Why is Harvard celebrating Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness?
Harvard Divinity School recently hosted a conference on “governing for happiness” and featured Bhutan, a South Asian nation of less than one million people, as a champion of Gross National Happiness (GNH).
The truth is that in its quest to become the “happiest kingdom on earth,” the Bhutanese regime forcibly expelled more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese who were Bhutanese citizens in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I’m one of the thousands of children affected by the forced migration. In the ’80s, my father spent some months in a hideout inside a cave due to fear of being persecuted. He was a close friend to the village head, who was against Bhutan’s discriminatory “one nation, one people policy.” The Buddhist ruling elite coerced Nepali-ethnic citizens to adopt their culture and norms. I walked hundreds of miles barefoot to an unknown destination, sleeping in the woods by making beds out of branches.
According to the Human Rights Watch, during this period of ethnic cleansing in the late 1990s, Bhutanese authorities targeted Hindu minorities without any search or arrest warrants. They expelled the Hindu and Christian minorities and advanced the prospects of citizens who shared ruling-class beliefs. They enforced a family separation policy that restricted the resettled Bhutanese all over the world, including naturalized Bhutanese US citizens, from visiting their families and loved ones.
Harvard’s conference was a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of refugees—victims of Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing policy—currently living in the United States. The brutality and atrocities of the Bhutanese government have led to a mental health crisis. There is an epidemic level of suicide among Bhutanese refugees affected by these policies. According to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, family separation has become the primary cause of concern in a growing trend of depression and anxiety in many Bhutanese communities.
Where’s the happiness in that?
When asked about this history during the conference presentations, Karma Tshiteem, chairman of the Royal Civil Service Commission, along with other panelists from Bhutan, deliberately avoided discussion of the refugees. They implied that the traumas had never happened.
“Since this is a student-led conference, we will not respond to this political question,” Kinga Tshering, a lead organizer, responded. Audience members were shocked.
Harvard is a world leader in education, and the actions of the university matter. The history leading up to the current Bhutanese message of GNH is important to acknowledge and consider. There is a degree of responsibility and accountability that the university must take in its position of power and esteem. If the role of government is creating the right conditions for their citizens and enabling an environment where all can flourish, Bhutan is no model.
Bhutan’s GNH is not for all.
I cannot understand Bhutan’s happiness if it does not repatriate the remaining refugees in Nepal and allow resettled Bhutanese Americans to enter Bhutan. The only rational solution for the family separation issue would be to provide non-resident Bhutanese status to the resettled Bhutanese and allow them to visit their families and friends.
Institutions that provide a platform to promote Bhutan’s marketing around GNH should learn more about the true history of Bhutan. It is important to take a hard look at the past while remaining critical, and to recognize the complexities of history before publicly praising a country that claims to have achieved happiness but did so at the expense of others.