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How The Happy Kingdom In the Clouds Lost Its Smile

Author: By Andrew Buncombe

One of the patients, a 35-year-old housewife, said she had taken 30 sedatives after problems at home. The second, a woman of 27, had swallowed 15 paracetamol tablets after quarrelling with her husband. The third to require urgent treatment was a 17-year-old girl who was rushed in unconscious having drunk nail polisher remover after an argument along with her sister. The other three cases were prisoners from the local jail who had emptied a bottle of mysterious spirit. Some reports claimed that they had tried to take their lives, but officials are unsure.

By the standards of a hospital in a large city in the West the numbers could be unremarkable, however the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital is in Thimphu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which has a total population of lower than 700,000. What’s more, this enigmatic mountainous nation is feted all over the world for its gross national happiness (GNH) ? a national policy wherein the emotional well-being of citizens is considered more important than their financial bottom line.

Yet evidence suggests that all shouldn’t be so happy-clappy in this high-altitude Buddhist kingdom. Suicide appears to be becoming common as Bhutan’s population ? for centuries cut off from the skin world ? struggles to deal with the pace of change. News reports detail how growing numbers are taking their lives, usually by poison or hanging. A Bhutanese newspaper claimed: “In some villages, committing suicide has almost become a norm.?/p>

Jigme Thinley, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, recently identified the surge towards modernity, breaking traditional family and community bonds, as pushing people to take their lives.

“I don’t think the country is opening too quickly, but change is going on and disorientation is happening,?Mr Thinley said last week in Tokyo, where he was meeting business leaders to debate GNH. “Bhutan isn’t a cheerful place ? there are lots of reasons for people to be unhappy, ranging from the physical to the material.?/p>

Bhutan, squeezed between China and India, has always been a place apart. Until recently the remote country turned its back on the outside world. Tourism has been restricted. After the seizure of Tibet by China and the absorption of Sikkim by India, Bhutan was the last of a trio of once-independent Buddhist Himalayan nations.

Television only arrived in 1999, and it was not until last year that Bhutan held its first general election. Until then the country had been an absolute monarchy, and critics, including various Bhutanese in exile, claimed that even that election was not as open as may have appeared.

However slow change may have been to arrive, the pace of transformation has been fast. In 2006, the much-loved king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced plans to abdicate, and last year ? the two-year delay explained by the insistence of royal astrologers to await an appropriate date ? his young, Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned. During a dramatic ceremony on the Tashichho Dzong palace in Thimphu, the father, who had personally developed the concept of GNH, placed a black silk “raven crown?onto his son’s head, marking the switch from one generation to another.

Reports suggest that many Bhutanese were initially bewildered by the old king’s decision both to step down and to show the country right into a democracy, yet other changes have been way more harmful. Rapid urbanisation has seen many traditional networks break down, while unemployment and drug abuse has risen. It’s against this backdrop that the increased number of suicides has been placed.

Statistics are hard to acquire. One report suggested that there were as many as 58 suicides in 2001, with fewer than 20 to this point this year. Yet officials appear convinced that in reality numbers are on the rise.

The clues suggesting that more people could also be taking their lives have been around for several years. Last year, the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimphu carried out several surveys as part of its work in researching the “nine pillars?? among them health, education, governance and psychological well-being ? used to measure GNH. Researchers said they were shocked to search out that almost 5 per cent of respondents said they’d considered committing suicide, while 1.4 per cent had actually attempted to take their very own lives.

“We were surprised because this was the primary survey we had taken apart from the records kept by hospitals,?said Tshoki Zangmo, a spokeswoman for the centre. “We didn’t think that so many people could be depressed.?/p>

She added: “This may very well be on account of social factors, genetics, the environment or economics. These are all possible. But I think that the Prime Minister’s [comments about the pace of change] could possibly be right.?/p>

Michael Rutland, chairman of the Bhutan Society of the UK, is an everyday visitor to the country. He said he believed essentially the most harmful change for Bhutan was the increasing number of individuals moving into towns and cities. “In this regard the biggest change has been the urbanisation. It results in a breakdown in the local communities and likewise means that when a young person goes into the cities they lose a large amount of the support structures,?he said. “This is particularly true with something like child care where in the rural areas, everyone helps look after the children ?In fact, this is not something unique to Bhutan, but the difference is that in Bhutan this has only been happening for the last 20 years.?/p>

Despite the official stress on happiness, around a quarter of Bhutan’s population live below the poverty line, and education and health care remain limited, especially outside the cities.

Doctors say they are actually waking as much as the psychological problems that exist in Bhutan. DK Nirola is a psychiatrist on the hospital in Thimphu, where lots of the cases are taken. “Before, we had a more rural setting, where we had a very good support structure from our friends and relatives,?he added. “That appears to be going away, especially as people care more about material gain. It’s a contradiction if you want to promote GNH but people still want to be more consumerist.?/p>

“We still haven’t met the fundamental conditions needed for the pursuit of happiness,?said the US-educated Mr Thinley. “The positive thing is that the media is giving cause for alarm ? and the federal government is alarmed.?/p>

Gross National Happiness: What’s it?

* The happiness of the people was declared the guiding goal of development by Bhutan’s king in 1972.

* The Gross National Happiness of the kingdom is seen as a healthier alternative to Gross Domestic Product as a measure of national well-being.

* An enlightened society is held to be one through which “happiness and well-being of all people and sentient beings is the ultimate purpose of governance?

* Last year Bhutan adopted the GNH Index to “track the policies and performances of the country?

* Guensel, Bhutan’s daily news site, declared in an editorial yesterday: “GNH shouldn’t be a philosophy to make every individual happy. It is an expression of a system of values?GNH may also help us change without losing our past.?/p>

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