NY Times: “Bhutan is no Shangri-La”

A strong piece today in the NY Times op-ed section today about Bhutan’s refugee situation will bring widespread attention to an issue I write about in Radio Shangri-la that’s been ongoing for over 20 years. 

I’ve tried hard to get mainstream media to write about or talk about the refugees, particularly as they’ve resettled in the US, and particularly as debates have swirled in this country over immigration*, but to no avail.

To be sure, it’s a complex issue and my hope has long been that as the refugees integrate into US culture (as they have by the tens of thousands in the last few years) and their stories get heard that Bhutan will at the least open up a dialogue.

 *The issue stems back to a time when there were more porous borders around Bhutan and people of Nepali origin were brought in to help built modern Bhutan.  As their numbers grew, fears grew that Bhutan’s cultural heritage (not to mention control of Bhutan by “pure” Bhutanese) would dissolve.  Please refer to the final chapter of the paperback edition of Radio Shangri-La, Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth and Hutt’s Unbecoming Citizens for more thoughtful distillations of the situation.

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5 thoughts on “NY Times: “Bhutan is no Shangri-La”

  1. Heidi Weisbaum says:

    I find your comment that it is “an issue [you wrote] about in Radio Shangri-La” a bit of an overstatement. In the paperback edition, it takes up a mere seven pages (out of 284), squeezed in between your query about why “clusters of kids” do not run around in “richer neighborhoods” and your new radio job where you relish being able to witness the wedding of the King and his “achingly beautiful” bride. Really? The part about the discrimination against the Nepalese is almost an after-thought in the book. It was as if including this information would so color the picture you were trying to paint of Bhutan, that you just threw it in at the end and hoped no one would really notice. We did notice and could not understand why the book devoted so little to the issue and so much to the “Shangri-La” point of view.

    • Hi Heidi, nice to meet you and thanks for reading my book so closely. The reason that my book doesn’t get to the refugee situation until the end is because my book is not about the refugee situation. It’s about how I stumbled upon Bhutan, fell in love with it, learned more about it, witnessed how globalization and mass media were changing the place and its people, and how all of this impacted me. And, how, the more I got to know about the place, the more complicated the picture became. The other thing to remember is that most people who read my book have never heard about Bhutan, or know very little about it or the geopolitics surrounding it. To understand the refugee situation it helps, I think, to understand the “backstory” of Bhutan, which of course I do in a non-scholarly way, since I am not a scholar and that was not the intent of this book. Perhaps as with other detractors (and there are plenty) you will feel this response does not mitigate your dislike of how I handled the situation, but that’s the answer to your question. My best wishes to you, Lisa

    • riekicrins says:

      I did not read the book, but as a scholar and 23 years experience with Bhutan I can tell you: if you write about Bhutan its about the Bhutanese culture. Writing about the Lotshampa’s ( Nepalese/Hindu Bhutanese) its a complete different story. Nowadays most lotshampa’s are living in peace with the ngalongs and the sharchopa’s. Bhutan was always a country just like any other country in the world, not better or worst. Its western people in search for shangri la who portrait it as a so called paradise. its not!

  2. riekicrins says:

    This article is very biased, it only reflects on the “refugee” situation. The story behind it is very complicated and it is regarded very hypocritical by the Western media and human rights activist. Everybody is screaming for free Tibet ( forgetting that Tibet was a theocracy just as Iran is today. Sikkim lost its self rule due to mainly Nepalese immigrants who demanded a democracy, ( an other Himalayan culture gone)! Now the Gurkha’s demand a great Gurkha land in Darjeeling, the Lepcha’s are loosing it and their culture is on the fringe to disappear. ( The have no fancy American Buddhist who take care of their cause).
    Bhutan just fought for its right of existence and its about time that the voice of Bhutan is heard. The West highjacked the happiness concept for our own consumer demands, not knowing what its about, just take it and use it. Now we see that Bhutan is not that happy country after all so we leave it for something better. Maybe Samoa or Djibouti?

  3. Riekicrins, hi: That article was an op-ed written by a Bhutanese refugee. Not an article. So, in other words, it’s supposed to be “biased,” weighted on the point of view of one or the other perspective.
    As you point out, there are many shades of gray.
    And anyone who reads my book finds out that it isn’t about Bhutan as Shangri-La; looking past titles is something people don’t seem to do, especially when they are on the attack. By the way, I enjoyed your book from the scholarly perspective. And best of luck to you with your new “Bhu-tique” hotel in Bhutan. 😉 Clever!
    Cheers, Lisa

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