The Brilliant & Brutal Bhutan

The Brilliant & Brutal Bhutan

Let’s take a little sojourn through the history of one of the greatest PR success stories of the world: Bhutan.

Post WW2, almost all countries adopted the gold standard of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a means to determine their success.

The first country to officially designate a different goal from this was Bhutan. In 1972, their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decreed that Gross National Happiness (GNH) was to be the goal for the country instead.

To ascertain how well they're doing, Bhutan surveys the GNH of the country through an extensive 300 question survey that takes multiple hours to complete, taken every five years by 8,000 randomly selected households who are remunerated for their time.

GNH materialised as four individual aims: good governance, economic development, environmental conservation and preservation and promotion of culture. Remember the last one, we’ll get back to that later.

At ZAAG we love jumping into anything regarding wellbeing. So the choice to chase GNH is an interesting one. Admittedly, given Bhutan’s population of around 780,000 people, they’re able to more easily exert control than larger countries.

Regardless, there are some remarkable achievements, some unanswered questions and some overlooked atrocities that stem from Bhutan, the so-called “last Shangri-la,” and the “next in line” to graduate from the Least Developed Country list in 2023.

We'll start with the good, then the bad, then the balance.

The Brilliant

Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the entire world. 72% of the country is under the cover of forest, something enshrined in their 2008 constitution (a minimum of 60% forest cover at all times). The massive amount of forest means that, just through vegetation alone, their country sequesters three times as much carbon as the country produces.

They also export 75% of their hydroelectricity to their Indian neighbours.

This environmental boon serves as the greatest export of the country, contributing about 63% of Bhutan’s total exports – a crucial contributor to their GDP of around $2 billion. In fact, they export so much hydro power that they are somewhere in the region of removing about 6x as much carbon as they consume.
In 1907, Bhutan established an absolute Monarchy. A century later, in 2008, the King of Bhutan introduced their first constitution. Within that document, many things changed. Namely, the self-imposed removal of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of a democratic constitutional monarchy. The same document enshrined the age limit of 65 for any reigning monarch within the country.

Education in Bhutan is completely free – including University level education for those with high enough grades. Healthcare is completely free, and well respected within the country. So much so that 90% of the population was vaccinated against COVID in just one week.

So with so many remarkable points of reference for the country, where’s the negative? Well, as with almost anything in life, light is often countered by darkness.

The Brutal

Historically Bhutan was split into two main groups, the more prominent Drukpas, of Buddhist faith, making up about 75% of the population. And the Lhotshampa (literally “people of the south, the part of the country they occupied), who practised Hinduism, making up about 25% of the population.

They coexisted in relative peace for centuries until 1989, when the Bhutanese King introduced the “One Nation, One People” policy, imposing Drukpa dress codes, languages and cultural practices on the country as a whole.

Remember the "preservation and promotion of culture" part of the GNH principles? Well, they doubled down on this part, heavy.

To say that the Lhotshampas were unhappy as a result would be a gross, massive understatement. In 1990, protests emerged as a result of the proposed elimination of their culture, which prompted a brutal crackdown on almost 100,000 Lhotshampas. Though having lived in Bhutan for hundreds of years, almost 20% of the population was effectively forced out of the country, having their identity papers removed or nullified, many being tortured in the process as they were left stateless.

To call a spade a spade, this was ethnic cleansing. Perhaps Gross is too weak a prefix for their supposed National Happiness aims...

You can read more about the atrocities committed by the Drukpas towards the Lhotshampas here. For the sake of brevity, almost the entire Hindu population was forced into refugee camps in Nepal, where most of them stayed for decades.

Since 1991, the Bhutanese have (to this day) continued to conduct sham negotiations with Nepal – with neither country willing to accept the Lhotshampas in their country en-masse. Both Nepal and Bhutan have opted for “third country” solutions, with the USA welcoming over 90,000 of the refugees.

The Balance

As a member of the UN, Bhutan has basked in the glory of its reputation as the country that focuses on happiness over profit. Whilst there’s undoubtedly successes that have taken place from its successive monarchs and governments, there is a dark underlying story that permeates the supposed notion of wellbeing that often accompanies the name of the country.

In 2011, the UN urged “member nations to follow the example of Bhutan by measuring happiness and wellbeing.” Presumably, for any other country to follow their example, they should focus on the total population, rather than just those who dress, eat and pray in a similar fashion.

According to the World Happiness Report, released in 2019, Bhutan is 95th out of 156 countries in their rankings. Perhaps this is a reminder that happiness is something to be earned, rather than promoted.

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