Soap addicts and news junkies after three years of TV in Bhutan

by AFP/Anjali Kwatra, Nov 15, 2002 | Destinations: Bhutan / Babesa

BABESA, Bhutan, Nov 1, 2002 - Karma Zangmo watches television for 12 hours a day as she sits behind the counter of her small grocery shop in a rural area of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan.

And as soon as the 26-year-old mother gets home, she switches on the set and sometimes stays up until 2 am mesmerised by American soaps or Bollywood movies.

Yet just three years ago television did not exist in the remote Himalayan country where the authorities try hard to guard their traditional values and culture and everyone has to wear national dress in all public places.

TV was introduced, along with the Internet, in June 1999 as King Jigme Singye Wangchuck celebrated 25 years on the throne.

Bhutan became the last country in the world to set up its own television channel and a few months later satellite and cable were allowed in, flooding the country with around 40 channels, many from neighbouring India.

People were able to watch videos before 1999, but now in most shops, restaurants and homes in Bhutan's capital Thimphu, people of all ages can be seen flicking between live news channels, films and entertainment programmes.

In Zangmo's tiny shop in the village of Babesa, eight kilometres (five miles) from Thimphu, people crowded around the TV set, imported from India, to watch a football match.

"I am very glad television came, it gives us something to pass the time when I am in the shop all day," said Zangmo, as her five-year-old son, Karma Tshering, took charge of the remote control.

"He loves television, although I don't let him watch too much," she added.

The government in Bhutan had resisted the introduction of television, fearing that it could negatively influence their centuries-old Buddhist traditions.

The impoverished country, which has a population of just 699,000, only opened its doors to the outside world in the 1970s, when foreigners were first allowed to visit.

But Foreign Secretary Ugyen Tshering said it was inevitable that television would eventually come to Bhutan.

"Maybe it is for the better or maybe for the worse, but I think it is probably too early to tell. Certainly the Bhutanese know more about the outside world than ever before as they can watch 24-hour news channels.

"When September 11 happened, people here were glued to their television sets just like everyone around the world."

Most analysts are cautious about the possible effects of television in the past three years.

"It is easy to blame television for all sorts of ills such as glue sniffing among our children or crime, but that is too simplistic and it is just too early to tell the effects," said Karma Ura, from the Centre for Bhutan Studies.

"In many ways television is very useful to a landlocked country like ours, on the other hand it definitely induces passivity, both physical and mental."

But at one of Thimphu's four nightclubs, All Stars, teenagers in trendy trainers and tight-fitting T-shirts were clear that the introduction of television had given them a window on the world.

"People outside Bhutan might not think that young people here go out at night and drink and dance, but of course we do," said Shanta Pradhan, 29, as she sipped at a can of imported beer.

"Now we can watch MTV (Music Television) and series from America and that tells us a lot about other young people around the world.

"Of course youngsters here find it a lot easier to find out what is happening and what is trendy across the world -- the music and fashion is beamed directly to their own homes," added Sangay Dorji, owner of the All Stars club.

Although televisions have flooded into urban areas, in the countryside, where 79 percent of the population live, televisions are still rare. There the radio service run by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) is invaluable for keeping people up to date.

BBS, which has run its radio station since 1973, now broadcasts two hours of locally-made television programmes each day, mainly news and public information announcements.

There are no audience figures in Bhutan, but one of the station's newest programmes is making a big impact.

Producers are travelling the country on a talent search and people are flocking to show off their singing and dancing skills to a television audience which just a few years ago did not exist.

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