Mystery in the Hills

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TIM McGIRK ThimphuOnly one murder has been committed this year in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The victim was just a hermit monk, but everyone from King Jigme Singye Wangchuck down to the humblest of his 600,000 subjects wants desperately to solve the mystery before this ill-omened Year of the Tiger ends.The monk was a caretaker at the Tiger's Lair, a sacred cave shrine perched high on the cliff-face of a granite mountain. It was here, the Bhutanese believe, that Guru Padmasambava, the wizard-saint of Himalayan Buddhism, went to meditate after alighting on his flying tiger. One day last April, as darkness inked across the valley below, somebody climbed up to the Tiger's Lair, accessible by a narrow ledge cut into the sheer granite. The murderer killed the solitary caretaker and set off two explosions in the temple. The motive wasn't robbery: left untouched were stacks of banknotes and gold given by pilgrims. Then the assailant fled down into the forest, through the wispy tangles of moss that hang from the oaks like a dragon's goatee.The Bhutanese read many evil portents into the Tiger's Lair attack. Not that they admit to being superstitious: Bhutanese prefer to think of themselves as being fine-tuned to the invisible forces of nature. Before an archery match, for example, they bless their arrows at a temple. This accommodation with the spirit world can even affect modern development projects. For example, when a bridge needs building, the river spirit has to be persuaded--or fooled--into swimming away with tempting offerings and prayers. Erecting a hydroelectric dam, which tends to put the river goddess into a vile mood, requires more elaborate trickery. After complaints from yak herders, the Bhutanese banned foreign climbers from crawling up the face of their sacred mountains. And when astrologers publish warnings in the kingdom's one newspaper, Kuensel, against travel, droves of people cancel their seats on Druk Air's two planes. A death in Guru Padmasambava's cave is as bad as an omen can get, especially when it was not the work of spirits but of a murderer.In the search for answers to the mystery, King Jigme, 43, has applied his legendary grasp of detail to memorizing the forensic report. But there are precious few clues to work with. The entire country, roughly the size of Switzerland, employs just 2,000 policemen, and it's easy for a fugitive to disappear into the forest. For now, only one thing seems clear: in the modern world, this tiny, peaceful kingdom now has enemies. And they are closing in. A day before the King was to view a schoolchildren's parade in Thimphu last month, a bomb exploded in the Royal Pavilion.Is the outside world to blame? On the one hand, Bhutan's decision to open itself up in the 1960s--prompted by China's annexation of Tibet--has brought prosperity. At $550, per-capita income is high for the region, and nobody dies of hunger. King Jigme's goal, he says, is to increase the gross national happiness, and to that end he spends weeks traveling his Himalayan realm, in a Toyota Land Cruiser until the roads end and then on horseback or by foot, inquiring about what it would take to make people content. But openness has also attracted unwanted intruders. The biggest threat comes from illegal immigrants swarming in from overpopulated Nepal and India. These settlers gaze hungrily upon Bhutan's primeval land and see a forest of dollar signs: rare timber waiting to be logged and farmland cleared.PAGE 1  |    |  
King Jigme's hoops and dreams
 
To counter such encroachment, the King is trying to find ways to preserve Bhutan's uniqueness. A dress code, for example, now requires men to wear a kilt-like robe called a gho, a 16th-century garment that can turn a motorcyclist's nether parts into icicles during a winter's ride. We don't have a huge military, King Jigme says. We don't have economic might. All that gives us strength is our unique culture. If we lose that, we lose everything.More worrisome are restrictive laws on immigration that target the country's Nepali-speaking newcomers, following a 1988 census that showed that the dominant ethnic group, the Drukpas, or Thunder Dragon people, was in danger of gradually becoming outnumbered by the Nepali-speakers. Relief agencies claim that Bhutan police have forced large numbers of these people to clear out. Since 1990, they say, more than 90,000 refugees have settled in camps across the border in southern Nepal. Bhutan's Foreign Minister Jigmi Thinley says legitimate Nepali-Bhutanese can return, but his government contends that thousands of Nepalis have drifted into the camps from elsewhere, looking for a meal and shelter. Nepal insists that all camp-dwellers are genuine refugees who must be allowed back in Bhutan, though negotiations have been hampered by six changes of government in Katmandu since the crisis started. Bhutan has a case in wanting to preserve its folklore and culture, says Ravi Nair, director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center. But that's not limited to one ethnic community.Bhutan's concerns aren't without merit. As the refugee numbers continue to build, small bands of armed men routinely venture across the Nepalese border to Bhutan; they burn down schools and office buildings and commit robberies. These insurgents are among the leading suspects in both the attack on the Tiger's Lair and the parade-ground bombing.Bhutan is also attracting other unwanted--and dangerous--visitors. Over the past few years, rebels from the bordering Indian state of Assam have taken sanctuary in Bhutan's hilly jungles. Indian military sources claim that thousands of Assamese guerrillas are hiding in Bhutan and have set up more than 30 camps, some as far as 25 km inside the border. Indian forces want to cross the border to try to wipe them out. Says Lieut. General N.C. Vij, the Indian army commander in Assam: We have a viable plan for the quick destruction of the rebel camps in Bhutan. Certainly the Bhutanese, who have only 4,000 soldiers, are no match themselves for the well-armed and combat-ready insurgents. On Dec. 1, a Bhutanese convoy was ambushed in Assam and three soldiers were killed. Indian authorities blame rebels for the attack, but the latter claim it was carried out by pro-Indian forces, trying to scare Bhutan into allowing Indian cross-border raids on the rebel bases. Many Bhutanese worry that India's forces will linger on, causing more trouble than the rebels ever did.In Thimphu, such troubles seem mountains away. People are more worried about the invasion of foreign culture taking place on the city's main street. The boys wear Chicago Bulls T shirts under their traditional ghos--influenced, perhaps, by King Jigme's own passion for basketball. The King has tried to protect his subjects from Western consumerism by outlawing satellite TV dishes, but he knows the law is being ignored. Hundreds of dishes are now hidden in people's haylofts, beaming in the latest American soap operas and Indian game shows. We Buddhists believe that the world is all an illusion, says Tashi Phunto, a scholar monk at the national library. He adds, with a sigh: Television doubles that illusion. In people's homes now, the television is replacing the shrine as the main focus of attention. Others make do with bootleg videos from India, which are often surprisingly current--Saving Private Ryan is already on sale in Thimphu.  |  2  |  
King Jigme's hoops and dreams
 
It's not as if the monarch is hoarding such forbidden Western goodies for himself. King Jigme has no satellite dish of his own and is content listening to radio news and reading the papers that arrive from India a day or two late. He is stung by comments that keeping out satellite TV is a form of censorship. In the West, having a TV is high on the list of priorities, he says. For us, it wasn't. Roads, power, schools--these were our priorities. He says Bhutan will eventually allow satellite TV, but only after the country's own state network is on air. As Finance Minister Yeshey Zimba puts it: We're being forced to jump straight into the 21st century, with no time to adjust.Some telling adjustments are taking place, however. In monasteries where young monks study Buddhist dialectics, astrology and Tibetan medicines, courses in English and computer science have been added to the syllabus. In sports, too, change is in the air. Bhutanese archers increasingly are forsaking their traditional bows, which are bent from a cane found only on the slopes of one mountain. Now they are letting fly with $1,000 compound graphite bows that enable sharpshooters to hit a bull's-eye 145 m away. Says archer Pema Namgyal: It was part of the fun with the old bows and arrows that your opponent would block your target, taunting you, and he'd dodge the oncoming arrow at the last second. This traditional tactic of dancing teasingly in front of the bull's-eye has become suicidal with the new, high-velocity bows.The influence of the outside world is altering spiritual life, too. Bhutanese are puzzled about how it came to pass that a high lama who died several years ago is said to have been reincarnated as a Dutch boy whose parents were once aid workers in Thimphu. For the many elderly Bhutanese who set off on lengthy meditation retreats, a cordless phone is now common for consultations with doctors or spiritual advisers. Women's fashions are changing as well. Since the time of the first Shabrung Rinpoche, a 16th-century ruler-priest, Bhutanese women have cropped their hair to ear length. Now a few beauty salons have opened in the capital for those who want to let their tresses grow.Surprisingly, many Bhutanese are finding it easy to resist the lure of the big world outside. Those who leave the country--all but a dozen of the university students who have gone abroad on scholarship since the 1960s have returned--often are unimpressed about what they encounter. Trade Minister Khandu Wangchuk explains: It's not as though we want to be like North Korea and keep our people in the dark. Let them choose. But we want them to see what happens in the West, that you can have all the TVs and cars and still be unhappy.This is a philosophy that flows from the King. Visitors to his two-story cabin sometimes chide him to replace a worn piece of furniture that seems unkingly. The gilded trappings of monarchy hold no allure for him, his advisers say. His frugality extends to the country's resources. Bhutan recently has been able to raise its forest cover by one-tenth to 72%, and the government will outlaw timber exports in January. When I became King, we had no revenue at all. I was under tremendous pressure to cut down the trees, but we resisted. The King's conservationism paid off this year, when bad floods devastated neighboring nations where logging has been widespread. There were terrible floods everywhere else, but in Bhutan our forests saved us, he says. Bhutan's wilderness, which extends from tropical jungle up to 7,000-m peaks, conceals many rare species, including tiger, bear (more Bhutanese are killed by bear maulings than in traffic accidents) and, some say, even the fabled yeti, the abominable snowman. The Forestry Service has a large plaster cast of a footprint--similar to a man's but far larger--that it claims could belong to the yeti. If the yeti is as tall as his shoe size suggests, Bhutan may yet field a starting center in the NBA. Although religion and state have been separate in Bhutan since the Wangchuck dynasty began ruling early this century, Buddhism still exerts a strong spell. When the country's highest lama, the Je Khenpo, was ailing last year, attendants came to his chambers to find that he had died upright in the lotus position. The Je Khenpo, known for his salty insults, had once remarked cryptically to his monks: You don't really know who I am. His corpse was left alone in the lotus position when it was discovered that his bedsores began healing--after his death. A year on, his body has yet to decompose. This is regarded as something of a miracle. Today, the body of the Je Khenpo has become a holy relic, a supernatural reaffirmation that, even if arsonists set fire to the Tiger's Lair and youth are tuning in secretly to MTV, the Bhutanese are still on the right path.With reporting by Dhurba Adhikary/Katmandu and Subir Bhaumik/Assam  |    |  3
King Jigme's hoops and dreams