Bhutan, Kingdom of the happiness!

Published on Nov 09 2011 // Opinion
By Béatrice Halsouet and Mathieu Boisvert

Bhutan, a small almost inaccessible kingdom right in the heart of Himalaya, shines in the eyes of western imagination: A Buddhist country, perceived as similar to Tibet with the exception of its protection from the Chinese dragon, this tourist luxury destination with a visa of about $250 a day guarantees an ‘exotic’ stay without too many ‘foreigners’ and, naturally, with plenty of spectacular snowy summits. There at least, as it is said to us, we can always see the true ‘local population’. Besides, hasn’t Bhutan introduced, at the beginning of 1990s, the notion of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a concept to orient governmental policies, and by doing so, stimulate western fantasies about a society that favours the happiness and well-being of its citizens rather than the purely economic aspect estimated by our gross national product?

Does GNS promoted by Bhutan also define happiness of over 100,000 citizens in exile? (Picture : Writers)

Bhutan embodies the mythical notion of Shambala, this paradisiac kingdom, rooted in the Buddhist spiritual values.
Even if, according to the imagination of its ‘citizens’, Bhutan would have been created in the 17th century under the monk Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It is only in 1907 that a monarchy really unified the various fiefs and the small kingdoms of the territory. As for the other Himalayan kingdoms (Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet, Ladakh), the borders of ‘Bhutan’ of the time were extremely porous and the population of these regions was always extremely diversified in ethnic terms. In this kingdom of happiness lived one of its ethnic groups, the Lhotsampa.

According to the government version, the story of Lhotsampa goes back up to the end of the 19th century, period during which Bhutan appealed to numerous Nepalese to cultivate the regions of the South of the country. However, historians and Lhotsampas themselves have claimed that the first lot of Nepali-speaking settlers were accepted by the then ruler of Bhutan in 1624 A.D. Nepalese farmers, without future in their country, thus settled down there, on lands considered inhospitable because of the very wet and warm climate of the Terai, on the base of Himalaya, continuation of the gigantic plains. Three or four generations were born there, while keeping their language, Nepali, their customs and their religion, Hinduism. These persons obtained with difficulty their citizen’s status in 1958.

A scene of Beldangi refugee camp ( Picture : Writers)

The Bhutanese government called this population, from 1985 onwards, the Lhotsampa meaning inhabitants of the South. Indeed, the cohabitation was rather tight between ethnic groups, in particular with Bhotia dominating politically, who occupied especially the North of the country. However, this mode of coexistence was radically broken: the Law on the nationality, in 1985, redefined the criteria for obtaining citizen’s status and led to a series of censuses which provoked the reclassification of the residents and transformed the status of many citizens into a non-citizens. Furthermore, it imposed a single national language, Dzongkha, the language of the ethnic group Bhotia, albeit Nepali had been until then taught in schools. The Hindu public ceremonies (such as marriage, funeral rites and many others) were forbidden; Nepali books burned, and Lhotsampa schools and Hindu temples closed. Finally, the Driglam Namzha (disciplinary code) was made compulsory for all that was the values, the traditions, of the one single ethnic group, the Bhotia.

Consequently, between 86,000 (Amnesty International, on 1994) and 100,000 (Hindu American Foundation, on 2009; IOM, on 2003) Bhutanese of Nepalese origin chose – or were forced – to exile themselves at the very beginning of 1990s. But, upon their return to the land of their ancestors, Nepal, they were restrained to refugee camps by inhospitable authorities. Afterward, fifteen negotiating tables between Bhutan and Nepal yield no result.

A group of eight countries (the United States, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom) decided, in 2007, to welcome these stateless persons. In Quebec, they have been settled in cities others than Montreal: Joliette, Quebec, Saint Jérôme or Sherbrooke. Most Lhotsampa settled in Quebec are now permanent residents in Canada and are in the French immersion course.  After having spent 20 years in camps under the aegis of the High Commission for Refugees of the United Nations, after having seen the birth of their children and, often grandchildren, in these camps, they are truly satisfied to have finally found a country to call their own.

Then, how come that Bhutan always occupies a privileged place in our imagination? It is important to underline that the notion of GNH was not designed for all the Bhutanese, but only for Bhotia population which, in the 1990s – moment of the exodus of Lhotsampa – was minority numerically, but dominant politically. This ideology is based on four pillars: sustainable development, conservation of culture, preservation of nature (60 % of the territory has to remain virgin) and good governance. Four pillars which, in principle, are completely praiseworthy. However, when examined closer, we become aware that the second pillar becomes easily problematic. What is meant by ‘national culture’ in a small country constituted of more than 25 different ethnic groups (with their own language, dress code and alimentary practices).

The question was answered in a categorical way: the culture of Bhutan is the one of the Bhotia, the ethnic group in power since the installation (with the support of the British crown) of the Bhutanese monarchy in 1907. The notion of GNH allowed the Bhutanese monarchy to legitimize, both in the internal and on the international stage, its repression, and its persecution of 24 other cultures – linguistic, religious – present on its territory and, more particularly that of Lhotsampa. A little more lucidity would thus be recommended to evoke Bhutan, even for economist’s glasses.

(Béatrice Halsouet is candidate in the Master’s degree in Religious Studies and Mathieu Boisvert is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal. The writers went to Bhutan and in the refugee camps of Nepal earlier this year in June and July. In an itinerary conference in Quebec, they analyzed the evolution of the official Bhutanese speech, deconstruct the notion of Gross National Happiness, redrew the route of the Bhutanese refugees and presented the challenges faced by newcomers settled in Quebec.)