I first heard about Bhutan a few years ago in a magazine article. It sounded like an idyllic place, peaceful, traditional, and abounding in natural beauty. Tourism was tightly controlled to prevent excess demands on the ecology of the country, and to limit the influence of foreign materialism on Bhutanese children. The people adhered to a national dress code; I remember watching closely for the Bhutanese team at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, to see what Bhutanese clothing looked like. What struck me most about the article, however, was the fact that Bhutan was the only country in the world that measured "Gross National Happiness" instead of the usual GNP.
My idealistic fascination with Bhutan was jolted recently when I read about refugee camps in Nepal, where roughly 100,000 people have been living for over 15 years since they were driven out of Bhutan by its government. This took place after a 1989 uprising of ethnic Nepali people in Bhutan. They were being forced to adopt the official Bhutanese clothing and learn the Bhutanese language, as well as being pressured to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism. The uprising was an attempt to replace the hereditary monarchy of Bhutan with a more democratic form of government. It failed, and many Nepalese people were driven out, losing homes and land. From time to time they try to leave the refugee camps and return to Bhutan, but they are turned back when they have barely started. There is a piece of India separating Nepal from Bhutan, and Bhutan asks India to stop the refugees at its border with Nepal, refusing them permission to cross its territory. Meanwhile, within Bhutan, there is ongoing pressure on the remaining Nepalese "to adopt Bhutanese dress, customs, religion, and language."
It seems the peaceful mountain kingdom is not so peaceful after all.
Yet the news is not all bad; the system of government has been gradually moving away from an absolute monarchy to a more representative system.
By 1999 the king was no longer head of government; that position was held by head of the cabinet, which is responsible to the national assembly. Since then the country has moved slowly toward adopting a new constitution; in 2005 a draft of the proposed constitution was released.What is peace? Does it include the tranquil existence that Bhutan has purchased at the cost of forcing its citizens to either be the same, or leave?