In Bhutan, 'Gross National Happiness' for Some, Exile and Refugee Camps for Others Jonathan Harris's Balloons of Bhutan Shows Happiness for Some In Bhutan, 'Gross National Happiness' for Some, Exile and Refugee Camps for Others Jonathan Harris's Balloons of Bhutan Shows Happiness for Some
Culture

In Bhutan, 'Gross National Happiness' for Some, Exile and Refugee Camps for Others Jonathan Harris's Balloons of Bhutan Shows Happiness for Some

by Zak Stone

November 12, 2011

Curious about Balloons of Bhutan? See a slideshow of Jonathan Harris's work here.

Imagine a country where happiness is the guiding principal of government. Imagine a people who see all life as sacred and the source of their happiness, a place with an abundance of clean and renewable energy, a nation committed to preserving its culture. Imagine a Kingdom where the King lives in a simple wooden cottage and judges his progress by the country’s ‘Gross National Happiness.’ Where is this Shangri-La? Bhutan.

Of course, not all Bhutanese people feel that way. In the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government began expelling Lhotshampas, an ethnic minority of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who live in the south of the country. The regime’s justification was to preserve Bhutanese culture from any foreign influence, a policy of “One Nation One People.” By the mid-1990s, 107,000 refugees lived among seven U.N. camps in southeastern Nepal, about one-sixth of Bhutan's total population. After talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed to produce a resettlement agreement—Bhutan didn’t want the Lhotshampas back—Western countries agreed to take on the refugees.

So began what the U.N. has called one of the world’s largest resettlement efforts. The United States welcomed 60,000 refugees starting in 2008. Khem*, who was kicked out of Bhutan when he was 13, was one of them. After 17 years in a refugee camp, he now lives in Oakland, California, where he’s active in the refugee community. “Now we are very happy,” says Khem. “We can say that we are refugees from Bhutan… Now the government we see [in Bhutan] says there’s gross national happiness when one-sixth of people are away from the country.”

Needless to say, ethnic cleansing was not a topic raised in Harris' interviews, an omission that led one commenter on Brain Pickings, which featured the project, to write, “Seriously, this is obscene. Like a Nazi documentary about how happy Germany is without jews.” Even without the Holocaust comparison, this raises an important, largely overlooked conversation: Is it appropriate to focus on a nation's overall happiness when a huge percentage of that country’s population is prohibited from sharing in that happiness? If artists like Harris—who did not respond to an email asking him to comment on Bhutan's refugees—want to help us better understand isolated places that most of us will never visit, they have a responsibility to paint a complete picture. The “sad” story of Nepali-Bhutanese refugees is as much a part of the story of modern-day Bhutan as the “happy” story of the many people who live there. Where are the balloons for the Lhotshampas?

Bhutan’s holy mountain pass of Dochula towers in the clouds at 10,000 feet. At the end of his stay in Bhutan, Harris ascended the peak bearing 117 balloons, one for each of his interviewees' wishes. At sunset, Harris reinflated the balloons and hung them among the prayer flags. In a TED Talk released after he got back from Bhutan, he encouraged people to go visit the site, where the balloons continued to hang. He didn't mention the thousands of Bhutanese people who would never have the opportunity to experience something so beautiful in their homeland.

*Name changed to protect his identity.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Harris. 

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In Bhutan, 'Gross National Happiness' for Some, Exile and Refugee Camps for Others Jonathan Harris's Balloons of Bhutan Shows Happiness for Some