Bhutan, Gross National Happiness & Human Rights Issues

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 4/30/2014 12:07:00 AM
Oh my, I hereby declare April 2014 "Bash Bhutan Month." Having criticized the small country for catering to wealthier tourists via its minimum spend requirements to obtain a visa despite purportedly pursing anti-materialistic "gross national happiness," I offer another criticism along similar lines. Rest assured that I feel guilty pointing out Bhutan's flaws since it's but a small developing country. However, just as I regularly bash Yanqui blowhards over hoary American exceptionalism--us stupid colored people would be so much better off if we were more like the US--Bhutan also has it coming with all this "gross national happiness" jibba-jabba.

Like other countries, Bhutan has its ethno-religious minorities. Almost without exception, they bear grievances. Think of Tibetans in China, or Muslims in the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand. In Bhutan, there are the Hindu Lhotshampa people who compose a fifth of the population but are not exactly treated on the same basis as the Buddhist majority. First, a bit of sordid history:
In the 1980’s Bhutan changed its citizenship laws, especially in relation to Lhotshampa citizenship. At the time the Lhotshampa comprised roughly on third of the population, posing a possible threat to political order. By 1990, government policies became more repressive for the Lhotshampa and they fled as refugees from the government’s actions or were expelled as their citizenship was proclaimed illegitimate. The Lhotshampa’s sudden expulsion left Bhutan with abandoned villages, an injured farming base, and international criticism. A few Lhotshampa still remain in Bhutan, yet face discrimination as a marginalized, minority ethnicity.
Anyway, to frame today's discriminatory measures, we begin once more with other countries' uncritical admiration of "gross national happiness" happy talk:
Many nations, including Japan and Canada, have expressed aspirations to emulate GNH, which shuns purely economic yardsticks like gross domestic product (GDP), on the assumption that the policy has resulted in Bhutan’s people being happier than elsewhere. But happiness goes hand-in-hand with human rights. So does Bhutan really have respect for human rights?
I was peripherally aware of Bhutan's minorities before; what I was unaware of was the extent of the discrimination against them. Indeed, there is even a caste system in place that limits their freedom of movement:
Among the main stakeholders in these [UNHCR] recommendations were the “Lhotshampas,” as Bhutan’s southerners are called. They are part of the nation’s ethnic Nepalese minority. While some of them have risen to become ministers, many others do not even have full citizenship rights.

The citizenship ID cards the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs issues to them contain seven categories. Category 1 is for “genuine Bhutanese citizens.” Category 2 is for southerners who left Bhutan once and then returned; 3 is for those who were not around when the 1988 census was held; 4 refers to non-national women married to Bhutanese men, and their children; 5 is for non-national men married to Bhutanese women, and their children; 6 is for legally adopted children. And category 7 would mean the card holder is a non-national.

Holders of cards in categories other than 1 and 4 normally do not get the security clearance required for a passport. They cannot get voter ID cards either, which mean they cannot vote. Worse, those who carry category 7 cards, or fall in that category – and there are significant numbers of them – cannot get admission into schools or get government or corporate jobs. They find it difficult to travel even within the country – they get a “route permit” for restricted domestic travel.
I hate to disabuse you of illusions, but Bhutan isn't quite a Magic Kingdom that's a true-to-life happiest place on earth. Like nearly every other country, it has issues with racism and discrimination against ethnic minorities. The reason why it gets the stick is because, unlike most other countries, it makes grandiose claims about making everyone happy. Just like American hypocrisy on strong dollar policy, Internet freedom or any sort of risible, self-serving happy talk they keep coming up with, Bhutanese leaders need to understand how the rest of us see it. In either case, don't drink that Kool Aid so readily.

To paraphrase Imelda Marcos, I guess some people's happiness matters more than that of others.