This contribution introduces the problems associated with Bhutan’s development model as it is being challenged by its own success as being unique and at the same time it is under heavy pressure due to its location between India and China. The geopolitical factor plays a determining role in terms of India’s attempts to steer Bhutan’s destiny in various directions, which may or may not succeed. Ethnic mobilization and attempts to create ethnic purity is a way to defend national sovereignty but may also become a stumbling block for democracy and development.
Bhutan has recently attracted worldwide attention from the United Nations, the international donor community, and progressive individuals and organizations, who consider its ‘Middle path development strategy’ as an exemplary model of development. This development philosophy claims to rely on self-reliance, a high degree of equality and especially the notion about Gross National Happiness (GNH) which implicitly and explicitly promotes de-growth as an alternative to GNP and emphasis on ecology, harmony between nature and man, and societal happiness. This strategy appear to steer Bhutan’s development away from the pitfalls of mainstream neoliberalism and the problems associated with excessive statism and etatism through an extensive attempt to implement democratization. Scholars cite, among other factors, the smooth transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy; the introduction of a multiparty democracy; the introduction of GNH as a measure of wellbeing; increasing life expectancy (from 50 to 70 years within two decades); almost 100 percent enrollment rates in primary and secondary education; and overall improved health and poverty standards as reasons for this phenomenon. However, external factors are now challenging the effectiveness of the GNH model in helping Bhutan develop. Bhutan’s illiteracy levels and poverty rates are still high, and rapid urbanization empties Bhutan’s rural areas and increases its rural-urban divide. The population’s rising expectations increase demands on the state; unemployment remains high, especially among youth; and despite the promises of the GNH, inequality and uneven development continue to rise. However, these factors are symptoms of a more serious problem: Bhutan’s geopolitics. It is difficult to measure whether GNH has helped Bhutan in its endeavors to reach out to an alternative model since it is still haunted by its ethnic legacy, which is challenging the model itself and the attempts by external influence by its neighboring giants India and China.
With a population of almost 800,000 people and the size of Switzerland, Bhutan is geographically and geopolitically squeezed between Asia’s two giants: India and China. Despite the GNH’s acclaim, the historical legacy of this geostrategic rivalry has had a much greater, if not determining, impact on Bhutan’s development. Bhutan has never enjoyed diplomatic relations with China and has an unresolved, drawn-out border dispute with Beijing. In contrast, Bhutan has historically been under India’s security umbrella and until quite recently was unable to conduct an independent foreign policy without “consultations” with India. The Kingdom of Bhutan factors so heavily in India’s political strategy, in fact, that it became the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit after his party won India’s May 2014 election in India.
Furthermore, Bhutan overwhelmingly depends on India for development aid, trade, and investment. Delhi’s interference in the country’s domestic affairs became clear during Bhutan’s last election in July 2013, when India withdrew all subsidies on cooking gas and kerosene, creating a crisis and effectively determining the outcome of the election.
This severe dependency on India left very few options open for this small nation. To combat India’s overwhelming influence and respond to the rise of ethnic mobilization in the country, beginning in the 1980s, Bhutan has emphasized its cultural uniqueness and introduced a process of cultural cleansing, called Bhutanization, promoting ethnic nationalism and purity.
Bhutanization was a “successful” nation-building strategy, as it excluded the voice of ‘the other:’ in Bhutan, the Lhotshampas, or the ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese. The creation of one nation one people became the country’s national identity, and helped shape a defense and foreign policy based on cultural homogeneity and cultural uniqueness. As a result, 100,000 Lhotshampas were either expelled or left the country in the late 1980s. With India’s assistance the Lhotshampas, consisting of one sixth of the total population – were expelled to refugee camps in Nepal and later dispersed to the United States and a number of European countries as UN quota refugees.
Bhutanization also led to the introduction of Driglam Namzha, a hierarchical system or code of conduct and discipline that translates as “the system of ordered or cultural behavior.” A royal decreein 1989 made Driglam Namzha a formal requirement, and made wearingnational dress when working at or visiting a public authority, such as a school or government office, compulsory. The wearing of the Gho for men and Kira for women, however, is only one small part of the Driglam Namzha. The system encompasses a range of social engineering instruments, which in the absence of military might and economic power, replaces the traditional meaning of sovereignty based on security with a humbler, but still strong, culturally-based sovereignty and national identity. This has also had a determining impact on ethnic and other types of identity or social mobilization and opposition strategies in the country.
Bhutanization also manifests itself in the Kidu. The term means wellbeing and is the prerogative of the King to grant citizenship, land and property rights, educational scholarships, and social subsidies to the needy. It is a gift from the King to his minions, or children as he calls the people of Bhutan. Driglam Namzha and the Kidu system gives the King and the elite extra-parliamentary power and establishes a shadow power system, which also affects foreign policy and the special relationship to India. In this way, the previous government “lost” the election under mysterious circumstances due to India’s interference in the election.
In addition to Bhutan’s growing economic inequalities and uneven development, a lack of cultural equity is rising fast in its society. This will lead to exclusion of opposition, diversion of critique, othering, and no civil society, trade unions, or other independent organizations or associations that constitute a democratic society. Despite the developed world’s assessment of Bhutan’s miraculous transformation to democracy, Bhutanization is destroying any democratic tendencies Bhutan may have developed.
Bhutan needs support for its attempt to create an alternative development trajectory and a push to nurture and include all section of society. It also needs more diplomatic, political and economic support in order to create an alternative to the interference from India.
Johannes Dragsbaek Schmidt studied International Relations and Development Studies at Aalborg University in Denmark and is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Senior Expert at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at Copenhagen University. He has had visiting research fellowships in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Poland, and at the Institute for Political Economy at Carleton University in Canada. His most recent research includes a European Union-funded study about foreign policy in India and a Danish government-funded project about Health and Education in Bhutan. His research interests range from globalization and the international division of labor to social and welfare policy and state regulations, with a focus on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. His most recent publications include Globalization and Social Change with Jacques Hersh in 2002; The New Political Economy of Southeast Asia with R. Rasiah in 2011; and Development Challenges in Bhutan: Perspectives on Inequality and Gross National Happiness in 2017.