Jan 212004
Authors: Meg Burd

“What will be the reactions of the Bhutanese, believing as they

do in countless spirits, to these dramatic changes? How will the

dzongs, the ancient symbols of religion and government, compete

with the chimneys of factories, the new symbols of progress and

energy?” researcher V.H. Coelho asks in a 1967 ethnography of

Bhutan, the smallest Himalayan nation on the Indian


Nestled between Tibet, India and nearby Nepal, the small

Buddhist kingdom provides a fascinating case study for the effects

of globalization and indeed the self-conscious resistance to this

same global change. An interesting example of both the crushing

powers of modern global change as well as the dangers of attempting

to hold on to a “traditional” way of life, the example of Bhutan

shows us that the issue of globalization and modernization we are

seeing in so many places around the world is a complex one


The only nation in the Indian subcontinent not to be colonized,

conquered or overrun by foreign powers, Bhutan survived in relative

isolation until the mid-20th century. With the sweeping changes in

neighboring India in the 1940s and the invasion of Tibet by the

Chinese government during the 1950s, Bhutan faced mounting

pressures from global forces at its borders. During the 1960s in

particular, Bhutan found itself faced with mounting pressures of

globalization, something that was faced by many nations in this

period of time. While factories, modern roads, and different

religious systems pressed in around them, Bhutan took the step of

adopting some trappings of the modern world while at the same time

resisting many modernizing processes with a fierce attempt to

“return to their cultural roots” to counteract many of these global


Knowledgeable about the pitfalls of modern life and business and

rightfully fearful of losing their cultural heritage to global

forces, the government attempted to nationalize “Bhutanese

culture,” a move they felt would serve as a tool of resistance.

This involved adopting the traditions of the Drukpa people who make

up 75 percent of the Bhutanese population, and who have a culture

closely related to Tibetan. Things like nationalizing the Drukpa

language (Dzongka), creating Drukpa schools and requiring all

citizens to wear the Drukpa traditional dress were put in place

through governmental laws according to Dr. James Norton in his book

“Global Studies: India and South Asia.”

With this emphasis on culture and careful planning in regards to

modernization, however, the nation of Bhutan has encountered new

and potentially dangerous problems of isolating certain citizens

and creating a forced sense of identity that many in the nation did

(and do) not feel represents them. Particularly vocal on this is

the Nepali-influenced Lhotshapma community, says Michael Hutt in

his recent examination of the nation, Unbecoming Citizens. Grouped

mostly in southern Bhutan, the Lhotshampa have traditions and a

cultural background stemming from their Nepalese heritage,

distinctly different from that of the Tibetan-influenced (and

dominant) Drukpa culture. Many of the Lhotshampa feel marginalized

and forced into traditions and beliefs that are not theirs, and as

a result are fleeing Bhutan for refugee camps in Nepal and


With the number of refugees growing into the tens of thousands,

Bhutan can be seen to be moving into something of a crisis. By

pluralizing and giving into a more modern way of living, the

Bhutanese face losing their unique ways of life and indeed perhaps

their hold on their kingdom, but at the same time are risking a

dangerous uprising and action by Nepal and India if the Lhotshampa

continue to feel left out and flee the nation, creating a huge

refugee population that is putting pressure on the neighboring


Certainly a difficult crisis, by seeing more of the issue of

Bhutan, we can ask ourselves more intricate and difficult questions

about the nature of modernization as well as the resistance to

change that is taking place all over our world.

The issue of the modern world and globalization, as shown by

Bhutan, is not a black-and-white issue or easy picture to


Meg is a graduate student at CSU who has been to Bhutan.

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