Globalization in Bhutan

Globalization in Bhutan

A small isolated Indian country struggles with globalization.
"What will be the reactions of the Bhutanese, believing as they do in countless spirits, to these dramatic changes? How will the dzongs, the ancient symbols of religion and government, compete with the chimneys of factories, the new symbols of progress and energy?" researcher V.H. Coelho asks in a 1967 ethnography of Bhutan, the smallest Himalayan nation on the Indian subcontinent.

Nestled between Tibet, India and nearby Nepal, the small Buddhist kingdom provides a fascinating case study for the effects of globalization and indeed the self-conscious resistance to this same global change. An interesting example of both the crushing powers of modern global change as well as the dangers of attempting to hold on to a "traditional" way of life, the example of Bhutan shows us that the issue of globalization and modernization we are seeing in so many places around the world is a complex one indeed.

The only nation in the Indian subcontinent not to be colonized, conquered or overrun by foreign powers, Bhutan survived in relative isolation until the mid-20th century. With the sweeping changes in neighboring India in the 1940s and the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese government during the 1950s, Bhutan faced mounting pressures from global forces at its borders. During the 1960s in particular, Bhutan found itself faced with mounting pressures of globalization, something that was faced by many nations in this period of time. While factories, modern roads, and different religious systems pressed in around them, Bhutan took the step of adopting some trappings of the modern world while at the same time resisting many modernizing processes with a fierce attempt to "return to their cultural roots" to counteract many of these global pressures.

Knowledgeable about the pitfalls of modern life and business and rightfully fearful of losing their cultural heritage to global forces, the government attempted to nationalize "Bhutanese culture," a move they felt would serve as a tool of resistance. This involved adopting the traditions of the Drukpa people who make up 75 percent of the Bhutanese population, and who have a culture closely related to Tibetan. Things like nationalizing the Drukpa language (Dzongka), creating Drukpa schools and requiring all citizens to wear the Drukpa traditional dress were put in place through governmental laws according to Dr. James Norton in his book "Global Studies: India and South Asia."

The issue of the modern world and globalization are not black-and-white issue, or easy to capture.
With this emphasis on culture and careful planning in regards to modernization, however, the nation of Bhutan has encountered new and potentially dangerous problems of isolating certain citizens and creating a forced sense of identity that many in the nation did (and do) not feel represents them. Particularly vocal on this is the Nepali-influenced Lhotshapma community, says Michael Hutt in his recent examination of the nation, Unbecoming Citizens. Grouped mostly in southern Bhutan, the Lhotshampa have traditions and a cultural background stemming from their Nepalese heritage, distinctly different from that of the Tibetan-influenced (and dominant) Drukpa culture. Many of the Lhotshampa feel marginalized and forced into traditions and beliefs that are not theirs, and as a result are fleeing Bhutan for refugee camps in Nepal and India.

With the number of refugees growing into the tens of thousands, Bhutan can be seen to be moving into something of a crisis. By pluralizing and giving into a more modern way of living, the Bhutanese face losing their unique ways of life and indeed perhaps their hold on their kingdom, but at the same time are risking a dangerous uprising and action by Nepal and India if the Lhotshampa continue to feel left out and flee the nation, creating a huge refugee population that is putting pressure on the neighboring lands.

Certainly a difficult crisis, by seeing more of the issue of Bhutan, we can ask ourselves more intricate and difficult questions about the nature of modernization as well as the resistance to change that is taking place all over our world.

The issue of the modern world and globalization, as shown by Bhutan, is not a black-and-white issue or easy picture to capture.






Contributed by Meg Burd, a graduate student at Colorado State University. Reprinted courtesy of The Collegion, 2004.

To read another Global Envision article about globalization and developing countries, see Erosion of Ethnic Identity: Is Globalisation to Blame?

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