This tiny Himalayan country neighboring India that once had strict surveillance over its contacts with the outside world and likewise over external intrusion, explicitly embraced the most powerful global communication medium. Electronic and print media were flooded with coverage and journalists flew to a country that had unknowingly made history. Perhaps, legalizing television in the late 20th century alone might not have been so alarming. However, a country in self-imposed isolation that held onto ancestral Buddhist traditions and feared modernization for years had finally given up - and that made news.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, born to a dynasty of absolute monarchs, was seen as a change agent by the Bhutanese after he came to power in 1972. In his tenure, the country saw numerous developmental moves. Among these was the establishment of the first Bhutanese newspaper, Kuensel, launch of internet service and opening of the Bhutan Broadcasting Station, to name a few. Wangchuck left the throne to his son in 2006 and ordered countrywide elections in 2008, the seeds of which he had already sown. Ironically, it was the King and not his subjects who struggled and aspired for a change in form of government, resulting in a constitutional monarchy. Gross National Happiness, an idea coined to assess the country’s development and progress in terms of people’s contentment rather than a measurement and accomplishment of economic standards and goals, was purely Wangchuck’s contribution to his Kingdom.
With the advent of TV, the immediate and drastic change that occurred was in the family setup. Social change was mostly seen in seating arrangements at home. Where families would once face each other to enjoy lively interactive sessions for hours started facing their television sets. The streets in Bhutan were visibly deserted during ‘primetime’ shows. Emergence of a middle class subsequently became inevitable with commercialization taking deep roots in society. The beloved box flooded with international channels opened frontiers to identifying new role models with foreign celebrities. The Gross National Happiness, the inspiration for change in Bhutan, was built on the idea of strengthening Bhutanese identity rather than succumbing to foreign influences.
The advent of television in Bhutan has made it a functioning partner in the 21st century and has exposed it to the global political economy. Though change might be slow, quiet and not welcome (to some), it is indeed a revolution. Bhutan is witnessing a gradual shift in the political system which represents a revolution of sorts that marks a steady increase in literacy, a revolution that has speeded up the pace of technological advancements and a revolution that has all the powers of diluting Bhutan’s once rigid culture and traditions. Bhutan now has one foot in modernity and the other in the past. Its imminent future would be something to behold, whether the revolution is for better or for worse.
Published in SOUTHASIA magazine in its issue of November 2011