Smiling Unhappy People from Bhutan
Quality of life and quality of the economy don't necessarily go hand in hand. Lest there be any doubt, keep in mind that the cleanup costs associated with the BP oil spill will actually add to the Gross National Product (GNP) of the United States in 2010. Talk about a flawed system of accounting.
It's one reason why a group of Vermonters is promoting an entirely different indicator for measuring the nation's actual "wealth." As Andy Bromage reported for Seven Days in April, this week Champlain College is playing host to the first-ever national conference on the "Gross National Happiness Project," which proposes replacing the GNP with Gross National Happiness, or GNH. Based on a model officially adopted by Bhutan in 2008, GNH measures more human-oriented indicators of national wealth, such as the citizens' physical and psychological well-being, their use of time, level of education, quality of life, and so forth.
But this week's conference, which runs from June 1-3, features a keynote speaker who is making a lot of Bhutanese living in the United States, including the 500 or so Nepali refugees from Bhutan currently living in Burlington, very unhappy. Karma Tshiteem is secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission. As an official representative of the Bhutanese government, Tshiteem's presence has been described as a "slap in the face" to refugees who fled Bhutan under the fear of imprisonment, torture and death.
Allies of the local Bhutanese community are planning to protest his presence, starting at 8:15 tomorrow morning.
Harka Khadka is a representative of Burlington's Bhutanese community who works part time as an educational liaison at Edmunds Middle School. Khadka, 34, was among 300 or so ethnic Nepalis who came to Burlington in 2008 after fleeing persecution from the Bhutanese government. His grandfather had been arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration against government bans on the use of their native language, as well as the closure of schools, burning of textbooks, and other forms of repression. One such government rule requires all Bhutanese to wear the compulsory dress of Bhutan, a long, woolen garment traditionally worn by people in the north, which is hot and entirely impractical for those living in the south.
"We thought we should be allowed to practice our own traditions and culture," says Khadka. "Our schools were turned into jails, and people in the village were put into prison."
Khadka's grandfather was arrested and imprisoned for about a month. After his release, Khadka says that he and other villagers were forced to sign a document swearing that they would leave the country voluntarily. Those who didn't sign could be killed, he says.
"People were asked to smile, and they took the picture of the people who were signing the paper," Khadka adds. "After my grandfather signed the paper, he was tortured in the prison. It was intolerable for him. He was already 70 years old." Khadka, his parents, and great uncles all left the country together and came to Vermont in August 2008. Those who didn't sign the papers weren't allowed to leave. Others who didn't were, in fact, killed.
What's it like for Khadka to see Champlain College hosting a representative of the Bhutanese government? "It's ridiculous," he says. "We feel very insulted."
Khadka points out that he believes GNH is a good idea in the United States, but says that in no way does the Bhutanese GNH gauge the true level of happiness of its people. "There is no Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, and there never was in the past." A large percentage of the population is very poor and live on infertile land, he says. Many Bhutanese can support themselves for only three months a year.
Bhutan remains one of the most closed societies in the world, allowing little foreign travel and very little outside media. Since 1991, more than one-sixth of the country's population has sought asylum elsewhere.
Despite their outrage about Tshiteem's presence, however, many members of the local Bhutanese community are reluctant to participate in Tuesday's protest. "We have been told, before leaving the country, that we cannot participate in any political activities in the United States," says Khadka, who claims he was told this by representatives of the U.S. government before leaving Bhutan. As a result, he's not encouraging any other Bhutanese to participate, either.
Claims of any such restriction couldn't be independently verified or refuted on Monday, as all federal offices, and most private law firms, are closed for the Memorial Day holiday. And while an advocate for refugees and asylees said privately that he thought such a ban was unlikely, he nevertheless advises anyone who's not yet an American citizen to "exercise caution" about what kinds of political activities they engage in.
That said, Khadka notes that about a dozen Bhutanese friends are coming to Vermont from as far away as Georgia to participate in tomorrow's protest.