Bhutan

Some background information about Bhutan with respect to research on development and Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan is a small, landlocked country sandwiched between India and China on the Southern half of the Himalayan mountains. While its size is pretty exactly that of Switzerland, it has only about 800'000 inhabitants.

Most peculiar about Bhutan is perhaps its practically uninterrupted history of sovereignty (it has never been occupied or colonized) and its long-lasting seclusion. It was only in the 1960s that the country began opening up to a significant degree. Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country (closely related to Tibetan Buddhism) and still an absolute monarchy, though the 4th King (1972-2006) gradually brought a process of democratization and decentralization under way. A draft constitution has been elaborated 2004 and submitted to public scrutiny in 2005 and 2006. The constitution is scheduled to be adopted in 2008. Already, Bhutanese citizens elect local and regional representatives. The fifth King (2006-) shows all signs of continuing the transition towards a constitutional monarchy initiated by his father.

From the very beginning of modern development, priority was given to health and education. Today, life expectancy is at 62 (as opposed to an estimated 38 in the 1960s) and education is free, though not compulsory.

Health services are also free. In Bhutan's hospitals and rural health centers, traditional and Western medicine are practiced side-by-side and free of charge. Cases that cannot be dealt with by the Bhutanese health system are referred to Indian hospitals at the expense of the government. Curiously, Bhutan has, in 2004, become the first country to entirely ban the selling (though not the possession) of cigarettes.

Tourism is limited by means of deterringly high daily fees (but not by absolute limits on the number of tourists, as frequently reported). Nevertheless, Bhutan is a popular tourist destination and acclaimed for its breath-taking natural scenery, unique wildlife and a vibrant culture. Describing Bhutan as a Shangri-la, however, would be an exaggeration, since even Bhutan is, of course, not entirely free from crime, violence, and social problems.

Furthermore, a refugee issue involving Bhutan remains unresolved since in the beginning of the 1990s several tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese left, or had to leave (that is precisely one of the contentious questions), the country. Around 100'000 people claiming a right to Bhutanese citizenship are now awaiting the clarification of their refugee status in UNHCR-administered refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

For further information on Bhutan, see the collection of Bhutan-related links.

© Johannes Hirata (last update: January 09, 2007)