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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 May 2006, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Will Bhutan be 'happy' as a democracy?

By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Tempakha village, western Bhutan

Farmers in Tempakha village in western Bhutan
In Bhutan gross national happiness is more important than GDP
It is an auspicious day in western Bhutan's Tempakha village.

Mrs Lem, one of the villagers, is having her new home blessed by Buddhist monks, and her neighbours have come to help her celebrate.

Tempakha is a happy place: its people are farmers, and they lead a good, if simple, life.

Within the next few weeks, they'll be connected to the electricity grid; there are plans to build a local school, and there is even talk of building a road to connect them to the one that runs along the valley below them.

Talk to the villagers of Tempakha about the Bhutanese government's policy of preferring gross national happiness to gross domestic product (GDP), and they are all in favour.

If the government wants them to be happy, that's fine by them.

The land is fertile, and they can grow two rice crops a year, plus chillies, tomatoes, beans and aubergines.

Bhutan is an anachronism in a world now dominated by economic globalisation.

Seductive modernisation

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has absolute power, and it was his idea that the way for his country to develop was not to go all out for economic growth.

Sangay Kandu
Sangay like many other youngsters are seduced by modernisation

In line with Buddhist teaching he says true happiness, both individual and national, is more than mere material wealth.

So tourism is restricted to those who can afford to pay a minimum of $200 per day.

Industrialisation is strictly limited; the forests are safeguarded and only a small amount of timber is felled each year.

Sustainable development, environmental protection, and the preservation of Bhutan's unique culture are the ingredients, he says, that go to make up gross national happiness.

But talk to young Bhutanese in the capital, Thimphu. Since TV was finally allowed seven years ago, they have learned rapidly what life is like in other countries.

A wrestling channel became so popular that it was taken off air. Likewise American music channels.

Sangay Kandu, who is 18 and in his final year at school, tells me television has made a big impact.

"We see all the commercials on TV and of course it's tempting to say we want to have all the latest products."

The vice-principal at Yangchengphug High School, Pema Wangdi, says modernisation has brought huge benefits to Bhutan - many of her students, she says, are much happier than their parents were at their age.

But some are also dissatisfied when they compare their lives with those they see portrayed on TV.

For Buddhist teachers, like the young lama Drupa Rimpoche, who is said to be the reincarnation of an earlier lama, happiness means inner happiness, a refusal to be seduced by the joys of a luxury limousine or a brand new television set.

Bold experiment

For the king, living in the modern world means accepting both the good and the bad from outside Bhutan: not only TV, but mobile phones and the internet.

Villagers in Tempakha village in western Bhutan
Many villagers do not want the king to abdicate

His faith is that the Bhutanese will take what is good and turn away from what is bad.

And in two years' time, he will hand over his powers to them. A new constitution has been drawn up, turning Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy, in which a directly-elected parliament will be granted full powers.

The king will abdicate in favour of his son, the Crown Prince - all future kings will, under the constitution, have to abdicate when they reach their 65th birthday.

So are Bhutan's 630,000 people ready for democracy? The minister for home and cultural affairs, Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, says they're being well prepared.

There are already elections at the local level, and the king and Crown Prince have been touring the country to prepare their people for the change.

But back in the village of Tempakha, on the slopes above the fast-flowing River Phochu, carpenter Thinley, who sits on the village committee, tells me that at their last meeting, they decided to ask the king not to hand over his powers.

"I'm sure the Crown Prince will do well," he says. "But we'd be happier if the king would stay on for a few more years."

The people of this tiny kingdom, perched high in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, hope they can have the best of both worlds: retaining their Buddhist traditions but adopting modern technology - and democracy - at the same time.

They know it is a bold experiment - and they know there's a risk it could fail.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Bhutan
20 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Bhutan king announces abdication
18 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Exiles attack Bhutan constitution
04 Apr 05 |  South Asia
Bhutan unveils new constitution
27 Mar 05 |  South Asia
Tiny Bhutan mulls small constitution
01 Dec 04 |  South Asia
Has TV changed Bhutan?
17 Jun 04 |  Entertainment

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