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Why Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” is a joke

Opinion: A dose of reality from the Bhutanese community in exile.

Bhutan refugees in Nepal
Bhutanese refugee women look out from their bamboo hut at The Beldangi II Refugee Camp some 300 kms southeast of Kathmandu on Oct. 6, 2009. Thousands of Bhutanese refugees have left the camps in eastern Nepal, where they languished for almost two decades, under a United Nations resettlement program. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan, known as the last Shangri-La, has become famous for its happy people.

Recently, Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley, who traveled to the United States this week to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, told Al Jazeera that, “In Bhutan even the street dogs seem to be smiling.”

Article 9 of Bhutan’s constitution puts it simply: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”

Now, the government is trying to turn bliss into a development strategy: Gross National Happiness, the thrust of which is to weave development around people, not the people around development.

There are four pillars to this strategy: economic growth and development; preservation and promotion of culture and heritage; preservation and sustainable use of environment; and good governance.   

And while this all sounds well and good on the surface — the surface is deceptive. The reality in Bhutan and among exiled communities abroad flies in the face of any assertion that the Bhutanese in general are happy. 

Let’s take a quick look at the facts: By the 1980s, Bhutan's minority population of Nepali-speaking people, most of which live in the south, had grown to represent around 45 percent of Bhutan’s 600,000 people, causing then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to start a "one nation, one people" policy to evict, deport and strip many of their Bhutanese citizenship.

The campaign ended with the expulsion of more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking people through beatings, torture and murder committed by the Royal Bhutan Army that lasted until the late 1990s, human rights groups and evictees say.

Most of those evicted are now living inside refugee camps in Nepal. For nearly two decades, refugees have lived in huts made from bamboo and plastic. They receive rations, but many are malnourished. Despite repeated appeals for repatriation, these refugees have been denied. Among this population, discontent has been brewing a fledgling militancy.

The Bhutanese authorities justify the refugee camps in Nepal with Article 2 of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950, which allows Nepalese citizens to freely enter and leave India without a visa.

Now, about 40,000 have been resettled in various Western countries. There are roughly 30,000 Bhutanese refugees in the United States — a number expected to reach 60,000 in the coming years, according to the government.

In its attempt to oppress Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, the government has made every effort to keep the south of Bhutan isolated and under-developed. Southern Bhutan is effectively closed to outsiders, even journalists. Some local health units and schools have remained closed in the south for almost two decades. In such an environment, happiness is a rare commodity.

To a lay person, being happy means having clothes to keep warm during the freezing Himalayan winter and having money to buy medication when a family member is sick. To this person, Gross National Happiness might mean living in a house with family and working the farm, instead of living in slum by the side of the road doing unpaid, compulsory labor for the government.

In the real world, though, the majority of Bhutanese citizens neither feel the security of happiness nor have access to many of the modest amenities necessary to experience that happiness.

Much like America, Bhutan is a land of immigrants. But the government has been trying with all its might to change that.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Thinley hinted that the refugees were driven out of Bhutan because they were “illegal immigrants.” Strictly speaking, it would be impossible for hundreds of thousands of outsiders to enter Bhutan and become citizens unnoticed.

Bhutan has always been sensitive to the issue of immigration and Bhutan law on obtaining citizenship is perhaps the most inflexible in all the world. Law states that among the basic criteria for obtaining citizenship is land ownership and parenthood.

Bhutanese authorities cannot dismiss citizens so easily. Many refugees still have citizenship identity cards, land tax receipts, labor contribution documents and school certificates that speak of their identity as true Bhutanese citizens. A 2001 survey of one refugee camp, conducted jointly by Bhutan and Nepal, found that more than 95 percent of the people in that camp could prove Bhutanese citizenship. 

In time, the world will know how much of the propaganda coming out of Bhutan is reality and how much is farce. The question, in the meantime, is: On what basis can the Bhutanese government claim “happiness” for everyone? 

Refugees from Bhutan and now based in the U.S., Subba is a political analyst and Mishra is the author of “Becoming a Journalist in Exile.” They can be reached at rpsubbba@gmail.com and mishratp@gmail.com.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/100917/bhutan-nepal-refugees