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June 01, 2010

A Rainy Day for Gross National Happiness


The Bhutanese refugees arrived in Burlington this morning at 8:20 a.m. after driving all night — 22 hours straight — from Atlanta, Ga., just to stand silently in the rain in order to make their outrage felt. Their handmade protest signs of brown cardboard boxes quickly wilted in the downpour, as the ink ran on their white, hand-lettered T-shirts scrawled with political slogans. For these twentysomething men, many of them current college students or recent grads, there wasn't even time this morning to stop for breakfast. "This is our first priority," they told me.

The source of their passion and anger: the three-day "Gross National Happiness Project" conference at Champlain College, which opened this morning with a keynote address by Karma Tshiteem, secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission. But the men who stood outside on the sidewalk, all Nepali-speaking Bhutanese whose families were forced into exile due to ethnic and political persecution, are outraged that Vermont would welcome an official representative of the regime that drove them from their native land.

Among the protesters was Gopal Subedi, 24, who grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. It was one of seven operated by the United Nations for the tens of thousands of Bhutanese — one-sixth of the nation's population — who currently live in exile. Like all his fellow Bhutanese who made the overnight drive to Burlington, Subedi supports the concept of Gross National Happiness — in theory. 

However, he also wants the Vermont conference attendees to know that Bhutan's notion of Gross National Happiness was a myth perpetrated by the government as a way of concealing years of human rights abuses. As one of his fellow protesters put it, "In Bhutan, it's Gross National Sadness, not happiness."


Wearing shirts that read, "GNH with National Reconciliation," the men are calling on the Bhutanese government to immediately institute democratic reforms, end the repression of its Nepali-speaking citizenry, free political prisoners, and allow exiles such as themselves to return to their home nation without fear of reprisal or punishment. And, they're asking Vermonters to stand by them in putting pressure on the government of Bhutan, which is still one of the world's most closed and repressive countries.

For his part, Subedi, who came to the United States in 2006 and just graduated from Colby College in Maine, said he plans to ask the event organizers for permission to address conference-goers later today and explain Bhutan's current political situation. As another protester remarked, when several attendees walked by their silent vigil on their way into Champlain College's Hauke Family Campus Center, "They seemed very uninformed about the [Bhutanese] people in exile."

Such ignorance is shocking, considering that the event's local sponsors include the Vermont Peace Academy, the Peace and Justice Center and the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, which are all organizations dedicated to raising social awareness about the global implications of our actions. This is doubly true considering that Burlington is home to 500 such Bhutanese refugees. Wonder how much they researched the current political climate in that country and its record on human rights before inviting the speaker?

The men who made the 950-mile trek to Vermont would be happy share their perspective with a wider audience before departing the Green Mountain State on Wednesday.  

thank you for featuring 2 stories in the past couple days regarding this story. it deserves the attention for sure!

Come to the Fletcher Free Library this week to see a documentary on the experience of Bhutanese refugees in the refugee camps in Nepal. Watch as the Bhutanese refugees are "verified" by the Bhutanese government on their status to the government of Bhutan. Children born in Nepal are considered terrorists according to the Bhutanese delegation sent to the camps back in 2001/2002. Excellent opportunity to learn more about their story.

Two screenings:
June 2 at 7pm
June 6 at 4pm
at the Fletcher Free Libbrary

So once again a college of "higher education" in Vermont has been duped by "do-gooders" who do not understnad the difference between those who claim "do-goodness" and those who do "do-goodness." Vermonters simply need to ask those who live amongst us. They know the real stories!

As organizers of the GNH conference “Changing What We Measure from Wealth to Well-Being,” we feel great empathy for the struggles of the Bhutanese refugees. We recognize that having a Bhutanese speaker come to Burlington represents an opportunity to remind the rest of us of the huge challenges they have faced… and of their great humanity. We want that voice heard.

The goal of the conference is to begin to change the economic lens by which we measure progress… and to begin to model the goals of a more sustainable economic future in Vermont. We invited one speaker from Bhutan because that country is one -- of many -- countries that are looking to expand the definition of measures of well-being. There are over 20 speakers and panelists from other countries and around the U.S. and Vermont.

While Ken Picard’s article focused on the challenging road of these refugees and their compelling stories, it did not mention the purpose of the conference, much of which is built upon a culture of compassion and connection. Ken interviewed the refugees on the street, but did not mention the many conversations – and invitations – that conference organizers had with these refugees when they came inside (as it turns out, one of the refugees mentioned in the article is now a conference participant and will have an opportunity to speak on Wednesday).

In fact, Ken never contacted anyone working on the conference to see either, what the conference was about or even to get our perspective on the refugees… or even the perspective of the Bhutanese present at the conference.

By inviting the Secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, it does not mean that we are somehow endorsing the actions of the government of Bhutan… or that this person represents the specific actions of that government. If we were to start censoring every participant in this way, we would quickly have to eliminate, for example, all U.S. citizens. After all, our “founding fathers” -- those that created a great experiment in democracy grounded in a Constitution that speaks of “the pursuit of happiness” -- were slave-holders who disenfranchised half of the population at the outset… and, many would say, a government that has gone on to many other atrocities and grave mistakes in its name over the course of its history.

We did not invite the government of Bhutan (or Brazil or Canada or South Africa). GNHUSA is not in the business of judging nations for the choices they make about complex matters of national identity, cultural continuity, and immigration -- the kinds of issues that are at play in this controversy. The resolution of that controversy is far beyond the scope of our organization and our conference, which is focused on measuring genuine well-being of the citizens of Vermont. We did invite individuals who have been immersed in this work for many years.

One of the conference presenters is from South Africa. She came to talk on “The Subjective Well-Being of Refugees of Urban Johannesburg.” South Africa viciously suppressed the rights of the majority of its citizens in this past generation. Do we not allow her to speak because of the past injustices of her country’s policies?

The most regrettable part of Ken’s article is the implication that we must censor the participants to our conference (living, as we are, in that very same democracy that reveres the right of free speech and, yet, does dreadful deeds to other peoples around the world)… and that the conference sponsors are additionally complicit.

Are we, as community organizers and conference participants, more sensitized to the challenges and plight of the Bhutanese refugees? Yes. Has our invitation for a Bhutanese speaker help raise awareness of their incredibly difficult path? Yes. Will we then censor the participation of a Bhutanese to talk at the event? Certainly not.

"So once again a college of "higher education" in Vermont has been duped by "do-gooders""

That "do-gooders" -- especially college students and faculty of the "protest first, think later" variety -- are routinely duped is never a surprise.

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Chris.

The Bhutanese "refugee" issue is extremely complex and cannot be understood without a comprehensive knowledge of the geopolitical history of the region. Like most of these unfortunate incidents around the world the majority of the people were innocent of any wrong-doing but the guilt and blame for their suffering can be found on both sides of the issue. Many of the refugees were misled and then used by "Gorkhaland" political agitators from India trying to destabilize Bhutan and in turn abused by frightened and desperate Bhutanese officials who had just witness the fall of neighboring Sikkim as the result of a similar "Gorkhaland" campaign. In my book BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness (Serindia) I've tried to present a fair and balanced picture of this very complex and unfortunate incident. One cannot possibly understand the complexities of the issue from protest banners or angry blurbs and Chris Wood's comments lend a "Middle Path" balance to the debate. John Wehrheim [[email protected]]

A few points in response, Chris: First, as I'm sure you know, Andy Bromage wrote a very good piece about the Gross National Happiness conference and its goals, which I linked to in my blog post. His article, which Seven Days ran in advance of the conference, explained in considerable detail the GNH concept and how it could be implemented in Vermont and elsewhere. It seemed redundant and unnecessary to rehash the main points of Andy's article.

Second, at the time I wrote my blog post yesterday morning, the Bhutanese men protesting outside Champlain College had not yet been invited to speak to anyone inside. In fact, they were told — by whom, I don't know — that they weren't allowed on the property of Champlain College unless they were attending the conference, and could be cited for trespass if they did. Since these men said they didn't want to be confrontational or run the risk of arrest, but simply wanted raise public awareness about the plight of Bhutanese refugees, most preferred not to try to go inside.

Third, at no point did I suggest that you "censor" attendees at your conference, nor do I think that the point of your event was to resolve the crisis of the Bhutanese refugees. And, I certainly never say or imply that the conference-goers are "complicit" in the refugees' plight.

However, when you build an event around a foreign government's policy of evaluating the physical, social and economic wellbeing of its own people, then ask a representative from that government to be your keynote speaker but don't check in with local Bhutanese population about that policy, to me that seems like an oversight.

That said, I'm thrilled that you've invited these Bhutanese to come in and share their experiences with the conference goers.

And, I do appreciate your feedback.

And this just in from Sara Martinez de Osaba, for anyone interested in meeting these young men:

There is a BBQ planned for tomorrow, Wed, in honor of our Bhutanese friends who made the 22-hour trek from Atlanta, GA to VT to protest. They are an inspiration- when it's important, you do what it takes.:
North Beach

We'll have grill going; bring what you want to cook!

Also, please join us at tomorrow's peaceful protest.
Champlain College
Hauke Family Center
Maple St.

For anyone interested in a more thoroughly researched and well written account of the complexities of the Bhutanese-Nepali refugee situation, please read the following article written by Alexander Casella as published in the Asia Times. This is the first article that I have seen that has begun to address the creation of the refugee camps and the historical circumstances that led up to that event.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Picard has attempted to taint the GNH conference with one sided allegations. Perhaps he should have reached out to the keynote speaker, as he asks the conference to do, in order to create a balanced argument. How much did he research this issue before writing this blog?

Heather, your clearly missed the point of the blog post. I love the idea of adopting GNH as a truer measure of social and economic wealth than GNP. I didn't set out to "taint the GNH conference with one-sided allegations." As I've already pointed out in the comments section, this was a blog post meant to inform people that there was a protest underway, as I wrote the post, going on outside an event that Seven Days had already previewed in detail.

Support Justice, Human Rights and your Local Neighbors! Bhutan refugees need your support!

Did you know that this week many academic types and consultants are gathering in Burlington to discuss Happiness in Bhutan? Have you ever heard of the country of Bhutan? Bhutan is a very tiny Himalayan nation nestled between India, China and Nepal. Bhutan’s population is only about 650,000 people – about the size of Vermont. So, it is only fitting that Vermont academics and consultants have decided to invite a Minister of Bhutan’s government to Burlington to discuss Happiness. These academics and consultants are very Happy with Bhutan.
The Bhutan government has bought their favor. These Vermont academics and consultants are as happy as clams. They have been paid retainer fees, consultant contracts, travel expenses, and research grants. This is their way of life and they are happy. This is all part of Bhutan’s major public relations campaign. First came a beautiful spread in National Geographic. Everyone that read the article wanted to visit Bhutan at once! Then came the PBS movie about Bhutan. It made Bhutan sound like Vermont’s sought after Utopia!! Later, came commentaries by academics that had visited Bhutan (a totalitarian state – that the USA does not have diplomatic relations with). Bhutan was painted as heaven on Earth!
Did you know that Burlington is home to about 500 Bhutanese refugees? Why would Burlington be home to 500 Bhutanese refugees when everyone in their country is supposedly Happy? Happy is a relative term and a state of mind that the Bhutan government would like for you to always feel, regardless of reality and the truth.
About 20 years ago the government of Bhutan decided that they would like the population to be more ethnically pure. The King of Bhutan wanted a race of people consisting of a religious and ethnic purity that mirrored his own family background. In order to eliminate 20% of their “undesirable” citizens, the King ordered persecution, jailing, torture, rape and killing of the ethnically Nepali/Hindu citizens of Bhutan. The Nepali speaking minority was prohibited from speaking their native language. They were forced to wear the clothes and costumes of the King’s background. After prolonged persecution the Nepali minority was forced under duress to renounce their citizenship. The government forced them from their farms and businesses and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the country. This is akin to the USA government trying to expelling all USA citizens of Irish, German and Italian descent!!
20% of Bhutan’s citizens were ethnically cleansed from the country. They ended up in rural Nepal in refugee camps - 130,000 Bhutanese citizens.
For 20 years these people have fought with the government of Bhutan – trying to regain their property and citizenship. All of these people are patriotic Bhutanese citizens – but they are not HAPPY.
This week in Burlington the academics and consultants gather to praise how Happy Bhutan is. They think Bhutan is a wonderful place and they ignore the plight of the 130,000 Bhutanese citizens (refugees) that were ethnically cleansed from Bhutan.
Please go to Champlain College and protest this meeting. Show your disgust with Bhutan’s government and the academics and consultants that refuse to acknowledge the gross national human rights abuses that are perpetually committed by the Bhutanese government.
Stand up for human rights and dignity!


in line with the promotion of „Gross National Happiness“ we created a Simpleshow that explains the movement of GNH and comments on the added value for the people, the environment, the social structure and the economy. Furthermore, it shows the influence on other countries that try to adopt GNH´s maxime.

If you like this Simpleshow, feel free to use the material and/ or youtube link (visit: in your work to bring a bit more happiness to everyone of us.

Best wishes and always a good karma

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