All change in Shangri-la?

Ahead of Bhutan's parliamentary elections, Michael Hutt looks at the reality of the transition of th

The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is currently engaged in an extremely interesting exercise. The aim of its ruling Buddhist elite is to take Bhutan a few steps down the road towards becoming a genuine participative democracy, but without unleashing forces that will loosen its own control of the country’s destiny.

This is a carefully calculated response to popular aspirations within Bhutan and to the expectations of Bhutan’s foreign friends and neighbours.

Until the 20th century, Bhutan was ruled jointly by a reincarnate lama and a secular administrator. The country underwent many years of internal conflict between the feudal lords of its various districts during the previous centuries. The establishment of the Wangchuck monarchy in 1907, which brought this conflict to an end, was in large part an outcome of the country’s encounter with the British colonial state.

Since then, the preservation of the sovereignty and distinct cultural identity of Bhutan has been an overriding concern, especially as independent India became more heavily involved in the country’s development and internal affairs. For much of the 20th century, the King held absolute power, supported and advised by a small handpicked political elite. A National Assembly, established in 1953, met for just a few weeks each year.

2008 will see the conclusion of a long and gradual process of political change. In 1998 the King appointed a Council of Ministers, and a prime minister began to represent the country in overseas fora. Bhutan’s first written constitution was drafted in 2004 and was taken out to every district for a long and carefully guided process of comment, discussion and consultation. The constitution provides for elections to a small upper house (part elected and part appointed by the King) and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Having stated earlier that he would abdicate when the elections were held in 2008, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the fourth Wangchuck king) abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel in December 2006.

Last year a mock election was conducted across the whole country, with the electorate casting its vote for either a ‘red’ party or a ‘yellow’ party. A peculiarity of the constitution is that while it allows for the establishment and registration of political parties for the very first time, and allows these parties to contest the first stage of its general elections, only the two most successful parties in this round can proceed to the next. The party that wins the higher number of votes then forms the government, while the runner-up forms the opposition. Thus, Bhutan is establishing a ‘two-party democracy’ rather than a multi-party democracy.

The first round of elections to the National Council was held during the first week of January; elections to the National Assembly are scheduled for March. Only two parties contested these first elections: the People's Democratic Party (PDP), headed by an uncle of the King, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) headed by a former chairman of the Council of Ministers. Bhutan’s Election Commission denied registration to a third party, the Bhutan People's United Party (BPUP), allegedly on the grounds that its candidates did not possess the necessary competence, experience or qualifications. This decision has given rise to some stridency even among bloggers on Bhutanese websites that are normally very strongly nationalistic and fiercely loyal to the establishment.

Bhutan’s population comprises three main ethnic groups, none of which constitutes a numerical majority. During the early 1990s, approximately one half of one of these groups — the ethnic Nepali population —either fled or was expelled to refugee camps in eastern Nepal in one of the world’s least known ethnic conflicts.

These 100,000 people are now very sorely divided over the question of whether to continue to wait to be repatriated (a prospect that remains extremely remote) or to accept offers of resettlement recently made by countries including the USA and Canada. There is evidence to suggest that many of the Nepalis who remain in Bhutan are denied many rights, including the citizenship documentation that would enable them to vote in Bhutan’s new electoral processes.

The unending exile of about one sixth of the population of Bhutan, combined with the denial of civil and political rights to their ethnic kin within the country, is beginning to give rise to a politics of violence that closely mirrors that witnessed in Nepal over the past decade.

The latest example of this was the detonation of bombs in four locations inside Bhutan on 20 January. In an email sent to regional newspapers and selected individuals, a group calling itself the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan claimed responsibility for the blasts and declared ‘we have come to the conclusion that all the new changes which so much is being hyped is just cosmetic and in reality is not going to benefit all the Bhutanese except a small section’.

Journalists regularly describe Bhutan as a Shangri-la, and its government’s policy of striving for ‘Gross National Happiness’ is often quoted with approval. However, the political realities here are very starkly problematic. Charting the course for the future political development of a tiny multi-ethnic country lodged in high mountains between India and China must be one of the greater challenges of the 21st century.

Michael Hutt is Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His recent publications include Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan (Oxford University Press, 2003) and a translation of the Nepali novel Basain by Lil Bahadur Chettri, published as Mountains Painted with Turmeric (Columbia University Press, 2008).
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood