Monday, October 26, 2015

Middle-Path Journalism – A conceptual framework

In September of 2009 a devastating earthquake hit Eastern Bhutan. The whole country shook for almost a minute. Houses crumbled, lives were lost and even mountains gave away. I was then serving as the Media Director to His Majesty the King. News of untold destructions and deaths started pouring in every minute. I was on the phone getting information on a continuous basis. But after few days I was getting tired. Not for working 24 hours per day but with the deluge of only bad news. So I called up the Kuensel Correspondent in the area and asked if there was nothing good happening there. I was definite that there would be help and humanity going around in such times. There could be some good things happening there like people helping other people who had lost more. Two days later, a news article appeared in Kuensel about a health worker who saved a child from a house that was crumbling and had killed rest of the family. The health worker risked his life. The story of heroism and humanity lifted the whole nation. Coincidently, that’s one story that I remember from that tragic event. In the days after the earthquake, His Majesty the King visited the area. I ensured that what we released to the mass media were not again stories of agony and misery but stories of hope, strength and resilience – and stories of restoring laughter and joy and stories of reconstruction and reassurance.

Bhutan embraced fundamental political changes in 2008 with the adoption of a written Constitution - and with the general elections that brought in the first elected government. However, in the words of the patron of Bhutanese democracy, His Majesty the King, democratic governance is a means towards the country’s greater aspiration of gross national happiness (GNH). As Bhutanese society slowly internalizes the fundamental principles of participatory governance, it should be noted that no country has built a strong democracy without a vibrant mass media.

The Bhutanese media has its genesis in the modern development era that began with the launch of the First Five-Year Plan in 1961. As a tool to keep the people informed of government decisions, Kuensel, the national newspaper, was started in 1967. It began as an official gazette. Radio NYAB followed in 1973 as a youth radio and later became the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the national broadcaster in 1986. Both Kuensel and BBS had the mandate to inform, educate and entertain the Bhutanese people alongside the country’s overall goal of modern socio-economic development. In other words, development journalism, a media model developed in Asia in the last 30 years, was practiced.

With Bhutan embarking on the road to western-styled democracy, there has been a proliferation of independent media with 12 privately owned newspapers and 4 commercial FM radio stations. In other words, the role of the media has now changed. The question, therefore, is what kind of media model has the new Bhutanese media adopted. Every major society developed a distinct media model based on its history and socio-political evolution.

At the outset, Bhutan’s thrust into democracy has come in an unconventional manner. It has come as another noble initiative of the institution of monarchy. Hence, it is obvious that the West-centric media models postulated under different political evolutions are not applicable in Bhutan. Besides, Bhutan although a small country, the historical, ethnic, social and cultural contexts are complex with a population of little over 700,000 speaking 18 different languages and coming from as many ethnic groups with distinct cultures, traditions and worldviews. Adding to this complexity is the fast changing mindset of a young population. 60% of the country is under the age of 24. These basic reality have to be factored into this academic inquiry. Above all, something as important and as defining as the mass media needs to take into account the fundamental Values the nation hold dear.

The western media model is rooted in western philosophy that shaped the values over the millennia. Thus the traditional Four Theories of Press and the Fourth Estate model promote individual values and rights such as freedom, liberty, equality and justice. Whereas the Bhutanese society, like much of Asia, celebrates community and collectivism (maang in Dzongkha). In addition to that are values like compassion (nyinzhey) and commitments (tha-damtsi) that have contributed to maintaining everything that is good about Bhutan. The fourth and the last Value is contentment (chhokshay), which happens to be the core concept of Gross National Happiness. The new form of journalism rooted in these profound, indigenous and local Values is what I would like to call the Middle-Path Journalism.

This new thinking also comes at a time when the traditional forms of mass media are collapsing all over the world as a result of the social media. The Fourth Estate Model and Four Theories of the Press are being challenged by this new form of citizen's journalism. 

Bhutan with its profound Buddhist tradition and an extraordinary development philosophy of GNH can and should develop its own media model. The Middle-Path Journalism Model, which I propose, could also provide an ethical framework to advocate for contentment, community, compassion and commitments as core values of Bhutanese and Asian journalism in place of West and Euro-centric mass communication models that thrive on, and at times further inflame, conflicts, controversies and commercialism.

(From my talk at the Second Bloggers Conference, Paro College of Education, 25 October 2015)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Oleps - the last hunter-gatherers of Bhutan

The newly constructed farm road from Taksha Zam to Rukha is carved out of sheer vertical cliffs that it would take a lot of courage, almost blind faith, to hop into the power tiller that had come to pick me. I decided to walk – not because I was scared but because I love walking. I have always walked this route; the first time in 2007 when I was assigned by Tarayana Foundation to document this unique group of people – the Oleps.

So I dropped my bags in the tractor and told them to go ahead while I made my way to Rukha on foot. Two locals remained with me to give me company. Even being able to walk free of my backpack was in itself a huge relief. For many years, following my first visit, we had to walk for two days under the scorching Sun or a torrential rain carrying everything on our backs. There was only one rudimentary footpath that ran along the river and through the leech and snake infested jungles crossing even a dangerous landslide area. The trek was so difficult that every time we made it we felt a great sense of achievement. In time a farm road was built and someone bought a power tiller – not only relieving us from the heavy loads but also shortening the two-day arduous trek into a day-long walk.

After five hours of hitting the dusty track, through some beautiful sub-tropical forests and vegetation, we reached Samthang – the first settlement lying along the banks of Harachu River. There we were invited into the house of an old friend, Tashi. His wife had, as usual, cooked some rice and nga-dho tshoem (smoked fish), a local delicacy. I made my hosts happy by gulping down a mound of rice and several rounds of the fish curry.

Another five hours of journey on foot and with the final few kilometers taking us uphill we reached Rukha.

Place, people and culture
Rukha stands on a plateau with the houses lined-up along a raised perimeter of a large farmland. The Oleps have settled here in 1982 when this land was granted to them by the King. They were originally hunter-gatherers, the last ones in Bhutan, perhaps. And together with the cousins, the Mongpas, they are considered as the first inhabitants of Bhutan. Since time unknown they lived off the forest practicing hunting, fishing and shifting cultivation. In the early 1980s as their hunting ground became part of a national park the Oleps appealed to the King and received a permanent place to settle in Rukha. However, while they got the land they didn’t know how to farm and slowly their number dwindled because of poverty and malnutrition. They worked as day laborers for the more affluent villages of Athang – getting paid in food grains with which they fed their families.

In 1997, Her Majesty Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who was trekking in the area stumbled upon them. Story has it that she was deeply saddened by their conditions. They were living in makeshift bamboo huts and in total misery. Years later, when Her Majesty founded Tarayana, Rukha was selected as the first project site. In 2007, just before the project got implemented I was hired to photograph and do some documentaries on their origins, language and the way of life. I immediately became attached to them making me volunteer for Tarayana and visiting them regularly even after the project closed. Tarayana helped them build permanent homes, send their children to school, start fishery and bought them seeds and farming tools. In time, they bounced back to life and they also embraced me as one of them.

The Oleps are part of a larger group, the Mongpas of Central Bhutan. But the origins of the name, Oley, and the history have been lost in time. They are often grouped with the Monpa - a term to loosely describe the non-Indian non-Tibetan groups that inhabited the southern regions of Tibet. However, the Oleps with their language, culture and traditions and the dependence on forest for livelihood would link them closer to the Nagas, Kukis and Mismis of North Eastern Himalayas. They are today confined to Rukha; numbering just 121 souls. And with their unique language (Olekha), culture and traditions they are the smallest ethnic group of Bhutan.

What is even more fascinating of their origins is their own version, which, of course, is bit sketchy. Their cousins, the Mongpas, have retained the legend that the Oleps and the Mongpas are direct descendents of one of the nine brothers of the Sun. The brother in time married a visiting fairy from heaven after he captured her - one fine day. To make sure that she didn’t fly away he clipped her wings and hid them in the bushes. They bore a son and a daughter. The mother, one day, discovered her wings and flew back to heaven – never to come back. Seeing the children deeply saddened, the father decided to go to heaven - promising to get her back but also cautioning that he may not succeed either and may be killed in the mission. “If you hear me shout aatsa (painful cry), it means that I have lost the battle,” he told the children. Few weeks later a cry of aatsa was heard and subsequently the injured father dropped down from the sky. He died of injuries few days later. The son and the daughter obviously angered by the death of their father traveled to heaven to demand compensations from the Gods. They were given a hunting dog and a rotary mill. This, the legend says, is the reason why the Oleps and the Mongpas have been practicing hunting and shifting cultivation.

The legend of Pelden Lhamo
Crowning the village of Rukha is a hill where once a temple stood. The temple was dedicated to Pelden Lhamo – the guardian deity of Bhutan. Legend has it that Pelden Lhamo (Mahakali) came a subdued a demon that was terrorizing the village. To ensure that the demon didn’t resurrect again she planted herself on top of the hill. A temple was built there but was later destroyed somewhere between 1933 and 1936. The period is deduced from the age of one of the oldest men living, Ap Tekpa, who is almost 90. Tekpa recounts that when he was a boy a deadly disease (probably referring to the smallpox epidemic that hit Bhutan between 1931 and 1933) had wiped out the entire village. The Oleps were living in the mountains overlooking Rukha back then. “For years after the village got empty no one dared to visit the place,” he adds. “Then few years later the temple was razed to the ground.”

In 2009 as the project was nearing completion the Oleps asked me to help rebuild the temple. I initially declined as I was more focused on alleviating them from misery rather than guiding them towards their spiritual path. But on a second thought I realized that a community temple was more than a religious monument. It brings and binds the community together. It gives them hope when they are in despair and happiness and laughter in times of annual religious celebrations. So I agreed to help and together (I would say more they than me) we rebuilt the temple from the scratch.

In December 2013 we consecrated the temple and on the same occasion the entire village took a vow to stop killing animals altogether and subscribe to the Buddhism. They were mostly animist until then. While it might be a triumph for environmentalists and serious Buddhist practitioners, I had an uneasy feeling that we might have just changed their lives, history and traditions forever. Not that I encouraged them to hunt, which was outlawed way back in the 1970s. But all along as the project got implemented my colleagues from Tarayana and I battled with changes that we were bringing to this community.

On my return journey, my friend, Kinza, insisted that I rode in his power tiller. “I want to have the honour of giving you a ride. You have done so much for me - and it is much faster.” I obliged. Two others got in insisting on coming to see me off.

As Kinza skillfully negotiated the narrow track of the farm road carved out of the vertical cliffs, my eyes scanned the world that was slowly moving away from us. My first visit and the poverty I saw back then seem as far as the distant mountains now. May be change was good - and inevitable if this community was to survive. And as long as these people maintained its unique identity, pride and sense of humanity and gratitude, which they do, they can boldly move towards a brighter future.

When we reached our destination – the highway point where I had left my car, I hugged my friends and we wished each other that “we would meet again".

In Bhutan there is no such thing as goodbye. 

(This article was written for Tashi Delek magazine, Jan 2014)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Contentment Valley

I had another wonderful day-trip trip to Athang Rukha – my adopted village. Actually it is my village now. They are me and I am them. And a place that I would happily retire for the rest of my life. Thanks to the farm roads now it is so easily accessible.

As always there is always a new story to tell from the visit there. This time I came across a little girl who has a lump in her upper belly. The child was brought to Thimphu a year back but astrologers told the parents not to take her to the hospital. So the family returned to the village without seeing a doctor. She has this lump ever since. I have asked the parents to bring her to Thimphu again and left some money for the travel. I plan to take her to Dr. Sonam Dukpa and run all the tests that may be necessary. I have assured the parents that I will bear all the medical expenses. I am ​just praying that it is not something life-threatening. She is a beautiful little girl - full of life, energy and brain. 

My plan to turn the whole valley into fully organic is gaining steam. The people there are excited. The valley is comprised of five villages of Samthang, Rukha, Lawa, Lamga and Thaphu. We have planted the first mango tree. Other fruits like avocado (my favorite), passion fruits, kiwi and other tropical fruit trees will follow. We will need to do at a decent scale. We will promote the valley as organic and we will promote agro-tourism. If there is one place we can make it happen it is there. If there one person who can make it happen, it's me!

My filmmaker friend from Thimphu, Pema Rinzin, who came along this time asked me what can people expect being there. "Nothing!" I said. "Nothing?" he replied. "Yes, really, it will be nothing. It will be for people who have everything and are going crazy with it. It will be a place to unwind and find your true self. Just as I found myself by coming here for the first time in 2007".

He was thoroughly confused. And so was I. 

The village is a bowl-shaped settlement granted to the Oleps by the King in 1982 (They were hunters-gatherers untill then)

The energy of the place is incredible. I always find it hard to leave after being there even for a weekend. 

These lands belong to Gangtey Monastery, which the locals share-crop since time unknown.

The hamlet of Samthang has 5 houses and beautiful flat paddy fields. Samthang, Mitana, Lawa, Lamga and Rukha make the valley