Bhutan & Nepal: The Somber and the Elated

By Sisir Devkota —There cannot be a question on Bhutan’s self acknowledgment of being the most happy nation on earth. Bhutan’s self1 induced happiness tool- GNH (Gross National Happiness) is a testimony to that. But self-admiration aside; are the Bhutanese people really happy? The World Happiness Report2 published in 2016 suggests otherwise. Denmark leads the chart with Nepal scoring a commendable 107th place out of 157 nation states. Definitely happier than Nepal; Bhutan registered a suspicious 87th in the report. It stops getting funny when the report marks Libya(67th) and Somalia(76th) above Bhutan.

Without any prejudice, does it mean that Bhutan is less ecstatic a nation than both conflict hit nations? It is difficult to decide but for the sake of an argument and at Bhutan’s strongest dissent; it would be just fair to at least consider that Bhutan’s happiness is counterfeiting and dubious. Troubles lie ahead for Bhutan; but how can it seek a lesson from Nepal? Or, an improbable support if the time ever arrives.

Nepal and Bhutan do not share any direct territorial link but are separated by an Indian state, largely inhabited by Nepali speaking Indian nationals. Not close but not so far-Bhutan illegally deported less than hundred thousand Nepali speaking Bhutanese during the 90’s and bestowed a refugee burden to the Nepalese government. Bhutan has a miserable human rights record and has recently allowed its citizens to enjoy the internet and satellite broadcasting Television.

The ADB has predicted the Bhutanese economy to grow by 6.4 % in 2017 but Bhutan3 got rid of absolute poverty by the 2000’s and Thimphu- the capital city exhibits grandness. At least, the infrastructure in the Bhutanese capital can trick foolish eyes. Perhaps, the Bhutanese government means how the complete takeover of hydro energy imports by India is making Bhutan happy with the profit they make at the perils of its national sovereignty. The revised Peace and Friendship treaty between both nations which was initially signed in 2007 effectively limited Bhutan’s freedom of drafting its own foreign policy and falling victim to “India’s guidance”. Bhutan might deny it, but then why does the Indian Army construct roads and its training campsinside Bhutanese territory? The Chinese people are flooding Bhutan as tourists and currently make up 20% of their total tourist arrivals.

Put this in perspective with the young and educated king Jigme.K.N.Wangchuk ruling a landlocked nation of less than a million; squeezed by India and China as its sole neighbors. Nepal faces the same problem as Bhutan of having to dance on both Indian and Chinese whims; but there are two striking differences between the sad republic and an upbeat kingdom.

Firstly, political whims are easy to assort in an old crown with fewer citizens than in a modern, vibrant, unstable and yet a democratic republic. Secondly, Bhutan has to dance on the whims of its neighbors and Nepal can still choose to decide whether and if it wants to have a Bhutanese fate at the hands of its powerful friends. The development and riches in Bhutan have come with this price and the Gross National Happiness has been used as a self fulfilling mask to feel happy about an economically profiting nation.

Hydro energy exports are not going to sustain Bhutanese happiness as it does currently to fulfill the energy demands of more than two billion people in the Indian sub-continent. Nor can it sustain an age old monarchical government whose people are fed with world class education from abroad and immersed into a culture of receiving income in exchange of displaying their allegiance to the monarchy.

When the hydro projects dry and Bhutan is forced towards an evolution, it will look at Nepal; fairly thirty to forty years later than Nepal’s own modern transformation. The influence of both India and China in Nepal’s latest revolution is a lesson Bhutan can already acclimatize for its future.

There are two possible scenarios of what will happen to Bhutan in the forthcoming years. Bhutan will continue to be a happy nation dazzled by its own GNH appraisal. Or, Bhutan will unleash a lethal contest if not a confrontation of two emerging superpowers on its tiny mountainous space. That is going to be true; especially because of both India and China who will realistically seek an isolated zone away from their own lands to test their might.

The fact that both China and Bhutan have not been able to establish official diplomatic ties over the years; fuels the skepticism shared by many commentators over India’s meddling into the kingdom’s affairs. It is Bhutan who will face the brunt and find itself amidst an international crisis. Governance structures could possibly change, forcing widespread reforms; especially with changes in the role of monarchy over national affairs. Given the amount of capital being invested and the level of profit margins being predicted for the future; Bhutan will repeat the problems of having inadequate labor and insufficient population like that of contemporary oil exporting nations. Hydro energy investment in Bhutan might encourage Nepal; which has similar power generating capacities and exact geopolitical implications. But, Bhutan will be on the edge and Nepal can use its example to navigate its own development strategy in the Indian subcontinent.

Possible alliances between the two landlocked nations is not only desirable but could also be the only option for Bhutan’s self inflicted problems. Yet, such close and identical nations do not share diplomatic missions. Although Bhutan and Nepal shared common history and grievances of the pre modern era, Bhutan galloped first; leaving Nepal with the future opportunity to exercise its own influence inside the tiny kingdom. Whether or not Nepal will play a part in the evolution of Bhutan is another dialectic; but it is no surprise to whose mountain waters are on course to be elated.

Notes:

  • To measure state prosperity, Bhutan’s the then king Jigme Singye Wangchuk developed the concept of Gross National Happiness. It has met with several methodological criticisms over the years.
  • World Happiness Report as indicated in http://worldhappiness.report/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/03/HR-V1_web.pdf
  • ADB predictions as mentioned in The Economist, “Happy Grow Lucky”. Volume 421, Number 9012
  • As reported in various media reports, Indian Army bases exist in Upper Paro Valley.

(Published on Feb. 7, 2017)

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