Frontline World


Bhutan, THE LAST PALCE, May 2002



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story, including responses from the reporter.

Jon Boatright - Austin, Texas
Here is the double-edged sword of capitalism. I think it is unfortunate that these children are inspired by WWF. It is a poor representation of our culture. The saddest part is that as they are bombarded by products they haven't the means to get them but are stirred to want them. The effectiveness of marketing is bad on us, on them it is cruel.

David Cox - Hoboken, New Jersey
I echo your sentiment exactly! Just the representation that violence is a way of solving disputes, and that it's "fun" to deliberately and mercilessly inflict pain on someone, even if it's purportedly fake, is the worst thing that children can learn. It creates a callousness to another's pain. As people start excusing this kind of exploitative violence as "just entertainment," a society will emerge that condones violence as a way to solve disagreements. And you can bet Bhutan will soon be joining the rest of the world in global warfare.

The following conversation took place in response to the first broadcast and launch of "The Last Place" in May 2002.

Reporter Tshewang Dendup writes from Bhutan:
It is heartening to see a lively debate on the impact of introduction of television in Bhutan on this site. After leaving Berkeley and the United States a year ago, I have been working as a producer in Bhutan's only TV and Radio station. For a country that is trying its utmost to provide, amongst other things, education, health facilities and safe drinking water to its people, TV has indeed come as a stranger. But in some ways the stranger with its queer baggage has been welcomed into the homes of the Bhutanese. The Bhutanese TV broadcast of two hours a day is watched diligently by a respectable number of the Bhutanese populace who have access to TV. But it has to compete with CNNís sleek packaging of live pictures of smart bombs dropping in Afghanistan and the grand old daddy of news, the BBC World Service.

The Last Place was, financially, a small-scale documentary production by world standardS but the money that we spent on it could easily fund fifteen of its kind in Bhutan. The cost of ten MINI DV tapes, the number that we use to produce a fifteen-minute program in our station, is the monthly salary of a Bhutanese teacher.

The Bhutanese television station is only three years old. But today, it has a daily news bulletin in two languages. With a limited number of trained personnel, it has been able to broadcast locally produced programs. Yes, MTV and the countless soaps on the Indian channels are an attraction. But at seven PM, every day, Jennifer Lopez and Larry King have to give way because, however rudimentary the Bhutanese telecast maybe, fathers and mothers in the capital gather their children and switch channels to watch their own.

But the holiday maybe short-lived. Their loyalty may fade if the Bhutan Broadcasting Service cannot pick up pace and catch up with the big ones. It is a gargantuan task for us here in Bhutan. Your thoughts are comforting as we battle the onslaught of cable television. The other week I went to shoot the arrival of electricity in a village. For lunch we went to a restaurant in a nearby town. Three villagers were gorging on red rice and the ubiquitous red chilies. There was a poster of Arnold Schwarzenneger in Terminator. The youngest of the trio said Arnie was a man made from metal and no bullets could pierce his heart. He had seen the movie on HBO. The old man staring at the shotgun in Arnie's hand said, At the rate they show people getting killed on television, pretty soon, there will be none of us left on this earth. But it isn't just Britney Spears' hip-gyrations or the blood and gore that captivate the Bhutanese youth. A survey conducted by a Bhutanese research organization revealed that the National Geographic channel was a popular choice of the youngsters. Rinzy Dorji himself puts the channel on the top ten. The young Bhutanese savor the savannahs of Africa and marvel the Arctic Northern Lights. Enclosed by the impregnable Himalayas, the TV renders them free from the land lock. A friend of mine was walking home after dinner at his parents. En route to his apartment, he passed by a house. In one of the room, he could see the flicker of a butter lamp burning in front of the altar. In the other, he saw the flicker of the TV screen, as a youngster zapped channels. This dichotomy or for that matter, peaceful coexistence or if you want to call it the tussle of two diametrically opposed forces is visible everyday in Bhutan. This afternoon, here in Thimphu, on the ground floor of a building, a shopkeeper was watching Friends. From the top floor, the sonorous chanting of monks embellished by the clash of the cymbals and drums held sway and reverberated in the moist July air. Five years from now, will the lamp vanish from the radar screen or burn with more luminosity? Will the flicker dominate or fade? Or will both exist side by side?

C. Martin - West Chester, Ohio
One way the Bhutanese could limit the damage that might be wrought on their culture would be to limit the TV viewing to 2-3 nights per week. In this way, they could be more slowly brought into the twisted world consciousness that is broadcast TV. They would still have most of their days devoted to those things they've known and loved for so long, and be less eager to embrace those strange things they've seen of other cultures; yet still having the ability to follow world events.

Here, in other parts of the world, we were brought up on "I Love Lucy". Or "The Brady Bunch". We all grew up much more slowly.

Reporter Alexis Bloom responds:
Yes, television was introduced to Bhutan a very sudden way. And many have criticized the Bhutanese government for their lack of involvement in the supervision of this new media. There are many state-sponsored organizations in Bhutan, but cable television has been left entirely to private enterprise. This was a big surprise to the Bhutanese ≠ they expected more government involvement. But once television is part of culture, it becomes very difficult to censor and circumscribe. It seems inevitable that the Bhutanese will grow up with old 1970s reruns as well as the latest and greatest game shows and high-budget entertainment.

Andrew Cowan - Montreal Quebec
It's ironic that you criticize TV even while watching an excellent TV documentary! The fact is that while some people in the west wish they could have the simple life of a Bhutanese, Bhutanese parents surely hope that their kids can grow up to be doctors and engineers. Exposure to mass media is a necessary step for people who want to go from a feudal life style to a modernised economy.

Cloverdale, California

How do you know what Bhutanese parents want for their kids? As Buddhists, perhaps they aren't interested in capitalist consumption as the way to nirvana, as you may be. Who decided, if indeed they live in a feudal society, that they would be better off in a "modernized" one that has the potently mind-numbing time-waster known as TV. Non, au contraire mon ami, television will sow the seeds of social deterioration in Bhutan, just as it has in my country.

Robet Colasacco - New York, New York
I almost cried when I saw the young boys imitating the wrestlers.

This is truly the beginning of the destruction of a culture. Although I thought the question very astute of one young boy who asked--and I'm paraphrasing here--for what reason do those big men fight like that?

Robert Corwin - Los Angeles, California
Someone said that for every action there is a possible evil or good consequence... I had a negative reaction to the arrival of T.V. and could see only a beginning of the end to the last peaceful place on earth. Yet the reaction of the gentleman from Bhutan was positive, that this will only make the local people cherish more the peace they already have. If you could sign that man up for a weekly T.V. show I'd tune in for a weekly dose of his positive attitude.....while it last[s]!!

Reporter Alexis Bloom responds:
If the Bhutanese Foreign Minister had a weekly show, Iíd tune into him too! Heíd beat Larry King hands down, thatís for sure. Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley is astute and thoughtful, and yes, heís got a positive outlook on things. Thankfully he's not the only one in government with such a balanced disposition.

Rich Winefield
The story on television in Bhutan describes the introduction of TV, with broad hints of its cultural impact, but is fairly neutral in its approach. Rather than a story on the introduction of television, to me this is a very sad story of how television wreaks havoc on values and culture, leading to the materialistic, consumer-culture we see in the U.S. and the West. Perhaps if we continue to document the impacts within Bhutan, which I fear are inevitable, it will wake us up to what's already happened in our own society. While it's too late to turn back the clock, we could at least help our young people be more conscious of commercial media's impact and predatory nature by providing media literacy training in school. It's a part of the curriculum in Canada, but in the U.S. the real impact of the media is either ignored or denied.

Oakland, California
One point regarding the Bhutan story: The Nationalist party in South Africa refused to allow television into the country until 1977. The reason? They wanted to carefully control the ideas introduced into the country and feared that television would undermine support for Apartheid. Somehow the Cosby Show got by the censors and was introduced in the 1980's. For a population that had been told for years that blacks were inherently inferior and races were better off living separately, the positive portrayal of a well-educated upper middle class black family, living in a wealthy neighborhood and having white neighbors and friends was stunning. While I'm not saying that the Cosby Show brought about the end of Apartheid, I think that it may have played a small role in changing attitudes towards racial integration. Watching this show gave both blacks and white some hope that peaceful coexistence was possible and there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Television can be used to enlighten, educate, change perceptions.

No Name Given
Your comment is well taken, and in South Africa it may well have had a strongly positive influence. You say TV CAN be used to enlighten... but you know 98% of the US airwaves are not used to enlighten minds, but to enlighten viewer's pockets.

Reporter Alexis Bloom responds:
Television is certainly an agent of change ≠ sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Itís true that foreign-made television opened peopleís eyes in South Africa: it showed them that South Africa was unique in its social and political architecture. In that way both white and black South Africans came to see how untenable apartheid was, both morally and practically. But I still remember people in South Africa saying: "You know, our blacks here are different to the blacks in America. The ones in Africa are not as sophisticated as the ones overseas." Even though some right-wing white South Africans had seen the potential for equality (as represented by shows like the Cosby Show) they simply didnít want change the way they lived.

George Luftin
I found it to be truly depressing to see these young Bhutanese children dressing up like characters from the World Wrestling Federation. While every culture has its unique modes of escape and fantasy, this just seems ludicrous. And why should Bhutan receive "the same television package as India." This monolithic approach to very distinct cultures is contributing to an unhealthy view of a world soon to be void of values.

Amelia Kittredge
Though the Bhutan story brings out the negatives of having television in such a serene, untouched part of the world, it does not show that some positives are surely coming from the new technology. Some children are experiencing curiosity about different parts of the world, learning about the arts, politics, and traditions of other countries that they had no exposure to before television. The children wrestling is meaty footage of the negative results, but there are certainly two sides to the story.

Paula Bain - Stevensville, Ontario
In reply to Ms. Kittredge's letter, the fact that the country currently has a 54% illiteracy rate should suggest that what is needed here is not soul-numbing, culture-destroying television which has children sitting with glazed eyes staring at the tube from the time they come home from school. These programs which are available to the Bhutanese may feed a certain curiosity for what the world around them is doing but is it a realistic view? The Cartoon Network and Worldwide Wrestling rank higher than the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel. So what you see are children imitating what they see, which is violence, not what will help them in their lives. This new generation will undoubtedly change the face of Bhutan totally when they grow up enough to take control of it. By that time the current generation of adults will have died off and will be unable to halt the country's decay. How sad that such a beautiful and spiritual land should be ruined by a box.

Virginia Beach, Virginia
This looks like the best letter to agree with. But I also agree with Robert, Rich, George, Keith, and San Diego. The only hope lies in those letters mentioned from Bhutanese folk complaining about the wrestling as offensive. They're sane. The "wrestling" isn't. There is no question that this feature is of utmost importance to Americans who wish to know the full truth regarding what elements of our culture monopolized media is representing to the world.

Keith Wynings - Gainesville, Georgia
I would like to say that what has happened in Bhutan, is a complete tragedy. To see the small children imitating there favorite wrestling heroes, when three years ago they were playing with their pets and each other, just goes to show how we as a whole earth are on a downward spiral. God Save Us.

Los Angeles, California
I was fascinated with this story. I am very curious with how the images from t.v. will change this community. Unfortunately, I fear for the worst in terms of physical, mental and spiritual development. Keep up the wonderful reporting!

San Diego, California
Poor Bhutan, they don't know what they let themselves in for with MTV and Wrestling. Their children will forget their peaceful culture and become like the spoiled american couch potatoes and backyard wrestlers. I hope their parents take control of the TV before it's too late!