Royal Pardon vs Social Media

Just a month after amendment of Tobacco Control Act 2010 by the Parliament, King Jigme Khesar has exercised a prerogative to release 16 persons convicted of tobacco smuggling.

However, many have already started commenting that both government and the King must have understood the role of media and social network groups against tobacco law. Thanks to “Amend the Tobacco Control Act” group in the Facebook for leading the social protest.

Definitely, Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley and King Khesar got an opportunity to accept that no people can respect an act that has been termed as “draconian” by parliamentarians including the Opposition Leader (OL).

The so-called democratic constitution that has placed the King above it allows him to grant amnesty to prisoners under Article 2, Section 16 (C). This provision states, “The Druk Gyalpo, in exercise of His Royal prerogatives, may grant amnesty, pardon and reduction of sentences”.

The royal amnesty has also set the first convicted monk student Sonam Tshering free.

He was arrested and detained on January 24 last year after he was caught with 48 packets of chewing tobacco that he purchased from India. Later in May, a kangaroo court convicted him and passed a verdict slapping him a jail term of 3 years.

The Prime Minister’s government was compelled to table amendment proposal of the world’s strictest tobacco law in January this year following widespread criticism from all sectors.

Accordingly, the amendment was passed and implemented as an urgent bill by the joint sitting of both the Houses.

PM Thinley become more serious fearing street protests when a petition signed by some 700 individuals asking for amendment was submitted to his government, Speaker of the National Assembly, Chairman of the National Council, and the OL.

From the time the act came into operation, altogether 59 persons including three non-Bhutanese have been charged of possession, sale or smuggling of tobacco products. Of them, over 20 have been convicted of smuggling and jailed.

The new amendment provides all tobacco convicts to deposit a fixed amount sufficient enough to suit the jail term defined by the verdict.

The royal pardon has hinted that no power can suppress innocent people in the name of creating a land free of tobacco. If this happens somehow, people will protest boldly against it.

Identifying our identity: who are we, after all?

As our story is fading towards historical insignificance, how we define ourselves now may come into play when our generations desperately search for their rational identities.

One of the hot topics surrounding the resettled Bhutanese communities around the globe has been that of distinguishing selves from a fairly good number of evolving nationalities that we find ourselves sank into. Although we do not “have to” have solely one nationality that defines us, for in the liberal world globalization has contracted the map of the world making dual nationality no more a surprise, we might be doing ourselves a favor in the long run if we can stick with the nationality inherited from our forefathers – which is non-other than Bhutanese.

As long as patriotism is concerned, our contemporary Bhutanese community can be classified into three arbitrary groups. The first of them can be credited as historians for their immeasurable contributions to creation and preservation of our cultures, values and traditions. These are our parents and grandparents, government employees and village elites, who, throughout their presence in the country, fought for its development with all they had. The Bhutanese land has saturated a huge quantity of free blood and sweats of these people. They took pride in serving their country even though their diligence and earnestness were discredited by the unfeeling regime. From putting bridges on the rivers to extending roads and creating social norms to governing themselves, these people were backbones of the country not only for their infrastructural gifts but also for their tenacity and determinations that almost helped the country see through isolation and developmental dullness. These are unsung heroes, our true idols, and ever living martyrs. The fundamental virtues they have conveyed to their descendants, if understood, are of a high importance. These icons, to much of our privilege, are among us this time around, and best of all, their love and respect to the country is ever escalating. If you ask these people what it was like to carry a basket full of oranges from their villages to the local markets – which were often hours and some even days away – for some hard cash, they would never say that it was a bad experience. To not much of a wonder, they would say that it’s been badly missed. These people are authors of Druk-Yul and its people’s unwritten history. These are pioneers of songs yet to be composed, founders of humanity circulating around, and examples of humble mankind.

The second group should consist the ones born in Bhutan, but unfortunately, could not stay there for so long as to gain any substantial sense of belonging. These are our elder brothers and sisters, teachers and neighbors, who, despite not having had as much experience and fondness as their predecessors had in the country, still have set aside a big chuck of their hearts and minds to the remembrance of their nation. While this group is particularly prone to the worldly changes, and, to be brutally honest, could somewhere in the horizon act as if it has forgotten what the past was like while integrating themselves to the new livelihoods, I believe this could happen because they have missed the country so much, to the extent that their aspirations of ever hugging it again have sadly faded. But let’s be optimistic. After all, their nationalism is the hardest to be questioned of all and are the only ones, if any, who can seriously rewrite the pages of the historical books siding the Diasporas.

Exposed to opportunities that never existed – or at least weren’t accessible to its ancestors – the third group is particularly the hardest to read of all. They have all the rights to deny Bhutan: they’ve never seen it or have never had any experience with it. And here they are, in the new lands; with new dreams each night and with each opportunity that lay, countless imaginary successes evolve. Everything being equal, will they have any role in the near future to potentially wave the flag of the country they truly belong to? Or will the time defeat them as it did to their ancestors?

Much more questions lie ahead of us than do answers: how are we going to assemble this trio? How are we going to transfer this collective “wisdom” to the coming generation? Or is it even worth our time and commitment? Should we just let the clock click and contend with what the future yields? We know that we didn’t get to write our own history, and off-course, what has been written wouldn’t have been what it is had we won the battle. With all these in mind, should we strive towards undoing the erased truth? Or is it even possible? As hard as these questions may sound, they can be fairly linked to one clause: it all depends on how successfully we will cling to our nationality.

But with the banner of resettlement stronger than ever before and the dismantling of our stories taking a brutal shape, all these thoughts might be just an unwise application of English alphabets intending to make the article as long as possible. Some readers might mark this talk as “rubbish”, and others might have already been exhausted by this sort of next-to-impossible faith. But believe. Believe not in the cliché that we’re running out of time, but in the optimism that nothing has happened yet, bigger things are yet to be seen. Believe that ours is not the finished article just yet and the ethnic cleansing did not succeed in its extermination campaign, rather it strengthened us to a more firm, self-determined and unyielding personality. Believe that changes are inevitable and we will not always end up being in the losing side. We had dreamt dreams in our lives. Believe that those dreams are yet to come. Our better days are ahead of us.

So, let us all unite, all true Bhutanese, no matter who we are and where we are at, we have nothing to lose, instead we have our nationality to win, our historical errors to correct and fate to reverse. Let us keep our nation flag in the schools we go to and the homes we live in and the cars we drive, and most importantly, let us always print the picture of our soil in our hearts and minds. Optimism is the only true medicine. Sometimes, believing in the future yields you what the past did not. Yes, we are Bhutanese all the way!

Sino- Bhutan border issue: A bone of contention

Bhutan has been buffering the friction between two Asian giants since early times of Independent India. Bhutan’s border with both the neighbor has remained ill-defined as much of the work of boundary demarcation depended on Indian surveyors. The northern border prior to 1959 was maintained with Tibet, that happened to be the origin of Drukpa Kagyupa Buddhism in Bhutan. Bhutan administered five enclaves in Tibet, stationed a diplomatic mission in Lhasa, and allowed a mutual cross-border trade with Tibet. So the international boundary to the north was never foreseen to become an issue later- particularly with the northern giant.

Pema wangchuk, the secretary of international boundaries has been furnishing a pool of information about parleys of boundary talks to the National Assembly. The talks have been going on since 1984. So far nineteen rounds of boundary talks at various levels have ended up only to change the map of Bhutan reducing the area by about 1600 square km. Yet, the unsettled border issue has once again reverberated in the national assembly, the issue raised by a MP from Haa. MP Ugyen Tenzin has been in the front to raise the border issue, as China’s interest on the western frontier is fraught with strategic importance. Interestingly, the Indian Military Training Team(IMTRAT) has been based in Damthang, Haa for a long time which China might have considered wanton of Indo-Bhutan friendship.

The usual process to answer the questions of such degree of importance in parliament is repeating the chronology of events of talks rather than taking any resolution or presenting it as a bill. While MPs are quoted of emphasizing in maintaining peace and tranquility and continuing talks, the no-man’s-land in the north including Mt.Kulagangri have perpetually fallen to Chinese incursions. Such sporadic question answer session in the parliament will not resolute to end the dispute in favor of Bhutan.
According to a document of US library of congress, Tibetan herders and Chinese soldiers intruded inside Bhutan as early as 1966. Another major intrusion in 1979 was, however, protested by the Bhutanese side compelling the Chinese intruders to retreat. According to Tshering Tobgay’s blog, the Chinese army had entered deep inside Bhutan no less than seventeen times in 2008 and 2009.

Tshering Tobgay , the feeble opposition leader has frustratingly suggested the strategy shift of dealing with the Chinese side. He writes in his blog that 19 rounds of border talks have shown very little progress and the government must consider some alternative. MP Ugyen Tenzin is enthusiastic to incorporate the land area change in Bhutan geography syllabus of schools, to let the students know about it. However, he does not seem to show any regret over losing the land, neither express any determination to preempt the encroachment.

The issue is not yet publicized by the media in a way its gravity matters to such small country between the economic and demographic giants. The media cursorily relate the event of talks and report on the question-answer session of NA about the dispute. Nothing serious, nothing concrete ideas and no diplomatic strategy to handle the situation. Sonam Ongmo, a non-resident Bhutanese in New York, hinted of a vast spy system that operates and has stolen a wealth of information from 103 countries, with Bhutan’s foreign ministry on the list. There is quiet diplomacy and actions are even quieter.

Two landmark agreements signed by Bhutan and China to continue the border talks serve as binding documents. In 1988 the two governments agreed to four guiding principles, and in 1998 signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquility on the border areas in accordance with the accepted boundaries before 1959. Despite of these agreements, the Chinese army had reportedly constructed roads in 2004 (from Langmarpo up to Zuri ridge), resumed the road construction beyond Zuri in August 2009, had built temporary sheds, and penetrated deep inside Bhutan up to RBA post in Lharigang.

Therefore such agreement between a small developing country and a large dominant economy of Asia make little sense to the mighty people’s liberation army even violating the agreement several times. For Bhutan, 1988 and 1998 agreements are important pillars of quiet diplomacy with China.

In pre-Chinese occupation of Tibet, Bhutan had a reason to maintain diplomatic ties with Lhasa as Buddhist heritage of the country. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the spiritual and temporal head of Bhutan since early 12th century is said to have descended from Ralung Monastery of Tibet to Bhutan. Ruling of some monasteries in Tibet by Bhutan (five enclaves), exchange of the lamas and barter trade with Tibet could have favored the undisputed border with Tibet then. However, after the flight of Dalai Lama to India, China took advantage of the undefined border areas and had begun to claim it since 1960s. One document at US library of congress even mention of vague suzerainty of Bhutan by China before the cultural revolution of 1911. Such claim was never raised after People’s Republic was formed in China. After Bhutan sealed its northern border subsequent to Chinese occupation of Tibet, Sino-Bhutan diplomacy virtually become veiled.

Whether Chinese suzerainty was acknowledged by Bhutan is not known, but penetration of Chinese army inside Bhutan since 1966 had never come to public knowledge, and deliberately not reported by the state owned media then. Soon after the establishment of hereditary monarchy in 1907, Bhutan was predisposed to the offerings of British raj in India that modified to the shape of guiding Bhutan’s foreign affairs by India, signed in the 1949 Indo-Bhutan friendship treaty. Initializing the five year plan in 1961 and funding major development works in Bhutan, up to the agreement of sunkosh hydropower project, India has been enjoying every share of revenue generation while keeping the military team inside Bhutan. So the China factor is completely overlooked, which by now has grown to more belligerent and too engaging.

Most likely cause of the present Chinese claim of Bhutanese territory is India’s over indulgence with Bhutanese affairs that disallowed Bhutan from balancing a relationship with both neighbors. Nepal on the other hand has maintained that equilibrium, even at the level of King Birendra’s own discretion. Bhutan in a similar geo-political situation failed to understand the implications of such a balanced relationship with the two giants. However, Nepal is facing the Indian incursions that often aggravates to violent clashes. Bhutan’s southern border with India too is not very fairly maintained especially in the areas where both sides have urban population and flourishing cross-border trade. It was revealed in the joint survey of border maps and installation of pillars finalized on December 2006 that some places along Phuentsholing – Jaigaon corridor had no mark of the pillars, which were found to be dismantled and construction works erased them. And, there are number of other border posts not known to Bhutanese officials that fall in the dense, virgin forest of Assam and Bhutan that has coalesced inseparably.

The tri-national border between Bhutan, India and china is yet to be settled and this area on north-west of Bhutan is where Beijing continues to push for its claim over the disputed four pasture lands of Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulumpa and Dramana. Illegal poaching, unauthorized collection of Cordyseps by the Tibetans and poaching of valuable wildlife or even killing the yaks of Bhutanese herders are issues not been resolved with Chinese side even talking over the issue for nineteen times. The Bhutanese are simply grumbling; the public not openly protesting to stop the illegal activities on their own, while the secretary of international borders and the Parliamentarians are too slow relying on cautious diplomatic channel to curb the problem. In fact, there seems to be no one truly responsible taking the charge to stop such frequent illegal entry of poachers or the Chinese army.

It is now the time for all Bhutanese whether or not living in the country, to participate in the dialogue process in order to finalize the border with China and protect territorial integrity and sovereignty of such a small country buffering against the two south Asian giants. China has well-intended to be the observer of SAARC and both India and China should express their good intentions in this forum not to harm Bhutan’s internal and external affairs. Being the permanent member of UN Security council, China has to approach such small neighbors with care and justice so that it doesnot brand as the dictatorial annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in late 80s.

Let us all hope Bhutan will not be considered another Taiwan by the northern neighbor.

Country gets first journalists association

The Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB), which was first announced five years ago, has been reactived with election of nine its executives, Tuesday.

In the election held in the capital, 32-year-old Passang Dorji of The Bhutanese, a daily newspaper yet to be launched, was elected with majority of votes as new president, wrote the Kuensel on Wednesday.

Altogether, 105 journalists from various 11 newspapers and 16 from electronic media were present during the election.

The president elect said he would leave no stones unturned to ensure hassle-free working environment for journalists.

“My first priority would be to bring journalists together and ensure that journalists, particularly in the private media, are well compensated if anything should happen to them in the line of duty,” said he.

Meanwhile, JAB expressed its commitment that it “will submit to the government a proposal, submitted by senior editors last month, suggesting changes to the advertising policy and doing away with the mandatory publication of Dzongkha editions in the English language papers.”

Private papers want Dzongkha out

Dzongkha editors of private newspapers will meet the information and communications minister and secretary next month to discuss their proposal to discontinue publishing Dzongkha editions of their English language papers.

The private media houses, during an informal meeting with the ministry on January 16, said the mandatory publication of the Dzongkha edition had become a “huge financial burden” and impacted the sustainability of media houses.

Newspaper CEOs and editors said Dzongkha editions were being published more as a requirement, which was not necessarily helping to promote the national language. Media development and Dzongkha development should not be mixed, they said.

Bhutan Observer’s chief executive officer, Phuntsho Wangmo, said they spent Nu 100M in the past five years on their weekly Dzongkha edition alone. “No one reads the Dzongkha editions and the sale is only 10 percent of the English edition,” she said.

Business Bhutan outsources its Dzongkha edition, an eight page insert to one of the Dzongkha papers, chief executive officer Tashi Dorji said. “Most private papers don’t have an independent Dzongkha editorial team,” he said. “Private papers publishing Dzongkha is not helping Dzongkha development.”

With four independent Dzongkha papers already in the market and some more waiting to be licensed, English language newspapers should be “freed” of the obligation to come up with their Dzongkha editions, private newpapers have reasoned.

The Bhutan Media and InfoComm Authority (BICMA) is today processing two new newspaper applications, an English daily and a Dzongkha paper.

The emphasis on having a Dzongkha edition, they said has instead “adversely impacted” quality. “Many Dzongkha words are misspelt, sentences are wrongly structured, often deviating from acceptable grammatical norms and creating confusion rather than clarity,” the proposal stated.

During the meeting, the media were told that it is the government’s mandate to promote the national language and the media is seen as a medium to help the government in this effort.

The issue ministry officials  said should rather be on how best the government could use media to promote Dzongkha, check its quality, and support the growth of Dzongkha editions of newspapers. The ministry and the media authority will also review this clause in the licensing requirement.

The media authority’s licensing requirement of a Dzongkha edition is based on an April 14 letter they received from the ministry last year, BICMA officials said.

BICMA’s April 18, 2011 letter to the media houses states, “…we have received the directive from the government that stopping the Dzongkha editions of the English newspapers at this stage would tantamount to revoking the policy decisions of the parliament as well as that of the government”.

All newspapers, it stated, must continue publishing the Dzongkha editions and have the responsibility to publish Dzongkha editions. The BICMA Act of 2006 does not specifically state the requirement of a Dzongkha edition.

Prior to receiving such directives from the ministry, BICMA said its licensing requirement of a Dzongkha edition was based on the decision of the 281st CCM, which was held on November 27 in 2005 and on the resolution of 87th session of the National Assembly in June 2007.

The National Assembly had resolved that based on the contents of the royal Kasho and the resolutions of the past National Assembly sessions, “…efforts should be made to publish notifications in our national language and the contents and quality of both the Dzongkha and English language newspapers should be same.”

Former Dzongkha development secretary Dasho Sangay Dorji said parliament had not made it mandatory for every Dzongkha paper to have an English edition because English being an international language was more popular in the society than the national language.

“If the Dzongkha edition as mandated today for English papers are removed, there is a high risk of there being no Dzongkha papers,” he said.

Information and communications minister Nandalal Rai said publishing in Dzongkha, which was a precedent set by the private papers themselves, shoud not been seen as a burden.

“When the first private papers came into existence they said they would also publish dzongkha editions,” lyonpo said. “On that line it became a rule, we never insisted that Dzongkha should be a part of the English editions.”

While BICMA told the media houses the issue might have to go to the parliament since it was discussed there, lyonpo said its more of an “executive” business. Promoting the national language through the media must not be a “secondary” requirement lyonpo said.

“For our print media today, Dzongkha has almost become a secondary language in the look and content,” lyonpo said. “We are going to look into it.”

By Sonam Pelden in Kuensel, Jan 27, 2012

One too many?

Bhutan will soon have 11 newspapers. The latest entrant in the market “The Bhutanese” will be launched on February 21.

The paper’s CEO and owner, Tenzin Lamsang, a journalist by profession, says they are aware of the competition and the market scenario.

“We know the risk we are taking. We know what the returns will be. Yes, we know the market situation. We are aware but we know we can do it successfully by focusing on quality.”

He may well be. There are already 10 newspapers and given the Kingdom’s population size and the limited advertisement money, financial sustainability is a big concern.

The Ministry of Information and Communications says it will go on approving as many applications as long they fulfill the criteria under the Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act.

The Secretary of the Information and Communications Ministry, Dasho Kinley Dorji, says they cannot stop any good proposal from entering the market.

“The Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act allows people who meet the criteria to start media (houses). What is happening is, it is bit scrambled, that is why the ministry has come up with guidelines.”

90 percent of the advertisement revenue comes from the government. How that money should be shared is being debated.

Many in the Bhutanese media argue that the money should not be given on rotation among the existing media houses or depending on their business contacts. It should be decided by the reach and the readership.

“The government should have a very good advertisement policy, not divide it among the newspapers on rotation basis,” said Mindu Dorji, an editor with Bhutan Observer.

Others however do not agree. They argue that such a move will result in the demise of some of the newspapers. And that it is not fair to ask new newspapers to compete with older, better established ones.

For now, all the media houses are struggling. Some are venturing out into other businesses to survive.

Bharat Subba, an employee with Bhutan Today, said “it is difficult to sustain ourselves on the add money alone. We are trying to diversify our businesses.”

“Today, there are ten of us and all of us are actually looking for the same advertisement in the market,” said Chencho Tshering, the Managing Director of Kuensel.

Looking at the developments, where and who gets the advertisement needs to be decided and decided fast.

From BBS

Let my people go : with video

Ghatastapana is a national holiday in Nepal. Cherishing fond memories of each of the seven camps for Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal, I drive to Goldhap camp. A place once familiar looks strange. People used to throng to greet me, Namaste, the little ones calling “Father, Father!” The food distribution centres were crowded; opposite, old men sat in the “kiosk”, sharing their woes. The youth coordinators would be after me to see their activities.

Now I am alone. The area has been levelled and fenced. The JRS school boards stand as monuments of history. Our disability centre stands in the middle of the razed ground. As I enter, memories of every face that once welcomed me choke me, and I cry. The emotions frozen within all these years melt and flow down in tears.

I pass by the Kirati temple and the temple of Shiva – the symbols of my people’s faith in God during their 20-year exile. They never stopped hoping that God would lead them either back home or to a country where they would prosper. I go to our Blooming Lotus English School and climb onto the stage. Where are the hundreds of children at assembly?

As my hands cover my face, the students march in my memory chanting their favourite slogan, “We are born for greater things.” And I hear a voice saying, “I have observed the misery of my people in exile. I have heard their cry and have come to deliver them from this land to a prosperous country. Let my people go to celebrate joyfully the festival of life.” An echo of the words God spoke to Moses in Exodus. Should my people’s moving make me sad? No. The founder of JRS, Pedro Arrupe SJ, once said that as long as there is one refugee in this world, it will remain an unjust world.

The Bhutanese longed to return home but 16 rounds of ministerial talks between Bhutan and Nepal failed to make either repatriation or local integration possible. The only way ahead was resettlement to third countries. The process continues smoothly. Out of 107,000 refugees, more than 53,600 had gone by the end of September 2011. As the number of refugees shrinks, camps are being merged. By mid- 2012, there will be only two camps left.

The coming years will be challenging. We need to maintain the quality of our services despite budget cuts. The words of Robert Frost, “…I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” flash across my mind as I go to the office. The student statistics are still on the blackboard where, in a corner, someone wrote: “I love this school and this camp, all my teachers and friends, because I have passed class X from this school.” What a testimony! If our education has instilled such confidence, then we have achieved our goal and in humility should thank the Lord for this wonderful service.


BBS launches second channel

BBS2 Inauguration

Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the National Radio and Television Service, launches its 2nd television Channel from today. Viewers can now watch Live the proceedings of the National Assembly and the National Council simultaneously from tomorrow.

Test transmission of the BBS 2 on terrestrial broadcast has been going on for the past week. The channel has been upgraded on satellite beginning today.

The Chief Engineer, Rajesh Kafley, says viewers can receive the existing channel without any change in the existing set-up. While, for the new channel, cable operators and viewers using independent receivers will have to use MPEG 4 receivers.

The BBS 2 will continue with regular broadcast after the parliament session. The General Manager of the BBS 2, Tashi Dorji, said the channel will carry entertainment programmes, documentaries with a strong component on youth and children’s programming.

The Managing Director of the BBS, Thinley Dorji, said the new channel will help to meet needs of the audience, adding that with just one channel the Public Service Broadcaster is faced with challenges, especially when important national events and parliamentary sessions are taking place.

Bhutan Broadcasting Service has been planning for the 2nd channel since mid-last year.

Happy, happy Bhutan

Bend it like Bhutan: Football at a monastery in Simtokha Dzong. - Photo: Reena Mohan

Hindi soaps are getting popular in this nation of smiles, though some women question the value systems they endorse.

Fifty years ago, when I was a child, we didn’t have money for shoes. We wore something roughly stitched together from the jute of gunny bags. But it was a time of innocence… everyone around was similarly poor so you didn’t feel underprivileged. We would skate on the frozen river, break chunks of it and pull out trout for dinner,” says Phuntsho, who sits with a mug of beer on the wide open-air terrace of his hotel in Bumthang, central Bhutan, recounting tales from the past to a small group of tourists.

I am in Bhutan as a jury member at the Beskop Tshechu, the first international documentary and short film festival held in the capital city of Thimphu. It is a welcome break from life in India, a country reeling under a series of corruption scandals and cynical disenchantment among people. I am also exploring the day-to-day lives of the Bhutanese to understand what is inherently good in the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to modernisation.

The phrase signalled the benevolent king’s commitment to building an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values. For instance, education and healthcare are free for all citizens; and as there aren’t enough hospitals in Bhutan, the government sponsors surgery or advanced medical treatment abroad for its citizens.

I meet people from all walks of life to understand several questions: What are the challenges to GNH posed by modernisation? What is it that India can adopt? What is it that Bhutan could be on the verge of losing — and must retrieve before it is too late?

Dago Beda belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Bhutan. She runs the country’s foremost travel agency, a school, a cable distribution company, a mall, and has produced two films in which her younger daughter (the first Miss Bhutan) has acted. She is planning to construct a second mall and says, “The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. We believe development of human society can take place only when material and spiritual development reinforce each other. All proposed economic policies and development plans of the country must pass a GNH review. My plans for the mall had to be similarly scrutinised.”

Her views are reinforced by an audience member at the film festival: “It’s tricky for foreigners to grasp, but most Bhutanese instinctively understand GNH. In keeping with our ethos, the traffic signal at Thimphu’s busiest junction was replaced by a policeman because everyone complained that lights were too impersonal.”

Television exposure
But things are changing… and rapidly. The first event to shake the kingdom out of its slumber was the arrival of satellite television in 1999. Although the point can be debated, it is believed that crime, vandalism and anti-social behaviour — till then barely known in Bhutan — started to become commonplace. Thimphu residents say they’ve only recently started locking their doors at night. Government departments report corruption cases, while parents and teachers fume that children are contemptuous of discipline and obsessed with western pop culture.

There is growing frustration. Young people dominate Bhutan. According to the census, of its roughly 7 lakh people, 49 per cent are under 21 and current unemployment rate among the youth hovers at 5.5 per cent. Hardly surprising considering that the literacy rate has soared from 20 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent today.

While aspirations for many have changed thanks to television, a large number of urban Bhutanese have attended college abroad and this exposure often makes them impatient with how things are at home. The biggest challenge the government faces is to offer Bhutan’s youth something other than farming rice on terraced hills. Everyone wants to be rich quickly and the choice of a career is determined by that. Even though doctors are needed badly, no one wants to study medicine. Too much study, too much hard work, and the possibility of a rural transfer are not attractive.

Ugyen Wangdi is the pioneering documentary film-maker in Bhutan.

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, his films have been screened at various international film festivals and won several awards. Summing up the situation, he says, “Moving away from an agrarian to a consumer society has widened the gap between haves and the have-nots and is the greatest challenge to GNH. When we were agrarian, a rich farmer would have a few more cows and yaks than the ordinary farmer. GNH was more achievable due to a strong Buddhist psyche. But with the coming of satellite television, there is more consumerism.

“After watching TV for the first time, a woman working at a farm said everyone on TV looks so beautiful. Beauty salons and shops selling cars, electronics, garments and cosmetics have increased after cable TV. Banks have seen a sharp increase in loans. We are moving ahead at an alarming speed and our age-old values are disappearing sooner than we could have imagined. I have documented village customs and traditions which are long gone. Having captured that time, I feel this acute sense of being on a roller coaster.”

Mixed emotions
It is late afternoon at a restaurant in Paro. Lunch has been served; dishes are being washed; vegetables for dinner are being chopped. The owner is free to chat now. She says that satellite television has wrought changes that make her uncomfortable. While Korean TV dramas are a big hit among the youth, her relatives prefer Hindi soap operas. “Before we would sit together at home and eat dinner,” she said. “Now everyone is watching television.” The lives of the women in the soaps confound her. “They seem happy being doormats to their husbands,” she continues. “The woman eats dinner only when the husband has returned home from work, no matter how late. They put up with extra-marital affairs and bad tempers. In the long run, watching these soaps may not be good for the culture that we wish to protect.” She is married and has a daughter. There is no pressure on her to bear sons, women inherit property and can re-marry. Little wonder that Indian news reports of dowry deaths and female foeticide seem terrifying.

Kesang Chuki Dorjee is a fellow jury member and film-maker who covered the democratic elections extensively for a documentary. Her latest film was screened at the festival and follows the journey of women leaders at the grassroots. She sits in a cafe, eating her blueberry cheesecake and says: “On a more positive note, the Bhutanese are learning about other cultures and the various educational programmes that broaden our horizon. More and more of them are beginning to appreciate the peace and tranquillity that Bhutan offers which is taken for granted until we see the chaos and conflict that seem to pervade the rest of the world.”

In 2006, the absolute monarchy was replaced by an elected assembly. The fifth king travelled extensively around the country encouraging participation in the upcoming democratic exercise, speaking mainly to the Bhutanese youth on the need to strive for greater standards. “We no longer live in a small hidden kingdom… We are very much a part of this new globalised world. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is — how can Bhutan stand on her own feet? How can we make a good living? How can Bhutan compete with other nations as equals?”

In the face of so many new challenges, the Bhutanese have to re-define what “making a good living” entails. In a country where traditional dress, language and architecture are compulsory, how do they “modernise” without lose their ideals?

What the future holds…
So what does the future have in store for Bhutan? Kunzang Choki, who runs a bookshop in Thimphu, says, “An elderly monk who went to Paro with the intention of going into a three-year retreat returned finding the distractions unbearable, and instead chose to come to Bumthang. But how long will it stay remote and quiet here?” A regular customer at the bookshop chips in, “Our worry is not just about outsiders. Newspaper reports about penalties imposed on the Department of Civil Aviation over the non-compliance of environmental regulations for the construction of the airport are disturbing.”

Even as it negotiates change in the quest for modernity, Bhutan is a lesson for India. As economic development in our country surpasses the limits of ecosystems to provide resources; as people protest and demand government accountability, we too need to focus on social and psychological well-being of our people.

From The Hindu Business Line

Media must live up to the honor

The 104th National Day celebrations could not have been more pleasant to the 18 media houses in the country. His Majesty the King awarded the Order of Merit (Gold) to the Bhutanese media, in recognition of its vital role in informing the people, in encouraging debate and participation, for preserving the culture and tradition and for placing national interest above all else.

Although some might say it’s too early for the infant media to receive such a coveted national honor, the significance of the award cannot be sidelined either, lest it would be misunderstood as an overstatement of media’s roles and contributions.

The award is a symbolical gesture of appreciation from the throne for the contributions made by the media in shaping the country’s national conscience and contemporary values, and in promoting democratic culture. More importantly, it is also a reminder of the greater roles and responsibilities the media must continue to undertake in future. We must strive to excel and scale new heights and not to resort to the lowest common denominator. Media must live up to the honor.

Currently Bhutanese media is very young and growing, at least in numbers, at a speed that is only going to get dizzier with time. From just one national print and broadcast media, today we have a teeming number of media houses, often scrambling for crumbs to meet its daily ends.

The media is grappling with a host of challenges, mostly related to day-to-day sustainability, lack of experienced journalists, overheated competition, and sole dependence on government advertisement, among others. And despite that fact, still more newspapers are expected to hit the newsstands that will only make survival of media houses more competitive and difficult.

There are also fresh openings for private TV stations, with six television license applications already waiting approval from Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority. The launch of private TV will definitely add to media diversity but again the looming fear is that it will have to feed on the same advertisement pie.

At the end, what will happen is, the survival of the fittest and the smartest. Free market competition must result in media houses upping their ante, improving the quality of journalism, and expanding their reach to a wider audience.

However, this is not exactly happening or going by popular feedbacks, it is just the contrary. To certain extent, perhaps news quality is not up the expectation. Our young reporters and editors are not able to grasp certain issues. But we must not also fail to see the brighter side of the story. Now more than ever, readers have a plethora of choices.  It will take time for the media to come of age.

Also, if people are complaining, it only indicates that the level of media literacy and awareness is increasing. This bodes well for a democratic society that must engage in public discourses and point out flaws, even that of the media’s as well.

A popular joke on media professionals today is that nowhere in the world can a journalism student after few years become an editor but in Bhutan. This is true because there are no senior journalists at the helm, many of whom are either working abroad or in international organizations that pay fatter paychecks.

The media is young and it is learning by doing. Mistakes are bound to happen. But there must conscious efforts to separate journalism from business and politics. While sustainability is an issue, it should not contaminate the noble aspects of journalism.

Bhutanese media must diversify its income sources and venture into services that can bring in the money rather than depending on conventional advertisement income alone. For new comers, they must calculate the opportunity cost, risks and benefits before following the herd.

This is a grim situation where the media is thrown right in. The government has been so far very generous in distributing advertisements to all media houses, not strictly following standard practice of advertising that takes into consideration circulation figures, reach, quality and niche audiences. But when it starts doing it, that is the time lot of media houses might have to close shop, in a worst case scenario that is.

Media must brace up or prepare to die.

Source: Business Bhutan weekly, 24 December 2011