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Bhutan Reluctantly Enters 20th Century : Himalayan Kingdom Carefully Intertwines Technology, Tradition

January 08, 1987|K.E.S. KIRBY | Times Staff Writer

THIMPHU, Bhutan — The captain of one of the world's most remote basketball teams was having a bad day.

Nothing, it seemed, was going right: His shots were caroming off the rim, he had taken a couple of elbows to the ribs and his team was losing late in the game.

But, as befits any enchanted kingdom, one of the captain's teammates executed a perfect layup to clinch the contest with seconds to go--and the captain, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, could savor another afternoon's victory on the basketball court.

Off the court as well, the king has much of which he is proud, for this is Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. A nation of staggering physical beauty, Bhutan is passionately committed to preserving its customs in the face of change.

Unlike many Third World nations, the often-overlooked jewel in the Himalayas has taken extraordinary steps to intertwine technology and tradition--and seems to be succeeding.

'Cautious and Slow'

"Our whole approach has been cautious and slow," acknowledged Sonam Tobden Rabgye, charge d'affaires at the Bhutanese mission to the United Nations.

And one State Department official observed: "In many ways, it's really a one-of-a-kind situation. Few other countries in the world in the 20th Century would be capable of insulating their people from modern influences as well as Bhutan has."

Bhutan's extreme remoteness and small population, estimated by the World Bank at only 1.2 million, with only 18,000 square miles of territory, have been key factors in its ability to preserve the special qualities of a land where waterfalls cascade down densely forested slopes, double rainbows arc over green fields and snow peaks glitter above massive medieval fortresses and Buddhist monasteries.

But the further measures taken by its leaders have also been significant. For example:

--Entry by foreigners is highly restricted. Tourism is controlled by the government, which prohibits travel by individuals and charges more than $100 a day for accommodations. Barely 2,000 visitors were allowed to enter in 1986.

--"Preservation and promotion of the national identity and cultural heritage" were formally listed as top goals in a draft of Bhutan's five-year plan for 1987-92.

--Bhutanese who have been schooled overseas--and who thus may have absorbed Western influences--are required to reacquaint themselves with their homeland by spending six months of national service in villages and rural areas.

--To discourage the proliferation of high-rises or other modern architecture, all buildings must appear traditional, a look that features ornately embellished designs and motifs and narrow, tiered windows.

--Until the last decade, Bhutanese were barred by law from wearing Western clothing. Even today, the overwhelming majority of men dress in a traditional boku, a sort of knee-length robe. And most women keep their hair short and wear long, embroidered dresses known as kiras.

Emergence into Modern Society

Indeed, much of Bhutan's emergence into modern society has occurred only in the last 20 years, under the reign of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was 19 at the time of his coronation in 1974, and that of his father, the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

Between them, they have expanded the base of Bhutan's economy, solidified cooperation among the nation's 18 districts and strengthened key international ties, bringing a political stability unmatched on the Indian subcontinent.

Thus, Bhutan is not part of the "simmering pot from Afghanistan east where everyone perceives their neighbors as out to get them," said Charles Ebinger, director of the energy and strategic resources program at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most valuable resources do not have to be diverted to the military to guard against an apparent security threat.

The king's stated emphasis on an "essential balance" between progress and tradition reverberates strongly among his subjects, who find the bedrock of their tradition in the pervasive influence of Tibetan Buddhism. They are mindful of what has happened to neighboring nations in the last three decades.

Many other South Asian countries, including Pakistan and India, are plagued by development problems that include not only tremendous overpopulation but also a significant migration of the rural population to the cities, which has strained family and religious ties, according to Ebinger.

Third World Growth

"Almost no Third World countries can keep up with the explosive growth of urban centers," he said.

Yet, Bhutan's largest city, Thimphu, the capital, has a population of only 20,000, and most major towns boast little more than one street of shops.

"We were able to see that one should not pursue development for development's sake," Rabgye said. "When priorities were made, we decided we should concentrate on the basic necessities."

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