WASHINGTON: Seen-it-all Washingtonians saw something new last week: a Bhutanese temple rising on the Washington Mall amid fluttering prayer flags near the Washington Monument. The Bhutanese are in town for the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. With a population of just 600,000, the Tantric Buddhist kingdom in the high Himalayas wants to introduce itself to America, with dancers wearing the masks of birds and beasts, archers, weavers, and the rest of what they have to show. A photograph of a Bhutanese setting up his tent graced the front page of The Washington Post.
"Druk Yul," or "land of the thunder dragon," as the kingdom is known, lies squeezed between the far larger dragon of Chinese power in Tibet, from which Bhutan's culture derives, and the elephant of India to the south.
Bhutan became a kingdom 101 years ago, encouraged by the British when most of the squabbling factions agreed to unite behind a monarchy. Having wrested much of Bhutan's lowlands away, the British were happy to see what was left remain independent. And there Bhutan remained, essentially in the Middle Ages, until it started, cautiously, to open up to the outside world in the 1960s. A road to India was built in 1961. An airport came in the 1980s. Television and the Internet arrived only in 1999.
Although no army waits at the gates to invade - Bhutan has more monks than soldiers - the country is nonetheless engaged in a struggle for its survival. Bhutan saw China take over Tibet, its spiritual homeland, in the 1950s. Bhutan then saw India manipulate Nepalese immigrants in neighboring Sikkim, taking advantage of the resulting unrest to annex that semi-independent kingdom in 1975. Bhutan watched Nepal's monarchy self-destruct in an orgy of murder and suicide, to be followed by a weak king, and a Maoist insurrection that this year came to power in an election that abolished the monarchy.
One Bhutanese said the other day that Nepal's monarchy, by not bending sufficiently with the times, had gone the way of the French monarchy, while Bhutan's was more like the British, adapting with the times.
And so it has. This year, the year of the earth rat on the Buddhist calendar, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, forming political parties, and holding mock elections to get the people used to the real elections this spring. Bhutan likes to call itself the world's newest democracy, all done without a revolution or a civil war. Bhutan's king abdicated in favor of his Massachusetts- and Oxford-educated son.
But the Bhutanese still worry, and rightfully so. Will its nascent democracy evolve in a constructive way? Or will it evolve as Pakistan's has, with parties controlled by powerful families and led by crooks? Unhappily, too much of the story of democracy in South Asia is also a story of violence and corruption.
They worry, too, about demographics. Bhutan has a Nepalese minority, living peacefully in the lowlands, but if too many new immigrants pour in, looking for land, that presents its own dangers. Once before Bhutan expelled a lot of Nepalese in a controversial move. They languish today in refugee camps in Nepal, many claiming they were exported unjustly.
Arguably the greatest threat comes from global warming. The primary source of income is hydropower, sold to India. The giant, modern turbines are often left with a little trickle of water here and there to power a prayer wheel. But the snows of the Himalayas are melting, and every year the torrents of spring grow a little less.
Bhutan has adopted a development model of its own, in which it seeks to grow slowly, hoping to maintain its cultural identity, its pristine environment, while advancing economically under what it hopes will be sound government. They call it a "middle way" to development under the theatrical slogan of "gross national happiness." About 30 percent of the budget goes to education and healthcare, both of which are free.
The Bhutanese have seen other developing countries adopt to modernity too fast, with cultures lost, citizens corrupted, listless youths lost to drugs, and the environment polluted. It will be a race to see if Shangri-La can survive the onslaught of the 21st century. (The International Herald Tribune).