Bhutan wary of democratic change
The isolated nation holds its first-ever national election Monday after decades of guardianship by kings who severely limited contact with the outside world.
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"Bhutan will modernize more quickly now for sure," says Mr. Dorji. "That's what the politicians are promising people. The challenge will be balancing economic development on one hand with cultural values and with the natural environment, which is so important to us."Skip to next paragraph
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Analysts say the king's decision to surrender his power was prompted by the experiences of other Himalayan Buddhist states. In 1949, Ladakh was divided by India and Pakistan. In 1950, Tibet was taken over by China. Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975.
The king may also have wanted to avoid the kind of popular antiroyalist uprising that was seen recently in Nepal.
"His Majesty, in his wisdom, believes that a small and vulnerable country like Bhutan cannot be left without a proper, stable, political system," says Kinley Dorji, editor in chief of the Kuensal newspaper.
But there are also compelling domestic reasons for democracy in Bhutan.
Bhutan's fourth king ruled over major changes. In the 1960s, there were no proper roads and few schools and hospitals. The king made free education and health care nearly universal. Under his reign, life expectancy rose from under 50 years of age to 66 and the annual per capita income rose to $1,400, one of the highest in the region.
'Gross national happiness'
He also introduced gross national happiness (GNH) as an alternative to economically oriented development measures. GNH holds that tradition and the environment should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of economic prosperity.
But a fifth of the people live in poverty.
In urban areas, unemployment is rising among the young; for those ages 15 to 24, it stands at more than 5 percent.
"I'd love to be a businessman," says Rudra Deb, who works in his brother's butcher shop. "But doing business in Bhutan is impossible at the moment."
Businesses in Bhutan are controlled by the government or a few wealthy families. But in the coming months, significant employment is expected to come from the tourism sector, the biggest employer outside farming. A new airport will be built, and hotels will rise up in remote areas, once the roads are built. "Times are changing," says Thinlay Dorji Wangchuck, managing director of the Bhutan Tourism Corporation. "Tourism is going to open up hugely, and we estimate it could create 100,000 new jobs."
But many here are wary of what that will do to Bhutan's cultural identity. Karma Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimpu, a think tank that has conducted detailed research into GNH, says attendance at village festivals has dropped 50 percent in recent years.
"Modernization will come, but what really matters is that Bhutan keeps its values," says Kinley Dorji. "When the hotels get bigger than the monasteries, then we'll know we have problems."