THIMPU (Reuters) - As the reclusive Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan opens up gradually to the outside world and embraces democracy, it is finding the freedoms of the Internet both exciting and dangerous.
The Internet came to Bhutan along with television just nine years ago. In a country where open criticism of the elite is almost unheard of, the anonymity of the Web is giving a few people the chance to speak their minds without fear.
“We shiver in front of the Lyonpos (ministers) or the other High Ups and fail to utter anything because of our so-called rich culture,” one contributor known as coolmandala wrote on the state-owned newspaper Kuensel’s popular discussion forum at www.kuenselonline.com.
“Do you still want to live in fear? If not, this is what democracy is all about.”
Bhutan held its first ever parliamentary elections on Monday, to end a century of royal rule.
But not many people on Kuensel’s site appear to agree with coolmandala. Many talk of the “divine mind” of the country’s fourth king, and his wise, honest and compassionate ministers.
Yet there is no doubt times are changing in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
“Of all the different media, the internet has pushed the boundaries faster,” said Kinley Dorji, Kuensel’s managing director. “It seems to be because of the anonymity.”
But it is also proving a headache for the authorities, who say they are committed to a free press, but in practice find even Bhutan’s very mild-mannered newspapers hard to cope with.
The government decided last year to block access to a foreign-hosted Web site, www.bhutantimes.com, for a bitter attack on the king’s uncle, Sangay Ngedup, whose political party was soundly defeated in Monday’s elections.
“We have a policy to create a vibrant media,” said Kezang, head of the media department of Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communications, who only uses one name.
“But we are very cautious about what content from outside might do to our society.”
There are two main taboos inside Bhutan. No criticism of the king is allowed. And no mention of national security issues — in other words no criticism of government policy towards the ethnic Nepali, mainly Hindu minority.
Around 100,000 ethnic Nepali refugees live in camps inside Nepal. They were forced out of Bhutan in 1990 after protesting against discrimination and in favour of democracy.
The bhutantimes.com Web site, which is no relation to the Bhutanese newspaper of the same name, simply raises that issue far too often, many people here believe, and allows some uncomfortable attacks on Bhutan on its discussion forum.
“At a certain juncture we had to be more careful because democracy is a new thing for the Bhutanese people,” said Wangay Dorji, head of telecommunications at Information Ministry.
“They were trying to divide people into sectoral groups, which is really bad for the country.”
Paris-based press freedom lobbyists Reporters Without Borders condemned that decision, and even Kuensel’s Dorji thinks it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
“You can’t block sites now,” he said. “Education is a better approach.”
Kuensel’s site is closely moderated, and most online contributors supported the decision to block bhutantimes.com. Nevertheless, one or two dissenting voices crept through.
“It is only in countries like North Korea, China etc that such things happen,” wrote one contributor known as kothka.
In recent months the hottest topic on the Kuensel Web site was the country’s transition to democracy. To a foreign eye, there was something slightly surreal about the whole debate.
A mildly expressed preference for one party over another, or a suggestion that a politician might not be as sincere as he would like to make out, often drew an angry response.
“I would appeal to you to be cool and don’t try to divide the society la,” another online contributor known as kezaden wrote in response to one post.
“Vote it secretly for it is ur right to vote n we respect ur right but plez stop publicizing ur vote,” kezaden wrote using abbreviations common in online exchanges.
Many are fed up with the way politicians have responded to democracy by slinging mud back and forth at each other.
“The hunger for power is so immense now,” said acer2006. “I just wish that HM the King would sack these two parties out.”
But government bodies do come in for criticism for corruption and inefficiency, and some people hope democracy will bring a little more accountability.
“It is common knowledge that many people who sit in government offices and have the responsibility to deliver public services have become apathetic,” norsamkhorlo wrote.
“In the new political scenario, I hope and pray for change in the way people who run the government treat their fellow citizens.”