Inside the World’s Happiest Country

<div class="at-above-post addthis_tool" data-url=""></div>Bhutan, officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a small landlocked kingdom located between China and India in South Asia. The country, as we all...
School children react to the camera through the window of their classroom in a school in Thimphu.

Bhutan, officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a small landlocked kingdom located between China and India in South Asia. The country, as we all know, measures the Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of relying on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the only way to measure the country’s progress. The country’s pursuit of “happiness”, which incorporates economic development in terms of the environment and people’s psychological wellbeing, was first proposed by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s former king in 1972.

An extensive analysis of GNH index published by Centre for Bhutan Studies in 2012 describes extensively the pillars and dimensions that are used to measure GNH. The four strategic areas of GNH are:

  1. Sustainable & equitable socio-economic development;

  2. Environmental conservation;

  3. Preservation and promotion of culture;

  4. Good governance.

Additionally, the nine dimensions which specify the four pillars are: psychological wellbeing, health, education, cultural diversity and resilience, time use, good governance, community vitality, living standard, and ecological diversity and resilience. GNH looks at the quality of life, how much leisure time  citizens have, what’s happening in their community and how integrated  people feel within their culture. Bhutan is the one and only country that measure its wealth officially in terms of Happiness and claims to be the happiest place on earth.

There are four main ethnic groups: the Ngalong in the west, the Sharchop in the east, the central Bhutanese and the Lhotshampa in the south. The government of Bhutan, also known as Drukpa government, used the term Lhotshampa to refer to the Bhutanese of Nepalese origin and to distinguish them from others.

Lhotshampa are the descendants of Nepalese who immigrated as peasants to Bhutan at the beginning of the 20th century when the government of Bhutan encouraged them to settle in a thick forest of Southern Bhutan to establish farmlands that could supply food for the whole country. Later they were granted land tax receipt and citizenship.

Sakteng and Lhotshampa Bhutan

However, despite its focus on national wellbeing, it is the country that arbitrarily revoked the citizenship, imposed compulsory Drukpa dress code nationwide, terminated Nepali language instruction in schools, shut down schools, suspended health services in southern Bhutan and expelled or forced to leave its ethnic Lhotshampa population. The country accused its Nepali-speaking citizen to be illegal immigrants when the southern population began to organize politically to lobby against encroachment on their civil-political, socio-economic and cultural rights. The Royal Bhutan army and police were mobilised to enforce the policies of government officials and also the state forces imprisoned, raped and tortured member of Nepali-speaking community who were directly, indirectly or incorrectly presumed to be associated with the demonstrations. Human Right Watch (HRW) in 2003 reported that women head of households and women and girls with disabilities were more prone to sexual violence because of their social status quo. Kira Maya, a single mother with three children and a Lhotshampa refugee woman, shared her experiences with HRW on how her body was used as a battlefield during the ethnic conflict in Bhutan.

“… At night-time they [army] knocked on the door. I didn’t open it and then they forcibly entered. They told me, “We have heard your brother comes to your house. Is this so?” I said, “I don’t know where he is.” Then they hit me with the gun. They kicked me and I fell down. I stood up and then they kicked me again, and I fell down again. They said we have to torture you, then only will you tell us where your brother is. Then the army tore my clothes. It was torture; they raped me. It was the army, two of them raped me while the others held me down. The next morning I went to my relative’s house, but they told me not to stay with them because maybe the army would come and do the same thing to them. One week later I fled [to Nepal].”

In the case of Kira Maya, she was gang raped by the state forces not just to get more information about her brother but also to humiliate and dishonour her and her family members. Raping women during the ethnic conflict is not just about forcing them into pregnancy but a way to dishonour the family and the whole community, to instil fear in the community and oppress the protestors. During war and conflicts, rape, sexual abuse, abduction and slavery are a deliberate strategy and a ‘weapon of war’ for various purposes, for instance ethnic cleansing, humiliation, instilling fear, acquiring information, looting and peer pressure. Some examples of rapes are the 1992-95 systematic rape of women in Bosnia, the 1971 Bangladeshi independence rape cases, and the 1937 Japanese rapes during occupation of Nanking.

As a result of fear and political persecution, more than 100,000 Lhotshampa were forced to flee Bhutan in the early nineties and sought refuge in the concentrated camps in eastern Nepal.

Sunita Basnet

Sunita is a Ph.D. candidate in the Human Geography programme at the University of Waikato. Her current research investigates place-based experiences and feelings of (not) belonging amongst Bhutanese women and girls living in New Zealand under the third country resettlement programme referred by UNHCR. She is also a member of international organizations such as One Young World and World Pulse. In 2010, she was honoured as International Women’s Health coalition (IWHC) Young Visionary Award. In the same year, she received the World Pulse Citizen Journalism Award. Her area of expertise includes qualitative methods, gender issues, women's empowerment, migrants and refugees studies, home spaces, identity and belonging. She has been working in various women-related organizations for almost a decade.
3 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    4 August 2015 at 8:27 am
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    Informative piece.

    • Sunita Basnet
      5 August 2015 at 11:34 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks for the comment and your time.

  • Roger Hawcroft
    Roger Hawcroft
    10 August 2015 at 12:57 pm
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    The title of this article attracted me because I believe that national focus on economic measures as indicative of the level of success of a nation, is a poor and often extremely misleading indicator. I have long believed that we need some metric that focuses on the well-being of the people rather than just the affluence of the nation or, for that matter, the individual.

    Probably needless to say, I was shocked to read the latter part of the article and discover the horrendous treatment meted out to the Nepalese community in Bhutan. Clearly, such actions do not in a moral or ethical way, support the 4 pillars or 9 dimensions on which Gross National Happiness is supposedly based – unless we take “gross” in one of its alternative senses, ie. repugnant/indecent/morally coarse.

    What this highlights for me is how important it is for contributions such as yours and sites such as WIB to exist and be staunchly firm in informing the public of the reality that so often sits, unseen or unknown, behind a label or euphemism that hides the truth and even displays an entirely different one.

    I thought that I was reasonably well informed and read in relation to world conditions, justices and injustices. I realise from this piece, the negative content of which was entirely new to me, just how important it is to take time to investigate beyond the surface and common understanding. I have held GNH up to people as a beacon of a more desirable measure of what constitutes a thriving and whole society. Whilst I would still support those principles, my use of Bhutan as the example appears to have been a misapprehension, for which I am truly chastened.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention – and of course, that of many others, I would hope.

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