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Guardian Weekend – Fast Forward into Trouble

Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed in centuries, was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came Bhutan’s first crime wave – murder, fraud, drug offences. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report from a country crash-landing in the 21st century. Pictures by David White.

April 2002 was a turbulent month for the people of Bhutan. One of the remotest nations in the world, perched high in the snowlines of the Himalayas, suffered its first ever crime wave. The 700,000 inhabitants of a kingdom that calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon had never experienced serious law-breaking before. Yet now there were reports from many towns and villages of fraud, violence and even murder.

The Bhutanese had always been proud of their incorruptible officials – until Parop Tshering, the 42-year-old chief accountant of the State Trading Corporation, was charged on April 5 with embezzling 4.5m ngultrums (£70,000). Every aspect of Bhutanese life is steeped in Himalayan Buddhism, and yet on April 13 the Royal Bhutan police began searching the provincial town of Mongar for thieves who had vandalised and robbed three of the country’s most ancient stupas. Three days later in Thimphu, Bhutan’s sedate capital, where over-indulgence in rice wine had been the only social vice, Dorje, a 37-year-old truck driver, bludgeoned his wife to death after she discovered he was addicted to heroin. In Bhutan, family welfare has always come first; then, on April 28, Sonam, a 42-year-old farmer, drove his terrified in-laws off a cliff in a drunken rage, killing his niece and injuring his sister.

Why was this kingdom with its head in the clouds falling victim to the kind of crime associated with urban life in America and Europe? For the Bhutanese, the only explanation seemed to be five large satellite dishes, planted in a vegetable patch, tinged by sugar-pink cosmos flowers on the outskirts of Thimphu.

In June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on television. The Dragon King had lifted a ban on the small screen as part of a radical plan to modernise his country, and those who could afford the £4-a-month subscription signed up in their thousands to a cable service that provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment, much of it from Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV network.

Four years on, those same subscribers are beginning to accuse television of smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own, and of threatening to destroy an idyll where time has stood still for half a millennium.

A refugee monk from Tibet, the Shabdrung, created this tiny country in 1616 as a bey-yul; or Buddhist sanctuary, a refuge from the ills of the world. So successful were he and his descendants at isolating themselves that by the 1930s virtually all that was known of Bhutan in the west was James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. He called it Shangri-la, a secret Himalayan valley, whose people never grew old and lived by principles laid down by their high lama: “Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age.”

In the real Bhutan, there were no public hospitals or schools until the 1950s, and no paper currency, roads or electricity until several years after that. Bhutan had no diplomatic relations with any other country until 1961, and the first invited western visitors came only in 1974, for the coronation of the current monarch: Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Today, although a constant stream of people are moving to Thimphu – with their cars – there is still no word in dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, for traffic jam.

But none of these developments, it seems, has made such a fundamental impact on Bhutanese life as TV. Since the April 2002 crime wave, the national newspaper, Kuensel, has called for the censoring of television (some have even suggested that foreign broadcasters, such as Star TV, be banned altogether). An editorial warns: “We are seeing for the first time broken families, school dropouts and other negative youth crimes. We are beginning to see crime associated with drug users all over the world -shoplifting, burglary and violence.”

Every week, the letters page carries columns of worried correspondence: “Dear Editor, TV is very bad for our country… it controls our minds … and makes [us] crazy. The enemy is right here with us in our own living room. People behave like the actors, and are now anxious, greedy and discontent.” But is television really destroying this last refuge for Himalayan Buddhism, the preserve of tens of thousands of ancient books and a lifestyle that China has already obliterated over the border in Tibet? Can TV reasonably be accused of weakening spiritual values, of inciting fraud and murder among a peaceable people? Or is Bhutan’s new anti-TV lobby just a cover for those in fear of change?

Television always gets the blame in the west when society undergoes convulsions, and there are always those ready with a counter argument. In Bhutan, thanks to its political and geographic isolation, and the abruptness with which its people embraced those 46 cable channels, the issue should be more clearcut.

And for those of us sitting on the couch in the west, how the kingdom is affected by TV may well help to find an answer to the question that has evaded us. Have we merely become the product of what we watch?

The Bhutanese government itself says that it is too early to decide. Only Sangay Ngedup, minister for health and education, will concede that there is a gulf opening up between old Bhutan and the new: “Until recently, we shied away from killing insects, and yet now we Bhutanese are asked to watch people on TV blowing heads off with shotguns. Will we now be blowing each other’s heads off?”

Arriving at dusk, we pass medieval fortresses and pressed-mud towers, their roofs carpeted with drying scarlet chillies. Faint beads of electric light outline sleepy Thimphu. Twisting lanes rise and fall along the hillside, all of them leading to the central clock tower, where the battered corpse of Tshering, a 50-year-old farmer, was recently found – another unsolved murder case. In this Brueghel-like scene, crowded and shambolic, where the entire population shares fewer than two dozen names, TV is omnipresent. Potato stores sell flat-screen Trinitrons; old penitents whirl their prayer wheels outside the Sony service centre; inside every candlelit shop-house a brand new screen flickers.

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