northern Paris.
Earlier in the week, Reuters reported: “Demolition teams finished tearing down unoccupied shacks and tents in the northern seaside town on Monday after last week's evacuation of thousands of migrants from the ‘Jungle’ camp where more than 6,000 people were living, most in the hope of making it across the Channel to Britain.”
Some 10 years ago, Bhutan faced its own eviction dilemma when the Lhotshampas or Bhutanese of Nepali origin had to be resettled to third countries, primarily the US, Canada, Australia and UK.
In the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government had estimated 28 percent of the Bhutanese population to be of Nepalese origin, (unofficial estimates of the ethnic Nepalese population ran as high as 30 to 40 percent). The result of the census ultimately led to name Nepali refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’.
A year later, Thimphu decided to stand by its own identity: the national dress code was made mandatory. All citizens, including the Lhotshampas, were required to follow the dress code in public during business hours. Then, the government removed Nepali as a language of instruction in schools, making Dzongkha, the national language, compulsory.
The Human Rights organisation pointed an accusing finger at Thimphu, which stood by its decision, because Nepali influx has not been something new to Bhutan.
Already in March 1954, volunteers of the Bhutan State Congress (defending the Nepali ‘cause’) marched from India across the border to launch a satyagraha at Sarbhang in southern Bhutan, where thousands of Nepali Bhutanese lived. They were protesting against the treatment of the ‘migrants’.
The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to write to his Nepali counterpart: “A number of Nepali organisations are organising satyagraha in Bhutan. They have made their base in Indian territory. …This is exceedingly embarrassing to us as it must be to your Government.”
Nehru told Koirala: “We cannot encourage Indian territory to be made the base of operations. I am sure that your Government also cannot approve of this method. Governments do not function in this way. …Any difficulties in Bhutan should be dealt with in a different and governmental way.”
Human Rights activists have remained vociferous about the Nepalis’ rights, though it is today clear that the Royal Government took the right decision.
Today Bhutan would have been unable to promote Gross National Happiness if the ticklish migrant issue had not been solved; it ultimately greatly helped the nation to preserve its own identity and culture.
One can always argue that we are living today in a global village and nobody can stop forces of globalisation, the fact remains that part of the happiness which Bhutan is famed for, is due to the absence of tension between the local population and émigrés, as one can see in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe.
One can only wish that the Bhutanese remain happy, with their own identity, for many decades to come. A stable situation is also good for India.

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