On 4 December, the royal government of Bhutan undertook perhaps its most high-profile discussion ever of the country’s human-rights record, in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Simultaneously, a group of resettled Bhutanese refugees in Europe were likewise undertaking perhaps the most high-profile public demonstrations ever to highlight that same rights record. The occasion was Thimphu’s official handover of a report on its human rights to the HRC’s new Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism created in 2006 that will look at the rights records of all UN member states on a four-yearly basis. Despite decades of positioning itself as a leader of a new form of citizen-first policymaking – dubbed Gross National Happiness by the former king – the exercise in Geneva constituted the first time that Thimphu had ever engaged in an international exploration of its record on human rights, triggered both by this fresh imperative and pride in the country’s status as the world’s newest democracy. As officials were drawing up this first-ever report, however, many observers have been angry that Thimphu was still not treating the exercise with due diligence. Although the criticism has not been from Europe alone, in Geneva the refugees gathered to allege that, despite extending to more than 11,000 words and covering a broad synopsis of recent Bhutanese history, the report included little information about the many serious accusations that have been levelled against the royal government over the past two decades. These have ranged from charges of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa community of southern Bhutan during the late 1980s and early 1990s (more than 100,000 of whom subsequently lived for years in camps in southeastern Nepal); to more recent allegations of restricting the voting rights of the some 80,000 Lhotshampa that still live in Bhutan during the country’s first-ever elections, held in early 2008.
In fact, contrary to the initial suggestions (including some subsequent reporting), the Bhutanese document does indeed include analysis of the Lhotshampa situation, albeit from a perspective that does little to address the underlying concerns. Under the heading of “Illegal immigration”, the report contextualises those tens of thousands who were kicked out of the country as having illegally emigrated to Bhutan during the 1950s; blames the “political turmoil” of the late 1980s on vested political interests; and explains the subsequent situation surrounding the refugee camps in Nepal as due to a lack of “any screening procedures”. (The “Illegal migration” section is followed by an ominous “Terrorism” section.) As correctly noted by the Geneva protestors, however, the report has nothing to say about more recent allegations, particularly those of day-to-day repression of Lhotshampa (and other minorities) of Bhutan, as well as those of many being denied the right to vote in the historic 2008 polls.
The media response to the Geneva events was telling. In Nepal, the day before the protest in Geneva was scheduled, the country’s largest-circulation English-language daily, the Kathmandu Post, published a front-page story on the rationale for the demonstration. In Bhutan, on the other hand, none of the major English papers included any mention of what was taking place in Europe – on neither the report nor the protests. Two weeks earlier, the former state-run Kuensel newspaper had published a piece on the upcoming report for the UPR under the tantalising headline, “Bhutan in the hot seat”. But the article’s first line instead included pat references to how “When Bhutan presents its national report for the universal periodic review … the country’s delegation will be commended on the successes and also have to provide clarity on, among others, some largely inaccurate claims and allegations.” And so the grounds were set for what could have been a new page in dialogue over a notoriously contentious, if little discussed, issue: the dichotomy between Bhutan’s positioning of itself as a progressive-though-traditional idyll, and the serious criticisms of the country’s authoritarian-to-dictatorial political set-up.
This disparity has been highlighted at the Himal office in recent months as well, as two essentially self-published Bhutan-related books have been sitting – together yet uneasily – on the editorial desk. The first of these is an achingly lyrical series of day-to-day semi-fictional vignettes written by an acclaimed former editor of Kuensel and current Information Ministry secretary; the second is a do-it-yourself handbook in the activist vein, written by a young Bhutanese journalist living in exile in Nepal. As can be adduced by their equally leading titles, as ‘companion’ pieces these two works stare in diametrically opposite directions, each in its own way digging a surreptitious elbow into the other’s soft midriff.
Becoming a Journalist in Exile is a worthy work for a very tiny readership, aimed at motivating and offering some ethical (and sometimes shrill) media guidelines for young Bhutanese both in and out of Bhutan. In addition to a few chapters of textbook-like content, this work by exile journalist T P Mishra (described as a ‘permanent resident’ of Dagana District, in southern Bhutan) also includes some smattering of pieces by journalists and media activists from other parts of the region and world. By and large, however, the book does not seem to have been written with an eye to broadening its appeal. For instance, it gives only a cursory history of the nascent Bhutanese media in exile in Nepal (though the few pages that are included are easily the most energising section of the book, giving an overview of the dozens of publications that have come and gone within the camps-based diaspora and beyond); nor is it structured so as to function as a media handbook for other exile communities.
And that is okay. While Mishra’s work descends in places into pamphleteering, the fact of the matter is the Bhutanese journalism in exile (almost exclusively in Nepal) remains active, functional and, perhaps most importantly, relevant and relatively effective – this despite significant hurdles, economic, legal and otherwise, that come with working under refugee conditions. Its pretensions to objectivity notwithstanding, after all, this is activist journalism at its most imperative. It is worth noting that exile journalists have also been functioning freely for a decade longer than have their counterparts in Bhutan, where private media was proscribed until 2006.
Can Kinley Dorji’s Within the Realm of Happiness also be termed a work of proselytising? On the surface, it would certainly not seem to be. Everything about this work is beautiful – quaint, minimalist and introspective – from the textured cover to the content, from the odd haiku-like double-spacing throughout to the author’s personal inscription in this particular copy: “Here’s hoping that Bhutan is able to preserve the last of its past,” Dorji wistfully wrote on the frontispiece. Indeed, the following 13 pieces contain all of the backward-looking nostalgia and forward-looking anticipation that one would expect from a seemingly progressive Bhutanese intellectual – Dorji seems like a great teacher and friend, and this reviewer was more than happy to follow him down the mist-enshrouded stone steps of his semi-fictional childhood. (Although the work follows the stories of different ‘characters’, all seem to be thinly veiled versions of the man himself.) But why is there a constant sense of propaganda lingering at the margins?
The answer probably begins with the title. Inevitably, and unfortunately, perfectly upstanding ideas are regularly taken over and occupied by interest groups; recall only former US President George W Bush’s repeated usage of the word freedom. Likewise, the idea of Gross National Happiness seems to hold some excellent lessons for state structures around the world; but repeating that concept ad nauseum will not only tend to grate, but will also make onlookers apprehensive about what this constant rhetoric could be covering up. If nothing else, the author’s use of ‘happiness’ as a regular motif violates an old writing-school rule: Show, don’t tell. Instead, his title page leads into his preface (“it struck me that His Majesty the King had taught us a supreme lesson in impermanence,” he writes about the 2006 announcement of the country’s transition to democracy), which finally leads to his last chapter, where the pretension finally seems to drop entirely: “[Gross Domestic Product] was a broken promise … Representing a holistic approach to the transformation of society, [Gross National Happiness] was soon to inspire other countries as a higher goal for human development.” How true both of those statements, and how unfortunately lacking in credibility in this context.
Of course, there is far more to Druk Yul than the issue of what took place to those tens of thousands of citizens who were kicked out of the country two decades ago – far more, even, than the ethnic discrimination that continues to take place within the country today. Dorji and other writers are correct in seeking to highlight these many other uniquely Bhutanese aspects, of history and culture tradition, of beauty and pain and growth. But to carry water for a nationalistic cause under the banner of ‘the realm of happiness’, even while refusing to grapple with issues that do not fit that matrix, unfortunately tarnishes both the nationalist project and the issue it is without doubt trying to sell – in this case, the truly powerful idea of Gross National Happiness.
Through the course of Dorji’s stories, there is no mention made of any of the issues that were brought up surrounding the Universal Periodic Review reporting in Geneva. That a journalist of Dorji’s stature and insight would have nothing to say about such monumental issues in the course of his country’s modern-day evolution denotes, at best, a specific decision in favour of elision. Others, however, are keenly interested. In Geneva, the Bhutanese delegation tabled its report before 43 delegates from other member countries, and a significant percentage of them proceed to ask pointed and probing questions on issues of refugees, citizenship and repatriation. Yet according to reports, the Bhutanese delegation members’ only responses revolved around two issues: the king’s structured transition of the country to democracy, and Gross National Happiness. In such a dynamic, with Bhutan on one side of the table and the questioning delegates on the other, it is clear where T P Mishra and Kinley Dorji would have been sitting.
~Carey L Biron is the desk editor for Himal Southasian.