By Chettria Patrakar
The tedium of sourcing timely, well-written reportage on Bhutan is depressingly familiar. In both style and content, the wont of ‘serious’ news outlets to promote thoroughly absurd notions of a ‘mystical mountain idyll’, displays an indolence at once breathtaking and disturbing. Coverage of recent elections proved little exception.
Reporting from the “land of the thunder dragon” in May, Agence France Presse made delicious note of voters “wearing traditional dress” as polling staff traversed “slippery leech-infested trails to ensure that even isolated yak-owning nomads can cast their vote”. Not to be outdone by their Gallic peers, on July 13 the typically reserved (they are British) BBC ran with the headline “Last ‘Shangri-la’ nears election crossroads”, confirming a vintage sensibility for confected exoticism. Thankfully, the Wall Street Journal was able to provide clarity on hard-hitting electoral issues, delving beneath the “veneer of tranquility” owing to voters in the “one time hermit kingdom”.
Insipid depictions of Bhutan are, of course, as ancient as the ‘Shangri-la’ that they purport to represent. Whereas talk of ‘noble savages’ and ‘hyper-sexed natives’ has long been taboo, depictions of Bhutan remain deplorably thin.
For the editors of the Guardian (whose choice headlines include ‘How to be happy: daily life in Bhutan’ and ‘Why we’d all be happier in Bhutan’), Bhutan deserves mention in so far as the policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) bolsters their own gripe with hard-headed Thatcherism. For development experts, the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity (even isolated yak-owning nomads can vote!) serves to reinforce Bhutan’s cache as a virgin laboratory for slick development theories. More forgivably, for the editors of glossy travel lift-outs, Bhutan’s status as an ‘authentic other’ is confirmed by a titillating discourse of Divine Madmen and artfully rendered phallus worship.
There is however, some cause for hope. The 29 June publication by the New York Times of Vidhyapati Mishra’s article ‘Bhutan is no Shangri-la’ offered a vital discussion of refugee issues within the mainstream media. Likewise, the decision by recently elected Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to focus on “delivering basic services” rather than promoting GNH, will, it is hoped, force the hand of an apathetic international media.
Until then (and despite the tedium), your correspondent will continue to sift the reams of nonsense finding its way into ‘news’ stories on Bhutan. Though one would hope this exercise proffers some insight into the nation’s political realities, if nothing else, the paucity of international media coverage will be sure to provide comic relief. Despite this consolation, Bhutan’s citizens (and exiled non-citizens) deserve better.
* flickr / andreawk