Bhutan, often called  Shangri-la, has long held a special position in the world. Nestled between the Asian powerhouses India and China, it stands out not only as a carbon-negative nation but also as an exemplar of the Buddhist Kingdom.  The small population of eight hundred thousand who preserve its Buddhist soul has always strived to create their own path in a rapidly changing modern world. 

Bhutan was the first nation to lead and adopt the principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the last nation to introduce the TV and internet.  

Traditionally, Bhutanese society is grounded in close-knit communities within a Buddhist cosmology. 

Before the introduction of globalized formal banking, their largely self-sufficient economy prospered on the joys of community sharing.  Tradition holds villagers coming together in festival-like celebrations to assist in building homes for one another.  Money, in such an ecosystem, was not the benchmark of joy. 

Social satisfaction was deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings, which emphasized life’s impermanence and advocated liberation from the mind’s three poisons: greed, jealousy, and ignorance.  Symbols like the Wheel of Life and the portrait of the four harmonious friends (Thuenpa Puenzhi)—depicting unity, cooperation, and the interconnected nature of existence—shaped their moral compass. 

A time-honoured tradition involved families sending at least one child for monastic studies creating a seamless blend of worldly and spiritual pursuits. This equilibrium ensured that the worldly nurtured the spiritual, and in return, the spiritual enriched the worldly.

In governance, the royal body provided visionary guidance and also represented moral ideals for Bhutanese citizens. This moral compass extended to the voluntary introduction of democracy, an extraordinary move rooted in human values and wisdom. This was a significant step, given the deep reverence the Bhutanese people have for their monarchy.

Yet for a country like Bhutan that has historically remained politically independent and spiritually pristine, why does the concept of decolonization matter?

Having avoided colonization, Bhutan remains today at a crossroad between its rich traditions and the demands of the modern world. The challenge is to balance the benefits of modernization while preserving the unique cultural and spiritual heritage that makes Bhutan special.

While Bhutan’s governance remains steadfastly rooted in its moral principles and the vision of GNH, with the royalty offering essential guidance, a pressing question arises: what is causing the increasing divergence among its populace from their ideals?

Some saw the arrival of TV and the internet in 1999 to a kind of mental rather than territorial colonisation.   Modern media rendered the Bhutanese populace to profound subliminal shifts in their cultural perspectives under the guise of modernism; the issue runs deeper. 

Bhutan gave the vision of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to the world but innocently leaned on Western- GDP- style institutions and models to realize these ideals.  The challenge with these socio-economic institutions—including contemporary banking, monetary, and corporate structures—is the deeply inherent worldview that sees humans as dominators of nature, primarily driven by profit. 

Consequently, when Bhutan absorbed these institutions, it inadvertently incorporated these dominative ethos. Models designed for GDP-driven economy nurtures and institutionalises the very “three poisons” that Buddhist philosophy warns against: greed, jealousy, and ignorance.  Engaging with this framework implies an emphasis on profit, rivalry and individualism, often side-lining core values of truth, morality, unity, and cooperation. This contradiction poses a profound dilemma for Bhutan’s Buddhist entrepreneurs, as it conflicts with their foundational principles.

As is well known, the capitalist dynamic intensifies the societal divide between the affluent and the less fortunate, propelling previously self-sustaining rural communities towards urban centres or foreign lands, chasing the allure of consumer-driven, materialistic lifestyles. 

Moreover, Western-influenced education systems, knowledge and methodologies including technologies, like generative AI, often side-line Bhutan’s indigenous knowledge, worldview, language and traditions perpetuating further cultural colonization. 

The minds of the populace begin subconsciously to gauge success not by native benchmarks—after all, many Bhutanese villagers arguably enjoy a richer life than many Europeans or Americans—but by the Western standards of money or dollar comparisons.  Instead of prioritising sharing and caring, life becomes transactional.

Thus, even though Bhutan was never subject to territorial colonization, it is now grappling with a subtler form of encroachment—systemic and psychological colonization risking its age-old tenets of self-sufficiency, community unity, and spiritual growth in pursuit of modernity.   A larger Buddhist Kingdom like Thailand faces the same issues and struggles with the idea of sufficiency, rather than pure market greed.

Historian Patricia Seed, in “Early Modernity: The History of a Word,” posits that the term “modern” was originally neutral, signifying merely “different” without carrying positive or negative connotations. Ironically, the pursuit of modernism is leading to a growing homogenization across the globe, with Bhutan being no exception.

Faced with this reality, if Bhutan aspires to hold true to its values and its unique path ahead, it needs to empower the masses to recognise and liberate their consciousness from these insidious forms of mental invasion. 

One roadmap could be to develop a nature-based knowledge economy grounded in a social enterprise institutional model.  This requires harmonizing education, technology and socio-economic systems with its deep spiritual, cultural, and artisanal roots that can provide an antidote to mental colonization.  It necessitates consensus and profound progression in thought and experimentation built upon the foundations of the ancestral heritage.

Due to its small size, Bhutan remains at the periphery of major global power and financial networks. This, however, presents a unique opportunity to experiment along alternative paths, even if it entails unpopular decisions that, while perhaps not appreciated in the short term, could gain reverence in the long run.  Even the dominant Western worldview is struggling with its excessive short-termism to address holistically the need for sustainable coexistence of  humanity and nature.  

No country is an island to itself, independent of myriad complex problems that often require global cooperation.  What keeps Bhutan unique though is its commitment to the pursuit of happiness and its governance not shying away from taking bold steps towards it. 

The initiative to establish the Gelephu Mindfulness City represents a commendable step forward.  Its success hinges not solely on the conscientious design and sustainability of the physical infrastructure – the “hardware”, but also on addressing the intangible “software” aspects.  The city therefore must be mindful of the cultivation of the minds beyond individuals, extending to the development of bottom-up systems, policies, and institutional structures that guide and shape people’s choices and behavior. While conventional development emphasizes tangible outcomes, Bhutan’s vision necessitates an equal emphasis on nurturing the right intangible environment, creating a holistic and sustainable approach to development. Perhaps decolonising the Bhutanese mind should be built from the village level up: after all, most cities arose from the conglomeration of villages. 

There is no single path towards finding what the populace wants and needs in an ever changing world.  The Bhutanese identity is to shoulder the responsibility of upholding the spirit of “Bhutan that is Drukyul” or face assimilation into the ever-homogenizing narrative of globalization.

Contributed by

Andrew Sheng and Sneha Poddar

Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, and Chairman of the George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, Wawasan Open University, Penang. 

Sneha Poddar is a qualified Chartered Accountant,  Research Fellow at Georgetown Institute of Open and Advanced Studies, an associate of the Global Soil Health Programme: University of Glasgow, and an adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.