Saturday, March 14, 1998 Published at 00:05 GMT
Visit To Bhutan
Reporting from Bhutan
The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, recently visited the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, which nestles high in the Himalayas between the two Asian giants of India and China. The King, the country's absolute ruler, pursues a policy of near isolation to preserve Bhutan's distinctive Buddhist culture and values. But there is a down side: political activity is outlawed and demands for reform repressed. A hundred-thousand Nepali speakers have been expelled and are now living in UN refugee camps. Paul Reynolds accompanied the Prince of Wales on his visit.
On the last morning of our four day visit to Bhutan, we were having breakfast in the dining room of the Olathang Hotel on a mountainside above the small town of Paro when the foreign minister joined us, smoking a large Havana cigar. "We" were the small British media party allowed to accompany Prince Charles. The minister was Dawa Tsering, who has been foreign minister for no less than 28 years. I finished my porridge, presumably a legacy from the days when Bhutan was in effect a protectorate of the British Indian Empire, and turned to hear the latest attack on the BBC, which the minister was developing.
He was perfectly charming, and his English, like that of all the elite in Bhutan, was accomplished. It was also scattered with delightfully old fashioned phrases picked up in private Indian schools. It was, he said, "jolly unfair" that I had interviewed a Bhutanese refugee in Nepal before coming to Bhutan. Didn't I know that he was a "notorious character", and that others with him were "conmen" and "embezzlers"? The smoke from the Havana lingered over the table. The cigar, the minister explained with a smile, had been a present from the Cuban foreign minister after Bhutan switched its UN general assembly vote to support an end to American sanctions on Cuba.
Bhutan is the size of Switzerland. It contains some of the most beautiful alpine scenery imaginable, and I was struck with wonder at the place from the moment that the small British Aerospace 146 of the national airline twisted its way into the country's only airport in the Paro valley. Only 600,000 people live in this wilderness and most of them are from one clan or group, the "Drukpa" or west Bhutanese. They are of Tibetan origin and have a determined adherence to their mountain traditions of Buddhism, culture and architecture.
These are indeed strong and attractive, and, led by their 42 year old King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, they are attempting a dramatic model of social development, trying to pick and choose what they want from the modern world. To the romantic traveller, this is a fascination. There is no television, and almost no traffic, though curiously, plenty of policemen directing traffic, the only set of traffic lights was recently removed as unnecessary.
The architecture is a dream come true for Prince Charles, and carefully monitored by the King himself. The local alpine style has to be followed and it gives the place a marvellous sense of tradition. Even a new hospital in Paro had been built in the same style, to great effect. There is an approved national dress, which men must wear at least in public. The administration is still carried out from the huge fortress monasteries, the dzongs, which have dominated the mountain passes for centuries.
One day we climbed a sacred mountain which is a place of pilgrimage for all believers. To keep out the backpackers, Bhutan imposes a minimum charge of two hundred dollars a day for travellers.It would be wrong, however, to leave it there. Bhutan is not just a backwater Shangri-La. It is busy modernising in its own way, using the growing income it gets from selling hydro-electric power to India. One day it could be very rich.
It's putting tremendous emphasis on education and sends 1,000 of its best and brightest students abroad to study each year. The language of instruction in schools is English. This means that even the humblest child on a mountain road says with a smile: "have a safe journey". It has got the Finns to survey its forests and is determined not to let these be cut down. There are checkpoints along the few roads to prevent the transport of illegally felled trees.
The minister at the breakfast table somehow felt that one or two of us had not got the message about what a perfect place this was. We had concentrated too much on the plight, the alleged plight, as he would say, of the 100,000 Nepali speakers, the descendants of plantation workers brought in a century ago, who are living in UN camps in Nepal.
They say they have been forced out of Bhutan by restrictive citizenship laws, ethnic cleansing if you like, by administrative means. The minister said that they weren't from Bhutan at all. Our policy is "one nation, one people," he said, puffing on his cigar. Preserving identity is what Bhutan is doing. It was the dark side of Shangri-La.