The early 1990s signified an important moment in Bhutanese history, as a small kingdom sought geopolitical sovereignty by claiming (and sometimes violently enforcing) a national identity. Stories about a ‘Shangri-La about to lose its culture’, defending itself through a series of culture-protection laws, could suddenly be found in the popular media around the world. Meanwhile, critical voices of the Thimphu government’s undertaking remained few and far between, even though what they had to discuss was striking: xenophobia, contravention of international humanitarian law, and the largest per-capita expulsion of a group of citizens in modern record. Looking at such a dissonant narrative, it is hard to imagine that these two accounts are really of the same place – a utopian paradise on the one hand, and a purgatory of international human-rights crisis on the other. All the while, very little effort has been given over to exploring the links between these divergent discourses representing Bhutan. In today’s day and age, how is it that an issue such as the Bhutanese Shangri-La can simultaneously be a farce for some and a utopia for others?
The popularisation of the idea of Shangri-La as a mythical, magical valley can perhaps be wholly ascribed to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Since its publication, the term has been circulated and reused not only to describe mountain states (say, Tibet and Bhutan), but also various tourism resorts and even the US presidential retreat, with Camp David previously being called Shangri-La. Travel writing has, of course, been by far the most prolific genre for the global production of this idea. In a 2002 article published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, from the US, a writer named Barbara Watson discussed the pervasive and continuing importance of Hilton’s text in creating this geographical imaginary for Bhutan. “Normally, I don’t carry novels with me on trips; reality always turns out to be more satisfying than any fiction,” Watson wrote following a visit to Bhutan. “But this time, on a whim, I’d packed a copy of ‘Lost Horizon’, the 1933 classic that gave the world a new name for paradise: Shangri-La. In Bhutan, it proved as useful as a guidebook.”
The production and consumption of such texts – that of both Hilton and Watson, and others that follow in the same mould – coupled with their circulation through the global market, is precisely what creates ‘Shangri-La’ into what has to be dubbed a fetishised cultural commodity. More importantly, though, the power of these texts extends beyond the realm of the imagination and into material reality, where they inevitably shape and impact everyday lives and landscapes. Be it national tourism policies that deploy a discourse of isolation to sustain the value of travel for a tremendously lucrative international travel industry, or culture-protection laws that legitimise coercive state practices in the interests of a particular ethnic group, these policies are bound up in the everyday politics of representation of Bhutan as Shangri-La.
What seems to be simply a name is, in fact, bound up with an entire identity, reproduced in particular national and international interests. Assuming a name such as ‘Shangri-La’ therefore needs to be understood as a political act in and of itself, and the politics of such nomenclature need to be taken seriously. Nowhere does this become more evident than in the 2002 renaming of Zhongdian, a Tibetan-majority area in China’s southern Yunnan province, as Shangri-La County. Twelve other towns in China had competed for the name – as well as the associated USD 10 billion that subsequently went into the tourism-focused development of the renamed area.
Much as place names define our imaginations, so does travel writing, albeit in even more elaborate ways. By creating narratives of fantastic ‘unknown’ places, travel writing plays an extremely important role in the fashioning of tourist tastes. Because its borders were closed to most foreign travellers until the 1970s, the narratives of travel writers have been extremely important in constructing the Bhutanese landscape in the global imagination. Katie Hickman, in her 1987 travelogue Dreams of the peaceful dragon: A journey through Bhutan, writes, “We do not travel only to find the truth, but also to rediscover the mysteries that are in life…The world has few secrets left, but Bhutan is one of them. This is why I went there.” Not only is Bhutan thus constantly created as an unknown ‘mystery’, but even as an essentially unknowable one, thanks to the stringent measures instituted by the Bhutanese state in maintaining its isolation.
The overlaps with postcolonial critique here are hard to ignore. The postcolonial scholar Edward Said suggested that a systematic attempt to collect knowledge about the ‘unknown’ was crucial to colonialism. In light of the inherent power differential between the one who seeks knowledge and the one about whom the knowledge is sought, the desire to accumulate knowledge about a place such as ‘unknown’ Bhutan, as well as travel writers’ expressions of joy at attaining that knowledge, can both be considered a continuation of colonial undertakings of exploration and domination of ‘new’ and ‘unknown’ lands. In this way, regardless of whether tourists themselves are aware of this dynamic, any tourist embarking on a vacation ‘of discovery’ runs the risk of working hand in hand with the Bhutanese government, which engages in creating the object of these desires to ‘find the unknown’.
Druk Air’s in-flight magazine Tashi Delek carries an advertisement by the Bhutan Tourism Development Corporation, the country’s oldest travel agency, declaring: “Bhutan. The Last Shangri-La.” Alongside images of monks, monasteries and mountains is a promise of “the last surviving Mahayana Buddhist state”, “undiluted culture” and “unspoiled natural wonders”. Such ad campaigns, significantly bolstered by travel writing about ‘magical’ places waiting to be ‘discovered’, play a key role in nurturing Bhutan’s burgeoning tourism industry. Meanwhile, the restrictive and isolationist tourism policy serve the dual purposes of sustaining the mystery surrounding Shangri-La as well as maximising profits on this self-image. Sold as ‘high-value, low-volume tourism’, contemporary tourism policies in Bhutan limit demand by charging the exorbitant price of some USD 165-200 per day per person. In addition, foreign tourists are rarely allowed to travel without a licensed tour guide, and are forced to remain on restricted itineraries.
The approach seems to be working. Equivalent to between 15 and 20 percent of total exports, tourism is the third most important source of revenue for Bhutan. These numbers provide testimony to the material interests of the Bhutanese state and a new class of tourism entrepreneurs that has a stake in reproducing the Shangri-La image. The industry is highly concentrated among approximately 90 tour operators based in Thimphu, contributing to a suddenly expanding middle class. The Bhutanese tourist market tends to be largely North American, European and Japanese. Interestingly, despite the fact that Indian travellers do not need a visa (only a permit) to travel to Bhutan, in general the Bhutanese tourism industry does not engage in much marketing in India, because the Indian market does not provide the high-end clientele it seeks.
During the summer of 2002, this writer conducted semi-structured interviews with representatives from ten of the tour operators in Thimphu, as well as a representative from the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO). Almost all of the interviewees mentioned Bhutan’s ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ as commodities of utmost value for Western tourists, describing the country as ‘unspoilt’, ‘living paradise on earth’, ‘intact’, ‘well-preserved’, ‘age-old’, and the ‘last surviving Mahayana Buddhist country’. The ABTO representative likewise noted the ‘uniqueness’ of Bhutan, along with its culture and traditions as the country’s primary resources for the tourism industry. While these descriptions are certainly of the type one would expect from any tour operator trying to market a commodity, their rampant reproduction and circulation seem to mimic the accounts of Western travel writers. In this sense, tour operators in Bhutan are employing the same colonial discourse as the travel writers.
Certainly, Bhutan has strategically positioned itself as a most unique destination. Importantly, it is a product that can be aimed directly at the Western, upper-middle-class liberals whom the US columnist David Brooks, in his 2000 book Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there, called a contemporary “bohemian bourgeoisie”. Brooks and some tourism scholars see such tourists – distinct from mass tourists “who pile in and out of buses” – as being a part of a new postmodern phenomenon. At the same time, however, there are a few important considerations to explore with regard to the possibility that this is actually merely an extension of a modernist colonial project, with the same types of desires to possess knowledge about the ‘other’. The key here is that travel writers with the desire to possess this knowledge seem to be simply reproducing myths they might otherwise have dispelled – thus never actually making the ‘other’ anything other than the ‘other’.
Rhetoric of cultural preservation in contemporary Bhutan is justified and reproduced both by and through nationalist policies and practices. The tourism industry demonstrates the politics of self-representation in Bhutan, as well as its market relationship with romantic Western demands. The importance of tourism revenues to the Bhutanese state, as well as to the growing capitalist class of tour operators in Thimphu, along with the interweaving of ethnic identity politics with the strategies of self-representation, suggest that these everyday practices of ‘place-making’ are inherently political. In other words, the Bhutanese landscape is represented very explicitly in terms of particular class and ethnic interests. Indeed, alternative imaginings of this same landscape are different aspects of the same story, be it the drive towards cultural legislation in the interests of national security or the marginalisation of a minority group.
Such representational practices are by no means limited to discourse. They also find their ways into everyday policies and practices such as the much-publicised idea of Gross National Happiness as well as driglam namzha, the national code of dress, language and etiquette. The reassertion of culture and its importance in guiding Bhutanese nation-building is perhaps the single most important theme underlying its current development policy. This can be clearly seen in “Bhutan 2020: A vision for peace, prosperity and happiness”, a government document rife with populist declamations, such as: “The clear articulation of a cultural imperative has not only been used to guide our distinctive process of development but also to cushion us against alien influences and the many disruptive and undesirable impacts of indiscriminate modernization.”
Such a nationalist undertaking of cultural preservation might seem innocuous unless we understand its clear and direct relationship with the humanitarian crisis of the Bhutanese refugees. The story is one of a class and ethnic struggle between the Ngalop, the dominant, ‘nationalist’ group of the northwest, and the Lhotshampa, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese inhabiting the southern belt. Although the history of Nepali migration into Bhutan is widely contested, it is commonly agreed that a large migration to southern Bhutan occurred between 1890 and 1920 (see Himal May 2008, “Lhotshampa, Madhesi, Nepamul”). This migration continued after the 1950s, as skilled labour was imported for infrastructure-development projects.
Although initially requirements for gaining Bhutanese nationality for Nepali settlers were fairly lax, the Bhutanese government successively increased citizenship restrictions for the Lhotshampa through the coming decades, wary of demographic changes and political developments. In addition, the Thimphu government not only actively stressed the importance of the use of Dzongkha, the national language, in the public sphere, but the teaching of Nepali in public schools was also discontinued in 1990. Aside from this, in the Sixth Five-Year Plan, for 1987-92, Thimphu instituted the Driglam Namzha, which delineates acceptable modes of public behaviour for all Bhutanese citizens, a dress and an architecture code, largely based on cultural norms associated with the dominant Ngalop culture.
A combination of such policies led to the cultural and political marginalisation of the Lhotshampa, while simultaneously increasing resentment among them towards the Thimphu state. This resentment soon took the form of active political organisation, through the formation of such groups as the People’s Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) in July 1989 and the Bhutan’s People Party (BPP) in June 1990, both of which demanded political reform. On 26 August 1990, BPP President R K Budathoki submitted a charter to then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, demanding the “unconditional release of political prisoners, change from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, proportional representation for various ethnic groups in the cabinet, and reform of the judiciary.” Following demonstrations organised by the BPP and PFHR that were violently suppressed by the authorities, a mass exodus – often referred to as an expulsion – led to roughly 90,000 Lhotshampa ending up in refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. (This number has since swelled to around 107,000.) This process, it should be noted, was assisted by the Indian government’s refusal to intervene or allow the refugees to stay in Indian territory, which forced the refugees to travel westward to Nepal as the second state of asylum. The Lhotshampa refugees were to remain in the southeast corner of Nepal, in sweltering camps, for the following decade and a half, until a process of resettlement was begun in early 2008.
Although much of the literature on the Lhotshampa refugees does link the issue to the practices of cultural preservation that the Thimphu state mandates, very few actually make the connection between the colonial/neocolonial yearnings for pristine places and the practices of cultural preservation by the Bhutanese government. Such criticism has come mostly from refugee leaders and political activists in Nepal. Meanwhile, an uncomfortable number of Western writers, even academics, have remained either largely silent or even sympathetic to the Bhutanese government and its project of creating a ‘Drukpa’ national cultural identity to the exclusion of the Lhotshampa’s own identities.
A notable example of this Western authorship is Barbara Crossette’s travelogue So Close to Heaven: The vanishing Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas. In this work from 1996, Crossette discusses Bhutan’s cultural legislation as a nationalist project. In an article from the same year published in Asian Art & Culture, Crossette, a longtime New York Times correspondent, links the “artisanship of Himalayan Buddhism” to an “act of national security” in the interest of saving an “endangered civilization”. In her explanation of the Bhutanese state’s cultural legislation, Crossette tells a story of ethnic conflict between the Lhotshampa and the ‘endangered’ Drukpa culture, in which Bhutan’s Buddhist mainstream population is threatened by “a wave of predominantly Hindu Nepali immigrants”. The kingdom, in Crossette’s telling, thus becomes a “desperate” nation “entitled to defend and entrench a majority culture under pressure from dissenting minorities.”
Crossette is by no means alone in painting this romantic picture of ‘vanishing’ Buddhist communities in need of protection. Even during the critical year of 1990, the security scholar James Clad did the same in an article that referred to “a relentless intrusion of impoverished ethnic Nepalese” that was causing the Bhutanese to fear that they might lose their “unique Mahayana Buddhist identity”. Fears of ‘losing culture’ inevitably treat cultural identity as static. And arguing for the need for its preservation in a museum-type fashion is inherently colonial in its logic. Moreover, a loss of cultural identity should not be equated with, nor should it lead to a humanitarian crisis of statelessness, and a plight of people removed from their homes and livelihoods. The coercive nature of nationalist cultural politics is thus lost in celebrations of its purported benefits.
At the same time, some writers do engage with this issue critically. Michael Hutt, a widely published Himalaya scholar, notes that Bhutan has managed to maintain the loyalty of some foreign academics who are “fiercely protective of Bhutan” and “seem to swallow the ‘voluntary emigration’ and ‘cultural swamping’ arguments whole, apparently without question.” This academic narrow-sightedness can be partially attributed to the Bhutanese government’s strict control over who gets access to the country, what types of academic work is done and, consequently, what kinds of knowledge is produced.
“And so saying, they spun the prayer-wheel, and cast their vote,” wrote The Economist in March 2008. On the 24th of that month, of course, Bhutan held its first multiparty election. For many, this historic moment signalled a critical political transition, from an ‘ancient kingdom’ to a ‘modern democracy’ – despite the fact that the party perceived as more loyal to the monarchy ultimately won the elections in a landslide. Indeed, despite this recent democratic development, the overall landscape of political spaces in Bhutan today demonstrates a severe lack of press freedom, civil liberties and political rights.
In 2003, the global watchdog Reporters without Borders ranked Bhutan 157th (out of 166 countries) for its press freedoms, although the ranking has jumped to 74th in 2008. Rankings from the US-based Freedom House, on the other hand, indicate that Bhutan’s press freedoms have actually decreased over the past decade. Freedom House also consistently ranks both civil liberties and political rights in Bhutan as among the lowest in the world. Interestingly, Bhutan was ranked as ‘partly free’ before 1992 and ‘not free’ from then on – coinciding with the time of the inter-ethnic conflict that precipitated the Lhotshampa refugee crisis.
The legitimacy of the imagining of Bhutan as Shangri-La depends not only on transnational exchanges of images and texts, but also on the capital flows of the international tourism industry. Despite the need to work against this false imagining, the issue is rarely contested outside of specialist circles – and almost never within Bhutan itself. Such a lack of political space, and its active repression by the Bhutanese state, is of course deplorable; but still more so is the sometimes resounding global silence on the issue. All the while, Shangri-La-like narratives continue to multiply. Meanwhile, colonial and neocolonial representations of Bhutan in travel writing and the country’s tourism industry become manifest in the very real policies and practices of the Bhutanese government, and are directly linked to the plight of the Lhotshampa refugees. Old and neocolonial fantasies still matter, as do the economic and political crises they help to deliver.
~ Aman Luthra completed his master’s degrees in Geography and Public Administration at Syracuse University, and works in public-sector management in Washington, DC.