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from Anya Schiffrin:

Can Bhutan become like other countries – and should it?

On our way to Bhutan’s capital earlier this month we drove through a long valley surrounded by tree-covered mountains. This magnificent scene of natural beauty was dotted by the occasional Buddhist chorten. A  river rushed below – spanned here and there by a shaky pedestrian bridge made of planks and wire draped with prayer flags.

After this uplifting drive from the airport, it was a bit of a shock  to see downtown Thimpu surrounded by half-finished four- and five-story buildings. We passed 2 miles of frozen construction sites that resembled Bangkok after the 1997 economic crisis, when parts of that city became a ghost town. In Bhutan’s case the housing bubble has not yet burst, but the demand for raw materials from India has been so enormous that the country now has a temporary rupee shortage and has restricted imports of construction materials.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg is probably not famous among Bhutan’s citizens, but he might be pleased to know they have some ideas in common:  Bhutan fines people for smoking in public and has banned the importation of cigarettes for resale. The Bhutanese recently added an extra tax on non-essential imports: cars and foreign junk food. As a result, construction seems to have slowed. But the shacks of the Indian laborers who do the building in Bhutan remain, sometimes screened from public view by a green fence. “We are building proper housing for them,” a government official promised.

Many economists, including my husband, are not worried about the rupee shortage, because Bhutan has about 740 million dollars in U.S. dollar reserves – an amount relative to its GDP that puts it in the same league as China, according to International Monetary Fund data from December 2010. Curiously, while Bhutan has been borrowing to buy rupees, paying an outrageous 10 percent interest, it has essentially been lending to the U.S., getting back close to zero return. It can easily sell off some of its dollars to pay back the rupee-denominated loans. Fixing the problem is largely a matter of better liquidity and portfolio management. Hard-currency shortages are common in import-dependent developing countries with overvalued exchange rates and dwindling reserves, but not in a country with large reserves.

from Anya Schiffrin:

The limits of happiness

Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is  a country of  traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.

Peace and quiet and the time for leisure must surely be part of what makes people happy, and the Bhutanese have become famous for popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is a favorite cause of the current prime minister. The Sarkozy commission (which my husband co-chaired) also worked on the subject and in 2009 issued a report that provided a framework for how to think about going beyond gross domestic product and how to measure success in a broader way.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

India and Pakistan agree to hold more talks: now comes the hard part

thimphuAs predicted, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan agreed during a meeting in Bhutan that their countries should hold further talks to try to repair relations strained since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.  Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters at a regional summit in Thimphu that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani had decided their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries (the top diplomats) should meet as soon as possible.

In agreeing to hold more talks, India and Pakistan have overcome the first major obstacle in the way of better ties - the question of what form their dialogue should take. Pakistan had been insisting on a resumption of the formal peace process, or Composite Dialogue, broken off by India after the attack on Mumbai which it blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group. India had been seeking a way back into talks which stopped short of a full resumption of the Composite Dialogue.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan and India: After Yekaterinburg and Sharm-el-Sheikh; now we have Thimphu

bhutanAnother international summit. Another chance for the leaders of India and Pakistan to find a way of getting their countries to talk to each other.

After last year's aborted attempt at peace-making, first in Yekaterinburg and then in Sharm-el-Sheikh, expectations are running low that the prime ministers of India and Pakistan will make much headway when they meet at a SAARC summit in Thimphu, Bhutan this week.

from FaithWorld:

Climatic cracks of doom threaten monastic fortress in Bhutan

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong monastic fortress in Bhutan, 28 June 2009/Singye Wangchuk

For centuries the Punakha Dzong monastic fortress in Bhutan's Himalayas has sheltered ancient Buddhist relics and scriptures from earthquakes, fires and Tibetan invasions.  Now the lamas here may have met their match -- global warming.

At least 53 million cubic metres of glacier melt is threatening to break the banks of a lake upstream in the Himalayan peaks and spark a "mountain tsunami" in Punakha valley.

from India Insight:

Interview with Bhutan PM

Bhutan Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley spoke to Reuters about the country's economy, his government's goals for the next three years and the challenges faced by the "emerging democracy".

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

from FaithWorld:

Buddhist Bhutan warns felling trees a threat to happiness

prayer-flags

Bhutan has warned its citizens over cutting down thousands of young trees every year to make prayer flags, a threat to the tiny kingdom's lush scenery and the government's duty to bring "Gross National Happiness".

Himalayan Buddhists put up prayer flags for good luck or to help the dead find the right path to their next life. The more flag poles put up for the departed the better, and Buddhist monks say fresh poles must be used each time.

from India Insight:

Another Himalayan kingdom tumbles, but will Nepal miss its monarchy?

Another Himalayan kingdom is falling, a chapter closing on an ancient historical tradition. But will the modern system of democracy do a better job?

Sikkim's monarchs, the Chogyals, retreated into history when India annexed their territory in 1975. Tibet's "priest-king", the Dalai Lama, was forced in exile when China invaded his land in the 1950s.

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