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Bhutan votes for happiness
Mon, Mar 31, 2008
The Straits Times
BH

UTAN, the last Himalayan kingdom, took a confident step last week in holding its first elections. If polls are sufficient to make a country democratic, it is the newest democracy on earth. Ironically, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk insisted his subjects go to vote at a time Tibetans, ancestral cousins who used to raid their lands, were renewing a campaign to win more political rights from the central government. On the road to democracy, Buddhist Bhutan has had models to observe. Japan and Thailand offer familiar forms, as constitutional monarchies rooted in Buddhist and Confucianist precepts. Like most small states, Bhutan's political destiny is shaped by circumstances constrained partly by larger neighbours. Wedged between China and India, the mountainous nation faces Chinese might, writ larger over Tibet since the 1950s, as well as Indian interests that led in 1975 to the absorption of Sikkim as an Indian state and to the demise of the monarchy there.

Times have changed for Bhutan even if geopolitical space has not. National isolation as monastic as meditation in remote mountain dzong is becoming less of an option. The 21st century encroaches through air travel, satellite communications, television and the Internet. Subsistence farming and barter trade are giving way to lucrative hydro-electric, lumber and other cash exports to India and beyond. The government's response - substituting 'gross national happiness (GNH)' for gross national product as a measure of development - may sound utopian. But internal and external realities and modernisation imperatives underpin the concept. The elections go some way towards reinforcing good governance, one of the four GNH pillars. The others are equitable and sustainable social and economic development, cultural preservation and promotion, and environmental conservation.

To tourists, Bhutan may seem like a Shangri-La that is in no great need of reform. But trouble is not always far from paradise. In 2003, it had to go after Indian insurgents sneaking into its territory. The sizeable Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa minority in the south presents a more troublesome challenge. Reportedly denied identity cards, many could not vote. More than 100,000 others continue to languish in refugee camps in Nepal, unable to return to Bhutan, where their ancestors had settled in as early as the 19th century. International praise that Bhutan has won for holding free elections comes with expectations that it help resolve the refugee problem and embrace the Lhotshampas as equal citizens. Bhutanese owe it to themselves to make gross national happiness as inclusive an approach as it is innovative.
 

 
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