Bhutan, a Country in Transition.

The change from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government will evolve its political system to correspond for the first time to the western idea of a democracy - a process with an uncertain outcome.

Until recently, Bhutan, a small, remote kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbors India and China, had deliberately contained encroaching globalization.

A succession of powerful kings wanted to protect the traditional values of the rural population against modern, western influences, only allowing in a few selected aspects of the outside world. A strong emphasis was put on sustainable rather then rapid development.

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index, coined in 1972 by the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in an attempt to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than Gross National Product, shows the commitment towards this long-term goal.

The concept of GNH is based on the belief that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.The circumstances surrounding Bhutan’s upcoming move to democracy are as unusual as the country itself.

Where in the world does a beloved king voluntarily restrict his powers at the height of his reign, contrary to the wishes of his people?

In December 2006 King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, aged 51, handed his power over to Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, his 26-year old son. Trained in Massachusetts and Oxford, he shall complete the democratization process set in motion by his father.

Under the monarchy the country experienced 100 years of peace - a success story.

And yet sweeping changes are now inevitable.The result of a test election in 2006 showed, however, that the majority of the population voted to preserve the existing system.

With the ‘imposition’ of democracy what will happen now?

I visited Bhutan in autumn last year (2007). It is the country of my early childhood. I recognized the amazing mountain landscape, the specific smell of Artemisia and wood fires in the morning and the loving hospitality of the people.

But I realized that the Bhutan I experienced as a little girl was a country very much at ease with itself, a security stemming from a lifestyle embedded in tradition and scant foreign development.

Bhutan today is a very different land, as I realized immediately upon my arrival. After more than 20 years I returned to a country with burgeoning and, at times, challenging social problems, partly caused by this increasing “civilization”.

Where is the Gross National Happiness in all of this? Can material and spiritual development really advance hand-in-hand?

During my stay in Bhutan I photographed various people from different backgrounds and spoke with them about their everyday life, their hopes, fears and wishes.

It became clear from many conversations that it is not so much the House of Commons elections set for March 24th 2008 that cause concern, but the speed of the general transformations.

People are apprehensive but still get swept along in the tides of change. At the same time, they voice their implicit confidence in the King’s decision and trust in his faith in them, his people, that they are ready. Until now, the king still seems to act as a unifying figure. He is the authority and his people feel represented and safe knowing that he will oversee and reign justly.

With modernization grows a wish for individual fortune, fed through images from, for example television or the Internet, which only arrived in Bhutan in 1999.

This striving for personal success is something entirely new.

As a result of these political and social changes, Bhutanese people of all ages and backgrounds find themselves in a strange state of limbo. Many remain passive. Not yet familiar with their right to a say within a democracy, they can hardly imagine what changes these elections will bring. They are used to leaving it up to others to govern.

With apprehension and some scepticism they await to see what the new political order will bring.

It might be hard for us to understand just how new the concept of voting is in Bhutan. Thubten Sonam, a teacher of farm economics, described a very poignant anecdote from his time as a voluntary election officer.

A TV commercial by the Election Commission of Bhutan to encourage voting showed people from various backgrounds all happily singing on their way to vote. Yet when asked about whether they would vote, many Bhutanese said they would refuse to do so. Asked for their reasons, they commented that it was because they were not able to sing.

Bhutan’s current socio cultural tensions, the lack of experience of the democratic process, the potential dangers that come with a political power vacuum, ambitious party politics and the possible erosion of strong moral connections within the population; all these are conditions that could manifest themselves in modern Bhutan.

As an observer one might fear for the disappearance of such close community ties, the traditions and the Buddhist religion that have previously determined the rules of behaviour and assured security.

As a child on our expeditions through the nearby hamlets we all knew the rules of behaviour. Will all of this now change?

The street layouts for the new towns, including streetlights, are already set, the move is announced. The old structures will crumble.