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MingusMag For your attention Date: Sat, 14 Jun 2003 23:40:47 +0000 (UTC)
THE SECOND CRACK IN THAT COSMIC EGG OF RACISM
Thanx 2 cton who spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited
Note from cton 4 : mingusmagazine.com -------To see this story with its related links on the
Guardian Unlimited site, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk
Fast forward into trouble Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became
the last nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed in centuries,
was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came Bhutan's first crime wave -
murder, fraud, drug offences.
Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report from a country crash-landing in the 21st century
Thursday June 12 2003 The Guardian
April 2002 was a turbulent month for the people of Bhutan. One of the remotest nations in the
world, perched high in the snowlines of the Himalayas, suffered a crime wave. The 700,000
inhabitants of a kingdom that calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon had never experienced
serious law-breaking before. Yet now there were reports from many towns and villages of fraud,
violence and even murder.
The Bhutanese had always been proud of their incorruptible officials - until Parop Tshering,
the 42-year-old chief accountant of the State Trading Corporation, was charged on April 5 with
embezzling 4.5m ngultrums (£70,000). Every aspect of Bhutanese life is steeped in
Himalayan Buddhism, and yet on April 13 the Royal Bhutan police began searching the provincial
town of Mongar for thieves who had vandalised and robbed three of the country's most ancient
stupas. Three days later in Thimphu, Bhutan's sedate capital, where overindulgence in rice wine
had been the only social vice, Dorje, a 37-year-old truck driver, bludgeoned his wife to death
after she discovered he was addicted to heroin. In Bhutan, family welfare has always come
first; then, on April 28, Sonam, a 42-year-old farmer, drove his terrified in-laws off a cliff
in a drunken rage, killing his niece and injuring his sister.
Why was this kingdom with its head in the clouds falling victim to the kind of crime associated
with urban life in America and Europe? For the Bhutanese, the only explanation seemed to be
five large satellite dishes, planted in a vegetable patch, ringed by sugar-pink cosmos flowers
on the outskirts of Thimphu.
In June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on television. The Dragon King
had lifted a ban on the small screen as part of a radical plan to modernise his country, and
those who could afford the £4-a-month subscription signed up in their thousands to a cable
service that provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment, much of it from Rupert
Murdoch's Star TV network.
Four years on, those same subscribers are beginning to accuse television of smothering their
unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own, and of threatening to
destroy an idyll where time has stood still for half a millennium.
A refugee monk from Tibet, the Shabdrung, created this tiny country in 1616 as a bey-yul, or
Buddhist sanctuary, a refuge from the ills of the world. So successful were he and his
descendants at isolating themselves that by the 1930s virtually all that was known of Bhutan in
the west was James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. He called it Shangri-la, a secret Himalayan
valley, whose people never grew old and lived by principles laid down by their high lama: "Here
we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies
of a dying age."
In the real Bhutan, there were no public hospitals or schools until the 1950s, and no paper
currency, roads or electricity until several years after that. Bhutan had no diplomatic
relations with any other country until 1961, and the first invited western visitors came only
in 1974, for the coronation of the current monarch: Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Today,
although a constant stream of people are moving to Thimphu - with their cars - there is still
no word in dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, for traffic jam.
But none of these developments, it seems, has made such a fundamental impact on Bhutanese life
as TV. Since the April 2002 crime wave, the national newspaper, Kuensel, has called for the
censoring of television (some have even suggested that foreign broadcasters, such as Star TV,
be banned altogether). An editorial warns: "We are seeing for the first time broken families,
school dropouts and other negative youth crimes. We are beginning to see crime associated with
drug users all over the world - shoplifting, burglary and violence."
Every week, the letters page carries columns of worried correspondence: "Dear Editor, TV is
very bad for our country... it controls our minds... and makes [us] crazy. The enemy is right
here with us in our own living room. People behave like the actors, and are now anxious, greedy
But is television really destroying this last refuge for Himalayan Buddhism, the preserve of
tens of thousands of ancient books and a lifestyle that China has already obliterated over the
border in Tibet? Can TV reasonably be accused of weakening spiritual values, of inciting fraud
and murder among a peaceable people? Or is Bhutan's new anti-TV lobby just a cover for those in
fear of change?
Television always gets the blame in the west when society undergoes convulsions, and there are
always those ready with a counter argument. In Bhutan, thanks to its political and geographic
isolation, and the abruptness with which its people embraced those 46 cable channels, the issue
should be more clearcut. And for those of us sitting on the couch in the west, how the kingdom
is affected by TV may well help to find an answer to the question that has evaded us: have we
become the product of what we watch?
The Bhutanese government itself says that it is too early to decide. Only Sangay Ngedup,
minister for health and education, will concede that there is a gulf opening up between old
Bhutan and the new: "Until recently, we shied away from killing insects, and yet now we
Bhutanese are asked to watch people on TV blowing heads off with shotguns. Will we now be
blowing each other's heads off?"
Arriving at dusk, we pass medieval fortresses and pressed-mud towers, their roofs carpeted with
drying scarlet chillies. Faint beads of electric light outline sleepy Thimphu. Twisting lanes
rise and fall along the hillside, all of them leading to the central clock tower, where the
battered corpse of Tshering, a 50-year-old farmer, was found. In this Brueghel-like scene,
crowded and shambolic, where the entire population shares fewer than two dozen names, TV is
omnipresent. Potato stores sell flat-screen Trinitrons; old penitents whirl their prayer wheels
outside the Sony service centre; inside every candle-lit shop-house a brand new screen
His Excellency Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's foreign minister, greets us wrapped in an orange scarf,
a foot-long silver sword hanging over his ceremonial robe, or gho. He sweeps us into a pillared
hall embossed with golden dragons to explain why the king welcomed cable television to the Land
of the Thunder Dragon. "We wanted a goal different from the material concept of maximising
gross national product pursued by western governments," he says with a beatific smile. "His
Majesty decided that, as a spiritual society, happiness was the most important thing for us -
something that had never been discussed before as a policy goal or pronounced as the
responsibility of the state." And so, in 1998, the Dragon King defined his nation's guiding
principle as Gross National Happiness.
But happiness proved to be an elusive concept. The Bhutanese wondered whether it increased with
a bigger house or the number of revolutions of a prayer wheel. A delegation from the foreign
ministry was sent abroad to investigate whether happiness could be measured. They finally found
a Dutch professor who had made its study his life's work and were disappointed to learn that
his conclusion was that happiness equalled £6,400 a year - the minimum on which one could
live comfortably. It was a bald and irrelevant answer for the Bhutanese middle classes, whose
average annual salary was barely £1,000 and whose outlook was slightly more metaphysical.
The people of Bhutan, however, finally decided for themselves what would make them happy.
France 1998 was driving the football-mad kingdom into a frenzy of goggle-eyed envy of those who
were able to watch the World Cup on television. The small screen had always been prohibited in
Bhutan, although the kingdom was crisscrossed by satellite signals that it was finding
increasingly difficult to keep out. Even the king was rumoured to have a Star TV satellite
package installed at his palace. Faced by recriminations, the government relented and Bhutan's
Olympic Committee was permitted to erect a giant screen in Changlimithang stadium - but only
A TV screen in the middle of Thimphu was a revolutionary sight. The kingdom, for so long an
autocracy, had only recently forged links with the outside world. In 1959, China quelled an
uprising in Tibet, spilling war into the north of Bhutan, forcing the previous Dragon King to
forge diplomatic ties for the first time in the country's history. "Even then," says the
foreign minister, "we were determined not to become pawns on a chessboard and decided not to
have formal relations with the superpowers. We also sensed the regret of many nations across
the world at what they had lost in terms of values and culture."
The current Dragon King's father initiated a careful programme of modernisation that saw his
people embrace the kind of material progress that most western countries take centuries to
achieve: education, modern medicine, transportation, currency, electricity. However, mindful of
those afraid that foreign influences could destroy Bhutanese culture, he attempted to inhibit
conspicuous consumption. No Coca-Cola. No advertising hoardings. And definitely no television.
By France 1998, Bhutan had a new Dragon King and, under growing pressure from an unsettled
country, he had a new political agenda. That year, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he
would give up his role as head of government and cede power to the national assembly. The
people would be consulted about the drafting of a constitution. The process would complete
Bhutan's transformation from monarchist Shangri-la into a modern democracy. And television
would play its part.
The prime minister of Bhutan, Kinzang Dorji, has invited us to tea and we sit with him
beneath a large thangka painting of the Wheel of Life. "His Majesty wants the Bhutanese
people to run their own country. But many are frightened of the responsibility. A lot of
things have changed very quickly in Bhutan, and we do recognise that some people
feel lost, at sea," the prime minister explains. "Watching news on the BBC and CNN
enables them to see how democracies work in other parts of the world, how people can
take charge of their own destinies. The old feudal ways have to end."
The year after France beat Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final, the people of Thimphu gathered
once again in Changlimithang stadium, this time to celebrate the Dragon King's silver jubilee.
On June 2 1999, he stood before them to announce that now they could watch TV whenever they
wanted. "But not everything you will see will be good," he warned. "It is my sincere hope that
the introduction of television will be beneficial to our people and country."
The prime minister insists that the introduction of television was carefully prepared: "To
mitigate the impact of negative messages, we launched firstly the Bhutan Broadcasting Service
[BBS] to provide a local educational and cultural service." Only after the BBS had
found its voice would a limited number of foreign channels be permitted to beam programmes into
Bhutan via local cable operators.
News footage from the first BBS broadcast of June 2 1999, records the cheer that resounded
around Changlimithang. Bhutan's spiritual and cultural leaders were all agreed that TV could
only increase the country's Gross National Happiness and help the people to pave the way to a
modern, democratic nation. Mynak Tulku, the reincarnation of a powerful lama, is the Dragon
King's unofficial ambassador for new technology. Light pouring in through the carved wooden
windows catches his large protruding ears and bathes the monk in a golden glow. Nearby, in the
main library, some of the oldest surviving texts in Tibetan Buddhism, dharmic verses penned in
liquid gold, are being digitised. "I am so excited about technology," beams the Tulku, the
epitome of the king's notion of Gross National Happiness. "And let me tell you that TV's OK, as
long as you appreciate that it is a transitory experience. I tell my students that it's like
rushing in from the cold, going straight to the heater and ending up with frostbite. Ha, ha. TV
can make you think that you are being educated, when in fact all you're doing is blinking your
life away with a remote control. Ha, ha."
The Bhutan Broadcasting Service was intended to be a bulwark against cable television. When we
call by, it is clear the studio is still not finished: the team of technicians hired from
Bollywood has gone home for Diwali. The state broadcaster has only one clip-on microphone, but
the features producer cannot find it. There are a bundle of programmes "in the can", he says,
but none is ready for broadcast. A list of feature ideas hangs on a board, each one eclipsed by
a large question mark: Bhutanese MTV? Candid Camera? Pop Idol? Big Brother?
There is no one else on any of the three floors of the BBS building, but there is a distant
clamour coming from outside. There, behind a garden shed, we eventually find the BBS cameramen
and reporters dressed in their billowing ghos, throwing giant darts at a clay target. It is a
badly needed team-building exercise, says Kinga Singye, the BBS executive director, with a
doleful voice that makes him sound as if he has had enough of the royal experiment in
television. He describes how, in 1999, the last people to learn of the lifting of the
television ban were those then charged with setting up the new national station. "They were
given three months to make it work. It was done with incredible haste - to be ready in time for
the king'ssilver jubilee. What the government wanted was hugely ambitious and expensive, yet we
didn't have experience and they had no funding to give," he says. Everyone was surprised when
the ministers then issued licences to cable TV operators in August 1999, a bare three months
after BBS went on air.
Three years later, in the absence of investment, BBS can still be transmitted only in Thimphu;
tapes of its shows bound for the remote eastern town of Trashigang take three days to arrive,
by bus and mule. "Our job was supposed to be to show people that not everything coming from
outside is good," Kinga Singye says. "But we are now being drowned out by the foreign TV
signals. People are continually disappointed in us." That evening, the nightly BBS News At
Seven begins at 7.10pm. A documentary on a Bhutanese football prodigy is mysteriously canned
halfway through. It is followed by some footage of an important government event, the Move For
Health. The sound is indistinct, the picture faded, the message lost.
Downtown, at the southern end of Norzin Lam high street, a wriggling crowd of children press
their faces to a shop window. Inside the headquarters of Sigma Cable, the walls are papered
with an X-Files calendar and posters for an HBO show called Hollywood Beauties. Beneath a
portrait of the Dragon King, the in-store TV shows wrestling before BeastMaster comes on. A man
in tigerskin trunks has trained his marmosets to infiltrate the palace of a barbarian king.
When the monarch is decapitated and gore slip-slaps across the screen, the children watching
outside screech with glee. Inside the Sigma office, the staff are scrapping over the remote
control, channel-hopping, mixing messages. President Bush in a 10-gallon hat welcomes Jiang
Zemin to Texas. Midgets wrestle on Star World. Female skaters catfight on Rollerball.
Today, Sigma Cable, whose feed comes from five large satellite dishes at the edge of the city,
is the most successful of more than 30 cable operators. Together, they supply virtually the
entire country, ensuring that even the folks in remote Trashigang can sit down every night to
watch Larry King Live.
Rinzy Dorje, Sigma's chief executive, wears a traditional gho but his mind is on fibreoptics
and broadband. He was one of the first people in Bhutan to learn to program a computer, and
back then (the 1980s) his machine came housed in a home-made wooden box. When he launched
Sigma on September 10 1999, he captured the market in Thimphu, signing up the queen mother,
the king and his four wives, among others. Between calls on his new mobile telephone, he defends
cable TV: "Look, Bhutan couldn't hold back any longer - we can't pretend we're still a medieval,
hermit nation. When the government finally got around to announcing cable TV, I was ready,
that's all. All the information you need to know on cable technology is on the net. I got
prices and sourced the parts in Delhi and Taiwan. And cable came to Bhutan. It's no big deal."
A disgruntled subscriber rings to complain that MTV has gone down. Are there are too many
channels? "I couldn't cut back on the channels even if I wanted to - the customers would go
elsewhere and Star TV wants us to show more channels, not fewer."
Have Bhutan's values been corroded by TV? "We are entitled to watch what we want, when we
want, if we want. And we are quite capable of weeding out the rubbish; turning off the crap," he
However you look at it, it's obvious that the BBS has been charged down by the juggernaut of
Star TV. "If the government wanted to control what people watched, they should have legislated,
not tried to compete," says Rinzy Dorje.
It takes three days to pin down Leki Dorji, the deputy minister of communications, an
overloaded crown appointee who is also responsible for roads, urban renewal, civil aviation and
construction. He readily admits that, in its haste to introduce TV, the government failed to
prepare legislation. There is no film classification board or TV watershed in force here, no
regulations about media ownership. Companies such as Star TV are free to broadcast whatever
they want. Only three years after the introduction of cable did the government announce that a
media act would be drafted. Leki Dorji says his ministry is also planning an impact study, but
adds that he does not believe cable television is responsible for April's crime wave. "Yes, we
are seeing some different types of crime, but that just reflects the fact that our society is
changing in many ways. A culture as rich and sophisticated as ours can survive trash on TV and
people are quite capable of turning off the rubbish."
Whether the truck-driver Dorje was influenced by something he had watched on television when he
began smoking heroin or when he clubbed his wife to death has yet to be established. We will
not know whether the death of Sonam's niece had anything to do with the impatient, selfish
society promoted by television until the impact study is completed. But there is a wealth of
evidence that points to television having been a critical factor.
The marijuana that flourishes like a weed in every Bhutanese hedgerow was only ever used to
feed pigs before the advent of TV, but police have arrested hundreds for smoking it in recent
years. Six employees of the Bank of Bhutan have been sentenced for siphoning off 2.4m ngultrums
(£40,000). Six weeks before we arrived, 18 people were jailed after a gang of drunken boys
broke into houses to steal foreign currency and a 21-inch television set. During the holy
Bishwa Karma Puja celebrations, a man was stabbed in the stomach in a fight over alcohol. A
middle-class Thimphu boy is serving a sentence after putting on a bandanna and shooting up the
ceiling of a local bar with his dad's new gun. Police can barely control the fights at the new
hip-hop night on Saturdays.
While the government delays, an independent group of Bhutanese academics has carried out its
own impact study and found that cable television has caused "dramatic changes" to society,
being responsible for increasing crime, corruption, an uncontrolled desire for western
products, and changing attitudes to love and relationships. Dorji Penjore, one of the
researchers involved in the study, says: "Even my children are changing. They are fighting in
the playground, imitating techniques they see on World Wrestling Federation. Some have already
been injured, as they do not understand that what they see is not real. When I was growing up,
WWF meant World Wide Fund for Nature."
Kinley Dorji, editor of Kuensel (motto: That The Nation Shall Be Informed), warns that Bhutan's
ruling elite is out of touch. "We pride ourselves in being academic and sophisticated, but we
are also a very naive kingdom that does not yet fully understand the outside world. The
government underestimated how aggressively channels like Star market themselves, how little
they seem to care about programming, how virulent the message of the advertisers is." Kinley
Dorji, a member of the taskforce charged with drafting the kingdom's first media act, believes
Bhutanese society is in danger of being polarised by TV. "My generation, the ministers, lamas
and headteachers, have our grounding in old Bhutan and can apply ancient culture to this new
phenomenon. But the ordinary people, the villagers, are confused about whether they should be
ancient or modern, and the younger generation don't really care. They jettison traditional
culture for whatever they are sold on TV. Go and see real Bhutan, see how the people are
A fanfare of Tibetan trumpets booms through the pine forest. A rough choir of a thousand voices
sings out: "Move for, move for health." It is so early in the morning that the birds are still
asleep. But Sangay Ngedup, minister for health and education, has been on the path for hours.
His gho is bunched beneath his backpack, and a badge with the king's smiling face is pinned on
to his baseball hat. In the past 15 days, he has climbed and scrambled over some of the world's
most extreme terrain, from sea level to a rarefied 13,500ft in the Bhutanese Himalayas. Is
there anywhere else in the world where a cabinet minister would trek 560km to warn people
against becoming a nation of couch potatoes? "We used to think nothing of walking three days to
see our in-laws," he says. "Now we can't even be bothered to walk to the end of Norzin Lam high
He pauses at an impromptu feeding station, gulping down salt tea and buttered yak's cheese.
"You can never predict the impact of things like TV or the urbanisation it brings with it," he
says. "But you can prepare. If the BBS was intended as our answer to the cable world, I have to
say that, at the moment, it is rather pathetic." Sangay Ngedup is one of the only government
ministers willing to voice concerns about television.
For the first time, he says, children are confiding in their teachers of feeling manic, envious
and stressed. Boys have been caught mugging for cash. A girl was discovered prostituting
herself for pocket money in a hotel in the southern town of Phuents-holing. "We have had to
send teachers to Canada to be trained as professional counsellors," says Sangay Ngedup. This
march is not just against a sedentary lifestyle; it is a protest against the values of the
cable channels. One child's placard proclaims, "Use dope, no hope." "Breast is best," a girl
shouts. "Enjoy the gift of sex with condoms," reads a toddler's T-shirt.
The next day, as they do every day at Yangchenphug high school, teachers prepare their pupils
for the nightly onslaught of foreign images on television. They pray to Jambayang, the Buddhist
god of wisdom, a recent addition to the school timetable insisted upon by the clergy. A class
of 15-year-olds are inquisitive and smart. How many of you have television, we ask. Laughter
fills the room. "We all have TV, sir and madam," a girl at the front pipes up.
"What's your culture like?" they ask. "Do you have universities? Does it rain a lot where you
What do you like about TV, we ask the class. "Posh and Becks, Eminem, Linkin Park. We love The
Rock," they chorus. "Aliens. Homer Simpson." No mention of BBS. No one saw its documentary on
Buddhist festivals last night. Superficially, these pupils are as they would be in any school
in the world, but this is a country that has reached modernity at such breakneck speed that the
god of wisdom Jambayang is finding it virtually impossible to compete with the new icons.
A new section entitled "controversies" in the principal's annual report describes "marathon
staff meetings that continue on a war footing to discuss student discipline, substance abuse,
degradation of values in changing times". On another page is a short obituary for ninth-year
pupil Sonam Yoezer, "battered to death by an adult in the town". Violence, greed, pride,
jealousy, spite - some of the new subjects on the school curriculum, all of which teachers
attribute to the world of television. In his airy study, the principal, Karma Yeshey, whose MA
is from Leeds University but whose attitude is still otherworldly, pours Earl Grey tea. "Our
children live in two different worlds, one created by the school and another by cable. Our
challenge is to help them understand both, and we are terribly afraid of failing."
Outside Thimphu, the two worlds of Bhutan are already beginning to blur into one. In the heart
of the kingdom's spiritual capital of Punakha stands the Palace of Great Happiness, where the
Shabdrung, the country's founding father, is interred. Today a black wire crosses the
drawbridge to the 17th-century fortress, running through a top-floor casement and taking cable
television into the sacred shrine. So high is the demand for Oprah and Mutant X that in this
town the size of London's Blackheath there are now two rival operators vying for business.
The children of Punakha are, by the dozen, abandoning their ghos for jeans and T-shirts bearing
US wrestling logos; on their heads are Stars and Stripes bandannas. On the whitewashed mud wall
of the ancient crematorium, they have scrawled in charcoal a message in English: "Fuck off
Kinley and die."
How quickly their ancient culture is being supplanted by a mish-mash of alien ideas, while
their parents loiter for hours at a time in the Welcome Guest House, farmers with their new
socks embossed with Fila logos, all glued to David Beckham on Manchester United TV. A local
official tells us that in one village so many farmers were watching television that an entire
crop failed. It is not just a sedentary lifestyle this official is afraid of. Here, in the
Welcome Guest House, farmers' wives ogle adverts for a Mercedes that would cost more than a
lifetime's wages. Furniture "you've always desired", accessories "you have always wanted",
shoes "you've always dreamed of" - the messages from cable's sponsors come every five minutes,
and the audience watching them grows by the day.
There is something depressing about watching a society casting aside its unique character in
favour of a Californian beach. Cable TV has created, with acute speed, a nation of hungry
consumers from a kingdom that once acted collectively and spiritually.
Bhutan's isolation has made the impact of television all the clearer, even if the government
chooses to ignore it. Consider the results of the unofficial impact study. One third of girls
now want to look more American (whiter skin, blond hair). A similar proportion have new
approaches to relationships (boyfriends not husbands, sex not marriage). More than 35% of
parents prefer to watch TV than talk to their children. Almost 50% of the children watch for up
to 12 hours a day. Is this how we came to live in our Big Brother society, mesmerised by the
fate of minor celebrities fighting in the jungle?
Everyone is as yet too polite to say it, but, like all of us, the Dragon King underestimated
the power of TV, perceiving it as a benign and controllable force, allowing it free rein,
believing that his kingdom's culture was strong enough to resist its messages. But television
is a portal, and in Bhutan it is systematically replacing one culture with another, skewing the
notion of Gross National Happiness, persuading a nation of novice Buddhist consumers to
become preoccupied with themselves, rather than searching for their self.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
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