FAST FORWARD INTO TROUBLE
Four years ago,
SATURDAY JUNE 13 THE GUARDIAN
April 2002 was a turbulent month for the people of
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
Why was this kingdom with its head in the clouds
falling victim to the kind of crime associated with urban life in
In June 1999,
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
In the real
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 and discontent."
But is television really destroying this last
refuge for Himalayan Buddhism, the preserve of tens of thousands of ancient
books and a lifestyle that
Television always gets the blame in the west
when society undergoes convulsions, and there are always those ready with a
counter argument. In
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
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
His Excellency Jigmi Thinley,
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
A TV screen in the middle of
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.
The prime minister of
The year after
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
News footage from the first BBS broadcast of
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 . 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
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.
Sigma's chief executive, wears a traditional gho but
his mind is on fibreoptics and broadband. He was one
of the first people in
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."
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
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."
editor of Kuensel (motto: That The
Nation Shall Be Informed), warns that
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 street."
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
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 come from?"
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
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.
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