A year after the legalization of television in Bhutan, Orville
Schell, longtime observer of Asian affairs, returned to this
sequestered kingdom to assess how it was faring with its new
digital influences. He also examined the new challenges facing
the nation in meeting a growing demand for information technology.
Schell, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the
University of California, Berkeley, most recently is the author
of Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas
to Hollywood (Henry Holt & Company, 2001).
Looking down from Kungachoeling Monastery through fluttering
prayer flags to the blindingly green rice paddies of the Paro
River Valley below, one feels utterly escaped from the surly
bonds of Earth. Not far from me, a solemn monk lights incense
before the Buddha. In the silence of this remote and lovely
refuge--one of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan's hundreds of functioning
Tibetan Buddhist shrines--computer chips, frequent flyer miles,
the World Trade Organization, and IPOs seem part of another
Especially here on the Indian subcontinent, awash in corruption,
ethnic struggle, illiteracy, pollution, poverty, and the clash
of civilizations, Bhutan's pacifism, paternalism, and egalitarianism
stand apart. It is hardly surprising that people here often
speak of "the outside world" as if it were another celestial
body. Under the spell of this tranquil monastery, the unexpected
hum of distant engines is like an unwelcome tocsin awaking one
from reverie. I spot a minuscule white dot against a peak as
one of Druk Air's two small planes drifts down out of the cumulus
clouds toward the country's only airfield.
The yearning of postmodern Westerners to escape the velvet shackles
of our hard-won progress to places like Bhutan is hardly new.
In 1921, when the British governor of Bengal, Lord Ronaldshay,
visited Bhutan, he too felt intoxicated at the idea of leaving
the aggressive, modern world behind. "Just as Alice, when she
walked through the looking glass, found herself in a new and
whimsical world," he effused, "so we, when we crossed the Pa
Chu [and entered Bhutan], found ourselves as though caught up
on some magic time machine fitted fantastically with a reverse."
From such accounts, a Western fabric of mythology was woven,
one that allows the tourism industry even today to proclaim
Bhutan as "the last Shangri-La." No larger than Switzerland
but with a population of less than 700,000, Bhutan is, in fact,
a place of peace and natural beauty. Indeed, His Majesty King
Jigme Singye Wangchuck refers to his country as "a paradise
on earth." It boasts awesome snow-capped mountains, including
Gangkhar Puensum, which, at 22,623 feet, is the highest unclimbed
peak in the world. Climbers are not permitted to scale these
peaks lest they "disturb the spirits." It has abundant wildlife,
including 165 species of mammal, like the endangered snow leopard,
golden langur, and takin. Because a 1995 law mandates that 60
percent of Bhutan's land must remain forested (while another
26 percent is already protected as parkland), it has extensive
virgin forestlands. And its pastoral villages are filled with
friendly people who show few signs of modern dispossession or
malaise, perhaps because their government spends almost 18 percent
of its national budget on education and health care (compared
with only 2 to 3 percent for a country like China).
real appeal of Bhutan is that we feel human," says Tshewang
Dendup, a graduate of the documentary film program at the University
of California, Berkeley, who now works at the Bhutan Broadcasting
Service. "Maybe we are somewhat isolated from the world, but
we feel part of a living community that is not just connected
by wires. That's why 95 percent of us exchange students return
home. By and large, you would have to say people are happy here."
But "one way or another, change is coming," King Wangchuck told
the former New York Times South Asia correspondent Barbara Crossette
a few years ago. "Being a small country, we do not have economic
power. We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant
international role, because of our small size and population
and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor we
can fall back on . . . which can strengthen Bhutan's sovereignty
and our different identity is the unique culture we have." And
so the government has kept a tight grip on matters of culture,
which have grown out of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Tantric
Mahayana Buddhism. In 1999, only 7,000 foreign visitors were
granted visas, and for 2000 the figure rose only to 7,559. Police
are empowered to detain any Bhutanese not wearing official national
dress, the robelike gho for men and the jacket and apronlike
kira for women. It was perfectly in keeping with this strict
but benign paternalism that the King should proclaim that "gross
national happiness is more important than gross national product"
because "happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity
in our national development process."
has usually been considered a utopian issue," acknowledged Bhutan's
foreign minister, Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, at a United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) meeting in Seoul, Korea, in 1998.
But he emphasized that because an "individual's quest for happiness
and inner and outer freedom is the most precious endeavor, society's
ideal of governance and polity should promote this endeavor."
What is needed, he continued, is "to ask how the dramatic changes
propelling us into the 21st century will affect prospects for
happiness [and] how information technology will affect people's
These were good questions, because only half a year later the
Internet and television, both locally broadcast programs and
imported cable channels, were due to arrive, and it was tempting
to view Bhutan as a kind of a nouvelle canary in the cyber mine
shaft. So, just a year after the advent of these two tectonic
technologies, I traveled to this Buddhist kingdom, which had
been so determined to maintain its own identity, to see how
it was weathering the penetration of the information and entertainment
One thing was immediately obvious: whereas the old controls
on trade, tourism, and foreign investment had depended on limiting
physical access, Bhutan was now confronting new and more elusive
kinds of globalizing influences that would not be impeded by
mountains, rivers, and jungles. TV and the Internet had radically
recast the terms of intrusion, and many Bhutanese were worried
about what Dasho Meghraj Gurung, the managing director of the
country's postal service, Bhutan Post, characterizes as "the
negative aspects of modernization" and "the mad race for the
acquisition of material things in life . . . which lead to a
lack of public accountability."
Walking past the main intersection in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital
city, only the most attentive person would notice the small
blue and white sign that hangs unobtrusively beneath a second-floor
window announcing a cybercafé. Upstairs, there is only a small
room decorated with a single Buddha image dangling from a wall
switch and three homemade booths equipped with ancient computers.
Pema Wangchuck, a shy 20-something who had been trained in India,
tells me that he opened the cybercafé in this rented room a
month ago, making it one of the first two Internet beachheads
in Thimphu. He charges 3 ngultrum ($0.07) per minute to go online.
recently, all I knew of the Internet was what I read in books
and magazines, but I believed the Internet was something extraordinary,"
Mr. Wangchuck says. "Now, as I understand it better, I see that
it really is a boon. If people learn how to use IT, the benefit
could be infinite, because it will help break our isolation
and give us easy access to the world!"
When I ask him if his customers come in just to surf the Net,
he somewhat despondently replies, "It's so expensive that they
get nervous about the cost. So it's mostly just girls who come
in to answer a little email. It's not yet for everybody's pocket.
Most will have to just remain excited." Mr. Wangchuck says that
the main challenge confronting his incipient business is simply
connecting to the Internet--all 32 dial-up lines to DrukNet,
Bhutan's only ISP, were busy so often.
DrukNet was inaugurated on June 2, 1999, as part of the silver
jubilee of King Wangchuck's coronation (druk means "dragon"
in Bhutan's official language, Dzongkha). It was initially conceived
as providing only intracountry email service, a hermetically
sealed communications system that would keep the rest of the
world at bay. But the king finally concluded that Bhutanese
should be able to navigate the entire World Wide Web like most
other people. The DrukNet inauguration ceremony, which was attended
by chanting monks and Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the
eldest of a quartet of sister-queens, heralded the king as the
"Light of the Cyber Age."
Despite the royal fanfare, DrukNet functions much like any small
ISP. "I don't think we'll make any profit for several years,
but we must factor in the social service aspect of our business,"
says Ganga Sharma, a young engineer of Nepali extraction who
was trained in the United States as a Fulbright Fellow at the
Florida Institute of Technology and oversees DrukNet's hardware.
As we talked, he stood admiring his Dell PowerEdge Server at
the telecommunications division of the Ministry of Communications.
Its blinking lights indicated that all available lines to the
outside world through British Telecommunications' Concert UK
hookup were being used by Bhutan's 600 Internet subscribers.
Part of DrukNet's mandate is to provide, at the same cost, service
from any point in Bhutan. This means that someone going online
in a provincial town over a local phone line connected by microwave
links to the capital pays the same phone and user charges as
someone next door to the server. The hope was, and still is,
that more schools, tour companies, businesses, and government
offices around the country will thus be encouraged to go online.
If successful, DrukNet will help Bhutan leap-frog the landline
phase of the telecommunications revolution and go right to microwave
When I raise the question of access to undesirable sites--no
small concern in a traditionalist country that has been so dedicated
to filtering out objectionable influences--Mr. Sharma acknowledges
that DrukNet did censor certain sights with some X-Stop gateway
hardware from a company in California. No one I talked to, however,
including the vice minister of communications, seemed deeply
concerned about the kinds of First Amendment issues that such
censorship would raise in the United States.
At the end of 2001, DrukNet had almost 1,000 dial-up customers.
Bhutanese tour and trekking companies, the mainstay of the country's
fragile economy, have become some of the Internet's biggest
enthusiasts. Where previously they had to fax brochures to hundreds
of overseas travel agents and call clients, now, the manager
of one trekking company told me, the use of Web sites and email
has reduced their international phone bills by 90 percent. By
the end of its first year, DrukNet hosted 15 new Web sites.
of the leaders of Bhutan's cyberrevolution is 38-year-old Umesh
Pradhan, a bright Nepali with a master's degree from George
Washington University. After working with the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation, Mr. Pradhan set up a software consulting
and training firm. But with the arrival of DrukNet, he rented
a two-room suite at Jojo's, Thimphu's first shopping arcade,
moved in eight computers, and opened an Internet café.
When I visited Jojo's, it was under construction, but it would
soon have a laundromat, a nightclub, a restaurant, and a food
court, as well as Mr. Pradhan's InfoTech Solutions Café.
In the spring of 2000, something quite unexpected occurred.
Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper, happened to mention Mr. Pradesh's
café. The BBC picked up the story from Kuensel's Web site, and
then Time magazine ran an item. Suddenly quaint little Bhutan,
hitherto known to the outside world as the last holdout against
the wages of technolust, became something of a cybercelebrity.
Alas, the publicity may have been global, but it hardly brought
a stampede of customers to Mr. Pradhan's café.
problem is that there are only three or four people in Thimphu
who are real IT pros, and there is not yet any real entrepreneurial
spirit," Mr. Pradhan complains. "The government has spent all
these years putting its heads in the sand, and now the gap is
growing. The question is: could they really catch up and take
advantage of this revolution?"
But there is another question: did they want to catch up? Or
did Bhutan want to continue marching to a somewhat different
drummer? After all, gross national happiness may not be advanced
by jumping too recklessly into the gale-force winds of the global
marketplace and technological change.
Mr. Pradhan is clear about what Bhutan should do, and he sees
people's interest in email as having already "broken" initial
resistance to the Internet. He stands in the hallway outside
his "café" with his American friend Bob Morgenthaler,
a sometimes consultant and something of a Bhutan groupie, and
unrolls a set of floor plans for the future. Gesticulating grandly,
he and Mr. Morgenthaler describe which walls they are going
to knock down to expand the café, where the food court
is going in, and how other shops will turn Jojo's into "one-stop
don't buy this pure Shangri-La thing," interjects Mr. Morgenthaler.
"To publicize Bhutanese culture and give it a stake in the cyberworld
is to save it. I mean, there are already over 20 video rental
stores in Thimphu. Some people here have seen more video movies
than anyone on the planet! And don't forget, lots of people
have long had satellite dishes. A small place like this needs
the Internet even more than a large place. Bhutan's one college
will never have the library resources of a big university abroad,
so the Internet is the perfect answer."
The presence of DrukNet has started to have a catalytic effect
on sleepy Thimphu. For example, Bede Key, an English expatriate
who worked with the British Voluntary Service Overseas and then
married a Bhutanese woman, set up the Visual Institute of Technology
with a Bhutanese partner, Singye Dorji. Their goal was not only
to train Bhutanese to use computers, but to develop an indigenous
an ambitious goal," admits Mr. Key, whose drip-dry white shirt,
black trousers, tufty hair, and manner of speaking in acronyms
would enable him to share in the community of international
geekdom anywhere. "Eighty percent of Bhutanese language software
is developed outside the country," he says, with outrage tingeing
his voice. "The challenge is to redress the balance and to build
self-reliance here by developing the export of IT."
As Mr. Key sees it, the foundations for this seemingly improbable
dream are actually pretty solid. "Bhutan has a very young population
[45 percent of its citizens are under 15 years of age]
and growing unemployment among its rapidly increasing class
of educated young people," he says. "And there are probably
a good number of ex-pats who wouldn't mind doing a little time
here in 'Shangri-La.'"
As reluctant as some in the government might have been to open
Bhutan to the outside world, the minister of communications
formed a division of information technology to help plan Bhutan's
admit I'm a computer buff," says Kinley Dorji (Dorji is a common
Bhutanese surname), the head of the division, as we meet in his small office, where
he sits in his gho in front of a new computer monitor. "But
we're just beginning. How are we going to do it all? Right now
I have no idea." The bright, energetic Cornell University MBA
gives a self-deprecating laugh. "We also have to develop a private
sector, because sufficient motivation will not come out of the
bureaucracy. But our market is small, so it's hard to find people
to fund projects. We need to prove that we are entrepreneurs
before we'll ever get capital. So possibilities of success are
not immediately great."
I ask Kinley Dorji about resistance to getting Bhutan online.
are moving too fast even for America, so imagine how people
feel here!" he exclaims. "Sure, our government is a little reluctant.
What they say is: Do we know enough about IT to avoid harm?
Everyone worries about pornography. TV and the Internet will,
of course, infringe on the time people spend at monastery festivals.
should give credit to our government's policy and the way the
idea of Bhutan as something unique has helped protect us. The
answer isn't to say that we don't want the Internet and all
that it brings. At some point, more involvement with the world
is inevitable. Instead of looking at it with fear, let's look
at it as an opportunity and trust in our record of balancing
things. Remember, most remote islands connected to the Internet
long ago. It kills distance. Think of it! It's a bit utopian
but a powerful image of the Internet's promise."
If Druk Air--with only several flights a week, the smallest
national carrier in the world--can be described as "small pipes,"
the Internet offers Bhutan large pipes. But perhaps the largest
pipes now linking Bhutan to the outside belong to another arriviste
medium. Until spring of 1999, Bhutan was one of the last countries
in the world without television. At the same time that the Internet
was inaugurated, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) started
a nightly one-hour TV news and variety show. But the effect
of this event paled in comparison with the jolt caused by the
arrival of cable television from beyond Bhutan's protective
mountain ranges. While some had already bought illegal satellite
dishes, it was not until several local cable companies set up
shop that ordinary people truly entered mondo cable.
Dago Beda, the cheerful and energetic managing director of Etho
Metho Treks and Tours, is an astute business person who basically
fell into the cable business. In 1999, she and her partner,
Rinzy Dorji, began hooking up local subscribers to a satellite
weren't sure what would happen," she coyly tells me in her office
overlooking Thimphu's only movie theater. "But then all the
government said to us was, 'No overhead lines, please.' So we
took the lines down. We've done a lot of digging for underground
Everyone, it seemed, was a bit surprised when the government
did nothing. "We just started to do what we wanted, but we ourselves
thought that BBS should have done cable," Ms. Beda continues,
shrugging diffidently. "Finally, they made some rules. So we
applied and then got a license."
Thus was born Sigma Cable Service, offering 26 channels, including
Home Box Office, Star Plus, BBC, Turner Network Television,
Cartoon Network, MTV, and ten pay-for-view channels. Sigma charges
1,500 nu ($52) for a hook-up and a 200 nu ($7) monthly subscription
fee. By the beginning of 2002, Sigma had signed up about 3,000
you know, when TV finally did come on in June 1999, I really
felt a little sorry," she says, suddenly turning somewhat triste.
"Gone are the days when we were so naive, when people just talked
together, read, and gardened rather than let the TV tell us
how it should be. Now we've entered a new world."
If she feels so ambivalent about this "new world," why did she
become part of the cable-ization of Bhutan?
I thought better us than someone else," she explains. "We, at
least, can control things. Once we attain our target, I want
to review all our channels. We want the BBC, Hallmark Channel,
and Nature, but I want to get rid of the action and professional
wrestling channel." She grows increasingly indignant. "I want
to say to our viewers that they should not watch this trash!
I mean, we still have a moral duty to our kids, and we do care
for our country! We can always go to the government and ask
them to control it."
It was confusing to hear Ms. Beda criticize something being
shown on her own cable system as if she were somehow not involved
with it being there. When I point out the obvious contradiction,
she just sighs. "The problem comes from too much freedom. TV
has happened outside, and it's going to happen here," she says.
"But how do we go about keeping TV or the Internet in balance?
Maybe it can happen differently in Bhutan. So far, we have managed,
because if there is one thing we Bhutanese have, it's our culture
to anchor us against the world."
But this cultural safeguard is precisely what the advent of
the Internet and cable threaten. In fact, since the advent,
nothing has agitated the Bhutanese quite so much as the sudden
appearance on their screens of beefy World Wrestling Federation
ogres body-slamming each other in a way that is hardly calculated
to earn much good karma.
The Sigma office is on Thimphu's main street in a dusty shop
where a pack of young children are often playing on the stoop,
sometimes dressing up like American professional wrestlers and
imitating their theatrical style of fighting. When I visit one
evening, I find a bored young woman, Deychan Dema, inside behind
a rickety table with a phone and an order pad with carbon paper.
(Bhutan is the only place where I have seen carbon paper in
the last decade.) The office is decorated with a few tattered
posters and the de rigueur portrait of the king above gritty
shelves of soft drinks and beer. A glassy-eyed boy sits before
a new color TV, surfing desultorily, with a remote, between
TNT, the Cartoon Network, MTV, and an action film.
Rinzy Dorji, Ms. Beda's partner was out of the office. In fact,
he had been out ever since a saboteur mysteriously started cutting
Sigma cables several days earlier. Like a county lineman, Rinzy
Dorji was trying to restore service to those customers deprived
of their nightly 26-channel fix.
football is on, people now stay up very late," says Ms. Dema,
a neighborhood girl hired to answer Sigma's phone, sheepishly.
"And kids know exactly when the World Wrestling Federation is
on. I like wrestling and Popeye."
terms of actually putting controls in effect, I think the government
sort of gave up on TV," complains Kinlay Dorjee, who works for
the World Wildlife Fund. "We have strict controls on foreign
investment, although I hear this may change. But we have no
such controls on television. And now we are also getting hooked
on the Internet. Suddenly we find ourselves stuck in front of
so many screens! It has become a kind of compulsion, so that
we feel it was almost like ignoring God, or Buddha, to not answer
Actually, it may not be long before Bhutanese have only one
screen to answer. While cable service presently has no connection
to the Internet, part of the reason that Ms. Beda and Rinzy
Dorji were interested in cable was because they understood that
ultimately it could provide pipes for the Internet as well.
Kinley Dorji, the Columbia University-educated editor of Kuensel,
has equipped his office with new computers, many of which are
linked to the Internet over modem. He is an articulate man of
about 40 whose wire-rimmed glasses and tousled hair provide
an interesting counterpoint to his pert, gray gho with white
As we sit chatting in his office, I ask him how he views all the
changes rocking Bhutan. "TV and the Internet are very new to
us, and their impact on family and society has not been fully
understood," he says without hesitation. "After all, we are
talking about a traditional society that only recently came
out of isolation. We feel vulnerable. In the past, we always
saw these threats in the form of physical occupation. But with
TV and the Internet, we must now fear a new threat--a kind of
A wistful look began to furrow Kinley Dorji's brow. "It's not
that TV and the Internet are bad, but that we're so small, unprepared,
and vulnerable. To use things like TV and the Internet intelligently
and not lose our uniqueness, our people need to be better educated.
If you let a subsistence Himalayan farmer watch sexy girls in
five-star hotel pools, . . . " his sentence trails off. "Well,
you have to ask: do human beings ever learn without going through
these mistakes themselves?"
This issue is being pondered by Karma Ura, an Oxford-educated
author and the director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a
government organization that is very much involved in questions
of cultural preservation and national identity in Bhutan. "I
thought, well, since the king is controlling things at the helm,
he should control TV, too," says Mr. Ura. "But then, he let
go. If all barriers are broken down, then all decisions will
become economic." It is rare, indeed, in Bhutan to hear anyone
criticize the king so directly.
When I ask Yeshey Jimba, Bhutan's minister of finance about
cable and pro wrestling, he pauses. "There is no doubt that
TV is now uncontrolled," he finally replies. "But to do anything
about it leads to criticism of being authoritarian, and we Bhutanese
are freedom-loving people." He smiles wanly. "Anyway, in certain
ways I think the days of such control are over."
Indeed, when I ask him about the prospect of allowing foreign
investment in Bhutan, he hints that it would not be long before
changes would be made here as well. Until 2001, Bhutan had a
uniquely strict policy against foreign investment; the only
outside development monies permitted were aid projects funded
by the United Nations and such benign countries as Canada, Denmark,
and Switzerland. This policy changed when two Bhutanese companies
engaged in the development of the country's tourism infrastructure
were permitted to form joint ventures with several Singaporean
and Indian investment groups to build first-class resorts and
When I ask Mr. Jimba about the Internet, he flips his bright
orange minister's sash, or kabne, over the shoulder of his checkered
gho and points proudly to a new computer on his desk. "I've
only had it two days," he crows with pride. "We have to embrace
the Internet, learn from it as much as possible, and use it
to good effect. But we must also inculcate respect for our culture
and values in our people, thereby building up our own strength
As we talk, I hear the chanting of monks begin from across the
courtyard of the Taschichoedzong, the fort-cum-monastery that
was the ancient summer residence of the government and clergy
and that presently houses the offices of the king and Je Khenpo,
Bhutan's spiritual patriarch. Mr. Jimba is himself a practicing
Buddhist, as are most officials in Bhutan's government. As soon
as he notices me listening to the chanting, he triumphantly
proclaims, "You see? Right over there, we have monks! Buddhism
here won't weaken!"
In the contest of cable TV and the World Wide Web vs. Buddhism,
it's hard to say which will prevail. The fates of other traditional
societies, from Alaska to Bali, Mongolia, and Tahiti, that are
struggling to keep their cultural balance through "selective
modernization" do not inspire great optimism. But Bhutan is
a curious holdout where the kind of go-go entrepreneurial energy
that has besieged so much of the hyperkinetic global marketplace
has been kept in abeyance. Bhutan, a small, reluctant Buddhist
refuge, seeks to measure its progress in long-term kalpas (a
measure of millions of years in the Buddhist faith) of good
karma and gross national happiness rather than in quarterly
corporate bottom lines. But now, as the siren song of the outside
world's infatuation with IT (never mind global terror) begins
to reverberate throughout Bhutan, even in this once quintessentially
isolated Himalayan land, a debate about globalization is gathering
Unlike countries where the only concern is how to get a bigger
piece of the global market, Bhutan, at least, is debating the
wager. In fact, the deputy minister of communications, Leki
Dorji, tells me that he has undertaken a survey on the effects
of the Internet and TV and is hoping to organize a media-advisory
committee to "do some soul-searching" about formulating a coherent
media policy. In almost every conversation, two starkly contradictory
imperatives are implicit: control heterodox influences from
outside lest they corrupt Bhutanese culture, or open up to gain
the obvious benefits of the larger world's hybrid vigor.
But one would have to conclude that Bhutan has passed an important
milestone in convergence with the outside world. Even one of
the architects of gross national happiness, current chairman
of the Council of Ministers and foreign minister Jigmi Thinley,
agrees. "We can continue to be cautious, but being cautious
does not mean shutting our eyes," he tells me in his office
upstairs from the National Assembly.
our eyes and cloistering ourselves as we did at one time during
the policy of isolation served us once. But then we took the
conscious decision to strengthen our sovereignty through involvement
in the world. That means some intrusion, and we are prepared
What about maintaining the integrity of Bhutan's vaunted traditional
people tend to look at culture as static, but actually culture
is always evolving," he replies emphatically. "It is a tool,
and when a tool becomes obsolete, you have to change it."
Perhaps, then, for this hesitant land to be electronically linked
to the outside is not so bad. After all, such interaction does
not involve invading armies, legions of businessmen, or phalanxes
of ganja-fueled backpackers. On both the Internet and TV, unwelcome
intrusions by real people can still be kept at bay.
we need money, but we should never forget that money is not
the end," emphasizes the division of information technology's
Kinley Dorji. "Whenever indigenous people meet with outsiders,
the indigenous people seem to lose. The difference between a
physical occupation and a virtual one could be huge. So, while
it still may be hard to get to Bhutan physically as a place,
we may nonetheless connect it more closely to the outside world."
He pauses a moment and then adds somewhat tentatively, "Maybe
I just see the bright side."
When Queen Wangchuck, who like her three sisters now has an
email address, attended the opening of DrukNet in 1999, she
optimistically described "Bhutan's dream for the Internet" as
being a window through which her people "will gain access to
the whole world without ever having to leave the tranquility
of their tiny remote villages."
The thought of cable television and the Internet tamed and harnessed
to minuscule Bhutan's humanism is an enchanting dream. But the
real question is not simply how well the government succeeds
in controlling traditional physical invaders, but whether the
Bhutanese and their culture will be strong enough to resist
challenge is this: can a nice tshechu dance at a monastery compete
with the World Wrestling Federation?" asks Kay Kirby, a former
Los Angeles Times editor who married a Bhutanese and moved to
Thimphu more than six years ago. "Since people are very aware
here, if any place can survive the onslaught, Bhutan can. Until
now, Bhutanese culture has held its own. This may be wishful
thinking, but I have hope." Everyone, it seems, is a little
suspicious of optimism.
By the end of 2001, the BBS had expanded its nightly television
programming. But the most seductive entrant in the television
wars was still cable. Around Thimpu, it was all too familiar
a sight to see young Bhutanese boys dressed up like Andre the
Giant, the Undertaker, or Dude mock body-slamming each other
as they played, as if the Lord Buddha was the patron saint of
the World Wrestling Federation.
Internet use in Bhutan, too, is growing rapidly. In September
2001, DrukNet added another upstream provider--KDTI in Japan--and
had almost 1,000 dial-up customers and about 40 Web sites. A
survey by the Bhutan division of information technology found
an acute shortage of people trained in IT skills. This, despite
the fact that, in addition to the pioneering Visual Institute
of Technology, Bhutan now boasts six private IT training institutes.
Also, the first two cybercafés in Thimphu now find themselves
in competition with four other upstarts, including one run by
Bhutan's postal service and another called Digital Shangri-La.
Mr. Pradhan's Internet café at Jojo's is going strong, with
several new rooms of computers; he is even providing computer-literacy
training to a complement of Bhutanese policemen.
Perhaps for this small landlocked kingdom, the arrival of the
Internet and cable TV will be providence. Indeed, even as virtual
video images from outside the country were cascading into Bhutan
at the end of last year, the country's tourist industry was
contracting, hammered by the global economic downturn, the September
11 terrorist attacks, and technical problems with tiny Druk
Air. As of the beginning of October, only 4,460 tourists had
managed to arrive physically in 2001, just more than half the
number of the previous year.
we are vulnerable," admits Mr. Dendup at the BBS. But he insists
that with one cross-country road that is blocked by snow in
winter and landslides in summer, and with one airline composed
of only two planes that often cannot fly because of bad weather,
technology is just what Bhutan needs. "For example, take my
father who is a priest at a temple," he playfully told me several
months ago. "When I recently bought him a CD player, he didn't
even know what it was. Now he brings it out every time monks
come for a puja ceremony. And what does he play? Religious music!
He has taken this new high-tech thing and put it to his own
uses! We have a saying in Bhutan: 'If it is medicine, you should
take it from an enemy. But if it is poison, you should refuse
it from a friend.'"
"Gross National Happiness," by Orville
Schell. Originally published in Red Herring, January
15, 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author.