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Last Updated: Friday, 3 December, 2004, 15:44 GMT
Bhutan's technological revolution
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Editor, BBC Click Online

Internet cafe in Bhutan
Bhutan and its people have been waking up to life in the 21st Century
The widespread availability of technology is having a big impact on culture in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

Bhutan has been hailed as the last Shangri-La.

It is certainly a kingdom like no other, with a society guided by folklore and faith underpinned by a unique form of Buddhism.

For hundreds of years, this Himalayan land revelled in self-imposed isolation, at pains to keep its culture protected from the rapidly-developing world outside its borders.

But, step by step, Bhutan and its people have been waking up to life in the 21st Century and the change that inevitably comes with it.

Bhutan is not rushing headlong into technological development; it cannot afford to economically, for one thing, but there is also a real feeling that no attempt to bring Bhutan into the global village should be allowed to endanger its very unique local culture.

Spiritual depravity

Five years ago, to coincide with the King's Silver Jubilee, Bhutan became the last country on earth to legalise television, and so the Bhutan Broadcasting Service was born.

Bhutan temple
Some fear outside influences will undermine Bhutan's identity
Ever since, the schedulers have been putting out a diet of cultural and educational programming for a few hours a day. With prime-time shows like Land of Buddha and Gross National Happiness, some Bhutanese are after something a little spicier.

So they are turning to multichannel TV, through satellite in the countryside and cable in towns. That, say observers, is creating a problem.

They say Bhutanese youngsters in particular are being led down the path towards spiritual depravity.

It is an argument rejected by TV executives like Mingbo Dubka, managing director at the Bhutan Broadcasting Service.

"I think, much more than the television, it has been the video films which have had a very powerful impact on the youth," he says.

"If you see some youth walking around with a different style and all that, it is because they see these things happening in films."

Internet cafes

As if TV and video were not enough, the internet is also raising the spectre of destructive external forces.

Though it is hard to believe the headquarters of Druknet, the country's only internet service provider, is a space the size of a living room which hosts the country's entire internet traffic.

Mani Pradsan
Once people know the use and value of the internet I think they are quite welcoming of the technology
Mani Pradsan, Digital Shangri-La
Perhaps it is not entirely surprising seeing as there are only about 5,000 computers in the entire land.

Few people can afford the luxury of a home PC, and so Bhutan's connected generation is catered for by what must be some of the highest internet cafes in the world.

Inside, young netizens send e-mail, play online games and generally explore the world beyond the Himalayan peaks. The importance of being connected is also making its mark on the older generation.

Mani Pradsan, owner of Digital Shangri-La says: "Now I think people have realised the importance of the internet and what it could do in terms of development, not only for technology but for anything.

"The internet could be used as a tool for business, for contacts, for anything that you like. So once people know the use and value of the internet I think they are quite welcoming of the technology."


However, this welcome is qualified, especially in more conservative quarters like the influential monasteries.

Gembo Dorji
On the internet there are good things as well as bad things, and our youngsters could go for the bad
Gembo Dorji, Bhutanese Monastic Body
Here on the one hand you will find monks transcribing ancient Buddhist manuscripts onto computers, evidence perhaps, that far from destroying Bhutanese culture and identity, technology can actually help safeguard it.

But at the same time there is also a feeling that the net must not be left unregulated.

As Gembo Dorji, planning officer for the Bhutanese Monastic Body says: "On the internet there are good things as well as bad things, and our youngsters could go for the bad, and then, because of that, there could be a drastic impact on them."

There is no immediate need to worry about the imminent collapse of Bhutan's society.

Most Bhutanese still eke out a simple rural existence, but the government is determined to make technology a part of their future.

Microwave dishes and cellphone networks are enabling communication across the mountainous terrain, and solar panels are helping deliver electricity - all part of the drive into the modern age.


In future school children will grow up computer literate, their parents will use the internet to vote, and even grandparents will be treated in hospitals connected to the very latest health information databases.

It is something the isolationist ancestors of this land could never have contemplated, but now the momentum seems unstoppable.

As Lyonpo Leki Dorji, Bhutan's technology minister explains: "Because it is a very sparse population spread across Bhutan, and very mountainous topography, the internet can solve a lot of problems.

"It can solve the problem of distance, it can increase your productivity, it can save a lot of time, you can have a lot of entertainment through the internet, you can have a lot of educational material on the internet.

"This is the way we talk about the digital divide. All over the world we say we should reduce the digital divide and the internet is one of the solutions.

"If you can spread it around we can be part of the global society."

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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