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Happy Land

In the tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan, the government's policies actively promote the contentment of its citizens. But can this grand experiment withstand the growing pressures of the 21st century?

By Jeff Greenwald

It's odd to hear a newspaper editor blame the media for his country's woes. But Dorji, whose nine- and 11-year-old sons are huge Baywatch fans, is genuinely distressed. He wants to see Buddhist ideals and ethics brought into children's lives, starting at the primary school level. He feels that those values should be part of the curriculum and integrated into school reading materials—and that modern parents, with their modern concerns, are no longer reliable sources of Buddhist training. "Bhutan is a small country, wedged between two large nations," he says. "The principles of Gross National Happiness are merged with our survival. Bhutanese people, the younger generation especially, need to grow up appreciating the national identity: our cultural, religious, and environmental heritage. If that is understood, the people will know how to deal with all their problems."

Some of the people, anyway. The main fly in the ointment of Gross National Happiness, to my eye, is not Sex and the City but the very xenophobic nationalism that has allowed Bhutan to survive in a nearly pristine state.

This is really evident on the streets. As I walk along Norzin Lam (an avenue that bisects central Thimpu), which is lined with wooden shops and thick with pedestrians, I think of how clothing can be a great equalizer, but in Bhutan it shows an immediate distinction between the indigenous population and everyone else. Aside from Westerners, who are exempt from the dress code, the only people not in national dress are those of Indian and Nepalese origin, who are continually reminded that they are not, and never will be, Bhutanese citizens.

An hour's drive west of Thimpu, the city of Paro is like a Wild West town: two-story buildings with painted facades and hand-lettered signs, men lounging against wooden walls, dust devils whirling down the main street, sending old women scampering into doorways with handkerchiefs pressed over their faces.

In Paro, I meet a Swiss aid worker I'll call Reno, who gives me plenty to chew on regarding the plight of non-Drukpa residents. There are seven ranks of Bhutanese citizenship and residency status, he says, which can be changed based on behavior. If a Bhutanese marries a foreigner, for example, his or her rating drops. And those without a Nonobjection Card can't get passports or find civil service jobs. These nationalistic policies sometimes even work against the Bhutanese, if they happen to be of Nepali origin. "If your uncle's sister's son is in a Nepali refugee camp," Reno says, "you may find you have some difficulties."

This isn't "ethnic cleansing" but passive-aggressive behavior that makes non-Drukpa feel like second-class citizens. "Bhutan isn't like Africa, where they kill each other with machetes," Reno says. "But the authorities can prevent so-called southern Bhutanese from getting good jobs and slowly get rid of them that way."

One irony is that as many Drukpa still rely on traditional Tibetan medicine, educated Indians and Nepalese tend to serve as their doctors and health care providers. And many South Asians work in Bhutan on teaching and accounting contracts.

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amazing article - thank you

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