Proud Bhutanese


Ugyen Rangdol is studying politics, economy, and philosophy at Rangsit International College, Bangkok. via 
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I appreciate that this is not entirely unreasonable but still the term ‘Shangri-La’ makes me a little uncomfortable because what is it that makes a country happy? Is it military superiority? Is it economic development? Bhutan is just a least developed country where the annual economic growth rate fluctuates as hydroelectric projects come in commission.

We are famously a land of paradoxes, and one of those paradoxes is that so many speak about Bhutan as a Shangri-La of the 21st century when we are not yet able to feed, educate, and employ all our people. So does the answer rests on something altogether more difficult to define — the soft power of its culture which makes Bhutan click?

The notion of soft power is relatively new in international discourse. Joseph Nye, the coiner of the term argued that power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want. And there are three ways to do that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), and attraction (soft power). If you are able to attract others, you can economize on the sticks and carrots. Enter soft power — both as an alternative to hard/military power, and as a complement to it. Nye said the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values, and its foreign policies.

A country’s soft power, to me, however, emerges from the world’s perception of that country. The associations and attitudes conjured up in the global imagination by the mere mention of a country’s name is often a more accurate gauge of its soft power than a dispassionate analysis of its foreign policies. In my view, hard power is exercised; soft power is evoked.

What does this mean for Bhutan? It means acknowledging that Bhutan’s claim to a significant exemplary role in future lies in the aspects and products of Bhutanese society and culture that the world finds attractive. The roots of Bhutan’s soft power run deep. Bhutan is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, many religions namely Buddhism and Hinduism. So in a way Bhutan fully embraces the world offering equality in almost every aspect of the inherent culture. This unique heritage of diversity is what makes Bhutan perhaps special.

The Bhutanese mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Buddhist Dharma tradition, mythology, the impact of Hinduism and throughout the centuries of no colonial rule. The result is unique. Though there are some who think and speak of Bhutan as a Buddhist country, but Bhutan’s civilization today is an evolved hybrid one.

We are a land of rich diversities. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good civilian, a good police officer and a good Bhutanese all at once. So the idea of Bhutan is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. Like the king going around talking to his people and unifying all less than one law. And not forgetting to mention we were bestowed democracy as a gift from the throne without any sufferings where anyone’s child could be heading the government.

The world of the 21st century will increasingly be a world in which the use of hard power carries with it the odium of mass global public disapproval, whereas the blossoming of soft power, which lends itself more easily to the information era, will constitute a country’s principal asset. Globalization has both sparked and allayed many Bhutanese fears that economic liberalization will bring with its cultural imperialism of a particularly insidious kind — that Baywatch and burgers will supplant Gho/Kira and Emadatsi. Bhutanese will not become any less Bhutanese if, in His Majesty’s metaphor, we open the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house — because Bhutanese are strong enough not to be blown off their feet by these winds.

Besides, the strength of ‘Bhutanese’ lies in its ability to absorb foreign influences, and to transform them — by a peculiar Bhutanese alchemy — into something that belongs naturally on the soil of Bhutan. In the information age, Joseph Nye has argued, it is often the side which has the better story that wins. Bhutan must remain the land of the better story; as a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of ways. It is not just material accomplishments that will enhance Bhutan’s soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which Bhutan stands. After all, His Majesty the fourth King won Bhutan its recognition through the use of soft power – because Gross National Happiness was a variation soft power before the term was even coined. But Bhutan also needs to solve its internal problems before it can play any role of an example to the world. We must ensure that we do enough to keep our people healthy, well-fed, and secure and safe from the daily terror of poverty, hunger, and ill health.

At the same time, if Bhutan wants to be a source of attraction to others, it is not enough to attend to these basic needs. It must preserve the precious pluralism that is an asset in our globalizing world. Our democracy, our thriving free media, our civil society, our energetic human efforts to sustainable development, and the repeated spectacle of our remarkable efforts to build GNH stronger, have all made of Bhutan a rare example of the successful management of diversity in the developing world.

I believe that the Bhutan that has entered its centenarian age as an independent country with rule of monarchy as one open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic tradition, and determined to liberate and fulfill the creative energies of its people.

Such a Bhutan truly enjoys soft power, and that may well be the most valuable way in which it can offer its services as an example rather than just being called a ‘Happy Nation’ without basis.

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