Land Of Ancient Ways And The Internet

Tandin Dorjie seems an unlikely cable-TV mogul. He owns just three satellite dishes hooked up inside a simple wooden shed. He serves only about 70 subscribers in the placid Bumthang Valley of central Bhutan. At this point, he hopes to wire up hundreds more after the fall potato crop comes in and local farmers are, at least by local standards, flush with cash. But Dorjie, a 43-year-old auto mechanic, may eventually have the same sort of revolutionary impact on this rustic Himalayan community that CNN founder Ted Turner had on American viewers.

As the founder and chief executive of TD Cable Network, Dorjie is giving the 10,000 residents of the valley their first taste of television. Before Dorjie got his cable service operating last March, the only link Bumthang's locals had to the outside world was the treacherous dirt road that switchbacks over an 11,000-foot mountain pass and washes out frequently during summer monsoons. Now his customers "are just happy they can see what is going on out there in the world," the soft-spoken Dorjie explained. As soon as local folk see the TV offerings he beams in from abroad, "they call me up and say: `Please give me a connection."'

Dorjie may be riding the edge of a wave, if one can apply such a metaphor in this isolated nation of high peaks. A few hundred miles away in Thimphu, the sleepy capital, Umesh Pradhan is opening an Internet cafe--but one that doesn't serve coffee. "This is something of a loss-leader," the pragmatic Pradhan explains, sounding every inch the high-tech entrepreneur. The cafe turns out to be a threadbare enterprise containing eight PCs squeezed into two rooms on the second floor of a downtown shopping center. "What I've really done here is to start a computer training center," Pradhan says. "The Internet cafe is just a way for me to identify the future whiz kids I can hire." Pradhan's greater ambition, indeed, is to launch a computer consultancy.

Gradually, but not grudgingly, the world's last remaining Buddhist monarchy is coming to terms with the world at large, opening itself to the forces of globalization. Cast in this light, Dorjie and Pradhan are visionaries seizing the opportunities being created as this long-closed country wires itself into the world beyond its fog-shrouded summits.

LATE BLOOMER. Tiny, pristine, and still a society of subsistence farmers and yak herders, Bhutan has for centuries kept the world at bay to protect its own fragile identity. When John Glenn was exploring outer space in the 1960s, Bhutan was building its first roads. Thirty years ago, it had no banks, no health-care or educational systems, and no phones. Most commerce was done by way of barter. Half the size of Indiana, but with a population estimated at only 600,000--its first census is now under way--Bhutan was so uninterested in the larger world that it chose to join the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund only in 1981.

Things are vastly different today. Over the past 20 years, the introduction of modern, free health care has lifted Bhutan's average life expectancy from 42 to nearly 66 years; rural education has taught many thousands how to read and write English. Bhutan's best and brightest now travel to India, Great Britain, and the U.S. for graduate studies funded by the Kingdom; 99% of those who study abroad come home.

CULTURES MEET. First-time visitors to Bhutan would be forgiven, however, if they think they've actually stumbled upon the legendary Shangri-La of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Bhutanese executives still dress in the colorful, traditional costume known as gho, a flowing robe that is cinched at the waist. Women still don a similarly kimono-like kira, though young women can sometimes be spotted wearing jeans or dresses at one of the capital's two discos.

Thimphu boasts none of the trappings of Western civilization: no McDonald's, no Starbucks, no neon signs, not a single traffic light. To minimize cultural disruptions, fewer tourists are permitted each year than attend the average NBA basketball game. Last year there were 7,158. New buildings continue to reflect traditional Bhutanese aesthetics. Ornate and colorful decorations are carved into the eaves of broad-roofed, whitewashed clay and wood structures, their roof shingles held down by boulders.

But within? Well, that is something else again. Behind the heavy wooden doors of Bhutanese homes and offices, the young and the educated are downloading e-mail, building Web sites to promote tourism, and watching TV shows beamed in from India and Britain.

Many of these radical changes are little more than a year old, and they result from the revolutionary edicts promulgated by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to commemorate his 25th year on the throne of the Druk Yul, or Thunder Dragon. An avid basketball fan with four wives--all sisters--the King and his ministers decided that after years outside the reach of the global information networks, it was time to accept the benefits that high technology could offer. For the first time, he wired Bhutan to the Internet and legalized satellite television.

Jigmi Y. Thinley, Bhutan's Penn State-educated Foreign Minister, was quick to explain all this when I went to see him in Thimphu not long ago. "We felt the compulsion of globalization," said Jigmi, adjusting the saffron scarf that denotes his elevated status. "We have seen the opportunities--but also the dangers. So while we are trying to ensure that we are able to prevent these dangers from materializing, we would like to avail of the opportunities."

TV GUIDANCE. But the government didn't just flip the switch for TV and Internet access and abandon the field to the Dorjies and Pradhans: It set up a nationally subsidized Internet service provider. Access to Druknet is toll-free, making this--there can be no doubt--the first country where the Net works better than most toilets. So far, more than 600 subscribers have signed on--far ahead of initial projections.

The government also hopes to use TV to maintain Bhutan's Buddhist values in the face of MTV, Indian soap operas, and the World Wrestling Federation--all now available. High atop the Thimphu valley, Bhutan Broadcasting Service, the new national network, broadcasts an hour of local programming nightly in English and Dzongkha, the native language. Only the 3,500 sets around Thimphu get the BBS: The government has yet to build microwave links to serve the rest of the nation.

The Net, meantime, promises rural districts everything from telemedicine to distance learning, while offering students the chance to learn software programming and computer networking online. Pradhan, the Internet entrepreneur, says creating Bhutan's first Net-savvy generation is imperative if there are to be jobs enough for the students who are forsaking the fields.

There are critics. Karma Ura, head of the Center for Bhutanese Studies, worries that TV and the Net will undermine traditional values. "I already see children imitating the kind of fistfighting they see on TV," the Buddhist theologian and novelist complained. "Television is a great agent to make the world into one big market, a powerful agent to melt down all local culture. I wish it was not welcomed so early into our society."

Land of Ancient Ways and the Internet (int'l edition)

But in a nation where the clergy shares power, many monks seem to welcome these new developments. "If we make positive use of the new technology, definitely it will help us," said Lama P.S. Dorjie, a Buddhist monk clad in a long crimson robe and sunglasses.

Lama Dorjie paused--and then laughed. "It all depends on the purity of perceptions in your mind," he said, with the level-headed self-confidence typical of the modern Bhutanese. "If you are a wise person, TV will not change you. If you are an evil person, TV will not make you good. The inner happiness is what counts. The rest is just illusion."

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