The Dragon's Voice,
Dr Bunty Avieson is a journalist, author and academic. She has published three novels, a novella and a travel memoir. Her books have been translated into Japanese, German and Thai, and she is the winner of two Ned Kelly Awards for crime writing. She worked for 20 years as a journalist and feature writer on newspapers and magazines in Australia, Great Britain and Asia. In the 1990s she was editor of Woman’s Day and editorial director of New Idea. She is currently a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney.
Also by Bunty Avieson
Once You Know
The Wrong Door
A Baby in a Backpack to Bhutan
Prologue Crowning a King
1 A Truly Bhutanese Newspaper
2 Excellent Abundance
3 Braying Donkeys
5 Tashi Pelkhil
6 The Biggest Story Not Reported
7 The Light on the Hill
8 Happy, Happy, Happy
9 Australian Connections
10 Who’s Reading?
11 Bhutanese Faces
12 The Myth of Shangri-La
13 Work Habits
14 A Victory for the Media
15 Wooden Phalluses and Crooked Vaginas
16 New Ideas
17 Dolma’s Story
18 Two Remarkable Women
19 Forbidden Topics
20 Brand Bhutan
21 The Outside World
22 Floods of Change
23 Getting Along with Elephants
Epilogue A Nation with Many Voices
Just as Alice, when she first walked through the looking glass, found herself in a new and whimsical world, so we found ourselves as though caught up on some magic time machine, fitted fantastically with a reverse.
Lord Ronaldshay, Governor of Bengal, upon reaching Bhutan in 1921
The media are not just watchdogs of society, they are changing society itself. Media are constructing new realities and values.
Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, Media Impact Study 2008
Crowning a King
Bhutan’s Dragon King takes the Raven Crown, a bird’s head decorated with skulls, and holds it steady above his smoothly handsome 28-year-old son. It is a few seconds short of 8.31 am, on 6 November 2008, the eighth day of the ninth month of the Earth Male Rat Year, deemed by royal soothsayers to be highly auspicious. The air swirls about them, dense with incense. Bearing witness inside the small 13th-century chamber are 70 VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons) and members of Bhutan’s extended royal family.
On the roof above, boy monks blow antique horns in a cacophony that bounces around the stone walls and soars over the country’s capital, Thimphu.
Across the kingdom of 630,000 people, villagers crowd into homes lucky enough to have one of the country’s 47,000 television sets, while some yak herders, high in rocky crags, listen to the radio commentary streaming live through their mobile phones. Introduced just four years ago, the mobile phone became an instant success, and now more than 250,000 Bhutanese own one – more than a third of the population. This ancient mystical ceremony is the country’s first modern media event, and the latest technologies are taking it live to the most remote corners of the kingdom.
To the people of Bhutan, the coronation of this new young King marks the end of life as they have known it. In the past year, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, known affectionately as the Fourth King, handed much of his power over to the first democratically elected government, and created the country’s first constitution. Placing the crown on his son’s head is his last, final duty.
After 30 years of rule, today he will withdraw from public life to spend his remaining years with his four wives, relaxing and meditating. Many Bhutanese cannot imagine life without their beloved Fourth King in charge, and some are in tears as they watch or listen to the ceremony. No longer will he make all the decisions for the country – there is a new government and a new King to do that – and for his loyal subjects the future looks frighteningly uncertain.
During his reign the Fourth King guided his tiny kingdom into the 21st century. The country is peaceful, more prosperous and better educated than when he took over in 1972 at the age of just 17. Bhutan has its own well-developed culture – utterly unique – and protects it fiercely. The Fourth King identified shortcomings in the Gross National Product measure of other countries, and instead created for his people the Buddhist-inspired concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as his country’s measure of wealth, which has brought international curiosity and immense national pride.
By any measure the Fourth King has been a dynamic and successful ruler. His heir, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), will face entirely different challenges. As he takes the throne, Bhutan is not only striding forward as a new democracy but also rocketing into the information age. Along with mobile phones, Bhutan is rolling out a broadband internet network and satellite television, thereby opening its doors to an outside world drunk on consumerism, celebrity culture and Western excesses. The noise is shrill and raucous as it seeps into this peaceful feudal country, where nearly 10 per cent of the population are monks and nuns.
The new monarch, who from today will be referred to as the Fifth King, is expected to lead his people through these modern challenges, while showing the same wisdom and compassion as his forefathers. He is expected to provide moral authority, yet remain above politics. While the Fourth King established the pillars of the new democracy, it will be the Fifth King who will shape a new role for the monarchy; lead his unworldly people into the future; and, most importantly, in this last bastion of Vajrayana Buddhism, take responsibility for the spiritual advancement of his people.
The Fifth King understands the sacredness of his position. The Bhutanese believe it is his karma to receive this legacy: it reflects spiritual attainments and connections from his previous lives. As a Buddhist King, he is a modern-day dharma protector, ensuring Buddhism is nurtured and allowed to flourish among his people. It is both a practical and an inspirational role, without Western equivalent. Bhutanese historian and author Tshering Tashi writes that the responsibility is so great that no ordinary person would want the role.
Despite its public transfer of power, the coronation is also a moment of quiet intimacy for father and son. The two men are close, often photographed holding hands. When the auspicious moment arrives, the Fourth King places the crown gently upon his son’s head then steps away, leaving the new ruler alone on the throne. Other members of the royal family file up to pay homage, offering white scarves and a formal bow. First, the Queen Grandmother, stooped and serene, followed by the Fourth King’s wives. They are four beautiful sisters who married the Fourth King in one big ceremony. Each lives in her own royal palace, and they have always been treated equally. To avoid upsetting this harmonious status quo, from this moment on they will all assume the title of Queen Mother.
They greet their new King in order of seniority, eldest to youngest. When it comes the turn of the third, the Fifth King’s birth mother, she cannot resist reaching up to the throne and cupping her son’s cheek in her palm. It is quickly over, an almost imperceptible gesture of tenderness and maternal pride, unnoticed by the VVIPs inside the chamber but broadcast live around the nation on BBS, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. For villagers to see either of the Kings in living, breathing colour on a box
Outside, the international media shiver in a corner of the courtyard. It is quite a crowd: Reuters, Associated Press, British newspaper The Independent, Radio America, a US documentary team, Vanity Fair, OK! from Thailand and Glamour from Germany, Indian newspapers and television, Japanese television, The Sydney Morning Herald, and me, an Australian journalist living in Bhutan.
This is the first time Bhutan has invited the international press to cover an event, and government officials are both welcoming and wary. Bhutan, which for centuries was closed to outsiders, has opened its borders a little, but is still highly suspicious of Western ways. The foreign media have been issued with national costumes to ensure that we do not lower the tone of the day. All of us were up before dawn to be helped into these formal garments, which the Bhutanese happily wear every day. Women journalists and photographers are covered neck to toe in colourful kiras, made of densely woven cloth wrapped tightly around the body. The men are in ghos, which resemble wildly striped dressing-gowns: these are worn belted at the waist, leaving a billowing pocket at the front. We have been herded into a secluded area, out of everyone’s way, and been told to stay here.
Barefoot dancers with curtains of yak hair covering their faces enter the courtyard and leap around in the frosty morning like mad, drunken sprites. Monks follow, carrying colourful parasols. A farmer parades a snowy-white sheep with an extra horn coming out of its nose, which looks macabre but is considered very auspicious, and therefore a gift befitting a King on this grandest of days. The air is filled with the hypnotic chanting of hundreds of monks, a deep rumbling that we can feel in our bones. When they stop, there is a vacuum of sound that leaves our ears ringing.
As the sun sets on Coronation Day and the new King finally goes home to his palace, the pace is quickening in the offices of Bhutan Observer.
There is an eight-page pictorial wraparound to finish, multiple stories about the day’s festivities to lay out and, when the editors aren’t looking, Facebook pages to update with personal comments about this momentous occasion. The kitchen staff bring another round of sweet tea, momos and raw, whole chillies, to keep everyone going. The atmosphere is industrious but also elated. It is the controlled panic of a newsroom as it approaches deadline on a big news day.
Overwhelmed with the high emotion of it all, the features editor pokes his head out of the window and whoops loudly into the night. A few minutes later four unsmiling policemen appear in the office and chastise him for unruly behaviour. What if a foreign dignitary saw you, they ask. He tries to argue but gives up, hanging his head in shame until they’re gone.
After the three days of celebrations the rest of the international press will leave, but I’m lucky enough to stay. I’m two months into a 12-month posting as media consultant to Bhutan Observer, a new weekly, bilingual newspaper. This is a pivotal moment in the country’s history: the kingdom is famously secretive, and inviting the world press to report on the coronation is but one indication that there has been a fundamental change in the way they do things. As Bhutan offers the outside world a glimpse into its traditions, it is also opening itself up to scrutiny within the country, through a growing independent media.
The country is suddenly awash with fresh-faced, untrained young reporters, poking their noses into other people’s business, asking inappropriate questions of their elders and exposing some of the society’s underbelly. Many don’t like it. Others are in shock or denial as the newspapers reveal staggering figures for domestic violence, high-level corruption and rampant alcoholism, which are so obviously at odds with the country’s Buddhist values. It is not how the Bhutanese see themselves or want the outside world to see them. Some are unsure if the press should be allowed to write about such unpleasant topics – how can reporters ask such rude questions of their superiors? It’s just not Bhutanese, they say. The move to democracy and modern media is requiring many adjustments.
Nevertheless, this country of mystical, tantric rites, where the King is a deity and yogis still retreat to caves, is embracing the information age on its own terms – often with an ethical rigour and sophistication that we in industrialised countries could learn from. Newspapers, the internet and mobile phones are opening up a vast new public space where, for the first time, Bhutanese citizens are discussing things that matter to them. This little Himalayan kingdom faces many of the same challenges as we do, but their responses come from a different philosophical and cultural wellspring. The country is only just emerging from the feudal system, and joining the modern world in an intellectually and spiritually robust way. It is compelling to watch.
A Truly Bhutanese Newspaper
Bhutan Observer is owned by Tenzin Wangdi, 47, and his wife, Phuntsho Wangmo, 38. Tenzin is the head of the company while Phuntsho, who looks after the day-to-day running of the newspaper, is very much its heart.
I first came to know this remarkable family in 2002 when my partner, Mal Watson, was producing the film Travellers & Magicians, written and directed by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a highly revered Bhutanese lama who travels the world teaching on Buddhism and also makes movies. Phuntsho worked as production secretary and, while Mal came and went from remote locations during shooting, our baby daughter Kathryn and I lived with her family on the outskirts of Thimphu. She has four adult sisters and one of them is married to her husband’s brother. Kathryn and I spent four months in their large interconnected household, treated partly as honoured guests, partly as honorary cousins.
One night in 2002, while drinking too much Bhutanese whisky with Phuntsho and Tenzin, we talked late into the night about what it might be like to run a newspaper in Bhutan. The country had only one newspaper, the government-owned Kuensel, which had been around for more than 30 years. Tenzin and his older brother were already in the printing business, publishing prayer books for monasteries and school texts. They saw newspapers as a natural extension of that business.
It was just idle, fanciful talk until early in 2006, when the Fourth King unexpectedly invited the public to submit proposals to launch private newspapers. His vision for Bhutan to become a democracy required a vibrant, independent media that would hold the government to account. The family had a month to put together a proposal. To their great surprise, they were successful. Mal and I had returned to Sydney when Phuntsho emailed us to announce she had given birth to a baby boy and a newspaper.
The Fourth King had granted two licences for weekly newspapers to be printed in English as well as in the national language, Dzongkha, and distributed nationally. A consortium of 24 wealthy businesspeople was licensed to publish Bhutan Times, and Phuntsho’s family was licensed to publish Bhutan Observer.
The family is neither poor nor rich, but somewhere comfortably in between, owning the printing business as well as a hardware shop. Like most middle-class Bhutanese, they have maids and employ a full-time weaver in their home, but they don’t go on buying trips to Thailand to furnish their homes or buy CD players and modern appliances like the very wealthy. They live modestly, hanging their clothes on nails in the walls and spending their holidays visiting their village, three days’ travel to the east.
Before starting Bhutan Observer, they had no experience of media beyond publishing prayer books, watching BBS and occasionally reading Kuensel. They had little interest in politics and no friends in government. Yet suddenly they found themselves about to launch a newspaper.
The country’s only trained journalists already worked at Kuensel, so the family looked around for capable people in their social circles. One stood out: Dr Sonam Kinga, who at 33 could speak eight languages, had authored several highly respected books and translated Sophocles’ play Antigone into Dzongkha. For a brief moment he was also one of Bhutan’s most recognisable faces, acting as t
What he lacked in media experience he more than made up for in intelligence, education and a sophisticated worldview, which he developed while studying in Japan and Canada. The family appealed to his desire to help Bhutan through the growing pains of democracy, and he agreed to come on board – but only for a year. Ultimately he wanted a bigger role in the new democracy: he intended to stand for election to the country’s National Council.
The family made Dr Kinga founding editor-in-chief. His first task was to train staff in a job he didn’t know. He interviewed arts graduates of the new Royal University of Bhutan and asked them to write an essay on the role of media in a democracy. Those best able to write in English were invited for interviews.
Senior journalist Tandin Pem, 23, remembers her interview. Dr Kinga asked what stories she would cover in a village. Tandin replied, ‘I will report on sale of maize, tengma [corn flakes] and other items.’ She got the job. The rest of the staff were mostly relatives and looked after distribution, advertising and layout, figuring out how to do their jobs as they went along. The family invited monks to the office to perform pujas – a Buddhist blessing of chanting, waving incense and blowing trumpets – to dispel obstacles and ensure a harmonious beginning.
The first editions of Bhutan Observer were cobbled together in June 2006 behind Thimphu’s main street in a ramshackle wooden hut with gaps in the floorboards, which sat atop a sea of mud. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche wrote a feature for the launch issue about whether Buddhists could kill cockroaches. (The short answer is no.) There were also photos of Her Royal Highness Princess Ashi Sonam Dechan Wangchuck launching the newspaper, and a variety of businesses paid for space to wish the newspaper well.
The rest of the newspaper was devoted to the country’s elections, featuring photos of farmers and villagers sitting under trees as they discussed what democracy might mean. Other articles explained how to vote and who the different candidates were, and gave news on the Fourth King. The weekly paper had 14 pages and an initial ambitious print run of 15,000 across the two editions. It cost 10 ngultrum (Nu.10), or about A$0.27.