Most self-respecting travellers eventually stumble upon Bhutan and find it quite a turn-on. The Buddhist mountain country stuck between China and India might only have 800,000 inhabitants and cost $200 to $250 a day to visit – but since 2008, aiming for happiness is enshrined in its constitution. Economic expansion doesn’t enjoy a quasi-religious status. Instead, a sustainable economic development is understood as one of the four pillars of happiness, the others being Bhutanese culture, good government and the protection of the environment. 60 per cent of the country has to be conserved as forest according to the constitution, plastic bags are banned and by 2020, agriculture is supposed to be 100 per cent organic. Accordingly, Bhutan is not just carbon-neutral but carbon-negative.
This is, of course, all very well, but most fans seem to ignore that Bhutan was an absolute monarchy until 2008 and only allowed TV in 1999. Ever since being a constitutional monarchy with things such as a parliament and political parties, voters favour mundane stuff such as economic expansion over happiness, and the ruling party changed in every election. Besides, there is still little freedom of expression and press. Media outlets can be sued if they promote “misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people.” Only 60 per cent of the Bhutanese population can read and write.
Last but not least, the country has a history of ethnic cleansing. In the early 1990s, the king kicked out around a fifth of the population for being of Nepalese origin. The reason? Bhutan had had another monarchical neighbouring state – Sikkim – until 1975 when it became a state of India and its king was expelled. The Bhutanese king was afraid the same would happen in Bhutan because Sikkimese citizens of Nepalese origin played a big role in the protests for democratic participation. At first, the king tried to force all his subjects to adopt the customs of North Bhutan because the majority of people with Nepalese origins lived in the South. The South Bhutanese weren’t keen on doing so and started protesting. So the king adopted a new strategy with the Citizenship Act (1985) according to which you could only be Bhutanese if your family had lived in Bhutan before 1959. Other inhabitants – mostly with a Nepalese background – became illegal and were driven off the lands. India didn’t want to take responsibility and brought these people to the border with Nepal. Up until now, none of them was able to return to Bhutan and they are seen as intruders and discriminated in Nepal. More than 10,000 of them live in Nepalese refugee camps while 15,000 live outside, up to 30,000 live in India and the rest immigrated to the Western world. The US alone took in more than 70,000 of these people.