The most remote country in the world? Bhutan, which didn’t have public hospitals, schools, paper currency, roads or electricity until the 1950s, no diplomatic relations with any other country until 1961, and the first invited western visitors came in 1974, for the coronation of the Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuc.
- In June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on television. The Dragon King had lifted a ban on the small screen as part of a radical plan to modernise his country, and those who could afford the £4-a-month subscription signed up in their thousands to a cable service that provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment, much of it from Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV network.
Four years on, those same subscribers are beginning to accuse television of smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own, and of threatening to destroy an idyll where time has stood still for half a millennium.
A refugee monk from Tibet, the Shabdrung, created this tiny country in 1616 as a bey-yul, or Buddhist sanctuary, a refuge from the ills of the world. So successful were he and his descendants at isolating themselves that by the 1930s virtually all that was known of Bhutan in the west was James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. He called it Shangri-la, a secret Himalayan valley, whose people never grew old and lived by principles laid down by their high lama: “Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age.”
….Since the April 2002 crime wave, the national newspaper, Kuensel, has called for the censoring of television (some have even suggested that foreign broadcasters, such as Star TV, be banned altogether). An editorial warns: “We are seeing for the first time broken families, school dropouts and other negative youth crimes. We are beginning to see crime associated with drug users all over the world – shoplifting, burglary and violence.”
….But is television really destroying this last refuge for Himalayan Buddhism, the preserve of tens of thousands of ancient books and a lifestyle that China has already obliterated over the border in Tibet? Can TV reasonably be accused of weakening spiritual values, of inciting fraud and murder among a peaceable people? Or is Bhutan’s new anti-TV lobby just a cover for those in fear of change?
Television always gets the blame in the west when society undergoes convulsions, and there are always those ready with a counter argument. In Bhutan, thanks to its political and geographic isolation, and the abruptness with which its people embraced those 46 cable channels, the issue should be more clearcut. And for those of us sitting on the couch in the west, how the kingdom is affected by TV may well help to find an answer to the question that has evaded us: have we become the product of what we watch? [Guardian]
We all know TV sucks people in and changes them – now Bhutan knows that too.