Alcoholism, Money Undermine Bhutanese Society, Say Buddhist Monks

By Prakash Chand Dubey, UCAN, January 30, 2009

TIMPHU, Bhutan -- Buddhist monks in Bhutan say alcoholism is threatening to destabilize local society and they want young people to turn to traditional spirituality and austerity to escape it.

"Our youths are getting trapped in alcoholism in the new 'eat, drink and make merry' lifestyle," Venerable Nawang Choden, a Buddhist monk, said in an interview.

Venerable Choden, who is in his 50s and based in Thimpu, the capital, says alcohol did not worry Buddhist monks and nuns earlier, because drinking is "an age-old practice" during Bhutanese festivals and ceremonies. What worries them now is the new phenomenon of deaths due to alcohol abuse.

According to Deki Pelden, a nurse working in a private health clinic in Thimpu, alcohol-related liver disease has been a major cause of death in Bhutan during recent years.

She cited health ministry statistics showing that 98 of 1,471 patients in Thimpu Referral Hospital died of this cause in 2007. The hospital admitted around the same number of patients in 2008, but better medication helped lower the death rate.

Nonetheless, survivors find it very difficult to lead a normal life, and relapse "is a sure death warrant," she added.

Venerable Choden wonders how Bhutan, which he sees as a cradle of the Buddhist values of austerity and abstention, could have been caught in the whirlpool of alcoholism that is affecting the younger generation "physically and spiritually."

He suggested Buddhist monks and nuns should come out of their monasteries and mingle with the youths "so we can help them imbibe the essence of our Buddhist heritages."

In his view, "only that can save them from the octopus-like tentacles of consumer culture."

The monk clarified, however, that he does not advocate any sort of fundamentalism, or "Talibanization," in Bhutanese society.

"Buddhist spirituality implies generosity, compassion and the holistic well-being of all humans, and even other living entities. It has no place for hatred of anyone," he explained.

Wangmo Tshering, a Buddhist nun who looks after orphans in Thimpu, regrets that alcohol-related diseases and deaths have affected families. "Mothers often find [new] husbands, but it is very difficult to integrate the fatherless children in new families," she said.

Tshering, 45, has helped about 30 children orphaned as a result of alcoholism in the past five years.

The nun remarked that although drinking is not taboo in Bhutan, the country has never experienced so many deaths due to alcohol abuse.

Laypeople have traditionally consumed ara, a local brew made of millet, wheat and rice, but add herbal juices to make it a healthier tonic, she said.

The nun traces changes in local society to a flood of liquor from India, Nepal and Western nations that began entering the country five years ago. "Glamorous bottles" and advertisements have mesmerized the youth, while the government has turned a blind eye lest it lose revenue from liquor sales, she said.

Venerable Choden too blames a consumer culture that he said the government has encouraged to promote tourism. He acknowledged that tourism is helping modernize Bhutan, but lamented it also removes youth from traditional values.

Thinley Rabsel, a trading company employee and economics graduate, sees another factor involved in the problem. The Buddhist youth points to Bhutan's dependence on overseas aid, grants and loans worth hundreds of millions of US dollars a year, much of it coming as financial aid from India.

Pema Kinley, a schoolteacher, credited the government with launching several programs to educate people about its ban on alcohol sales to people less that 18 years old, and about the danger of drunk driving. The country observes Tuesdays as dry days.

Venerable Choden finds these measures inadequate, however. Like Rabsel, he warns that funds from outside the country will make Bhutan dependent and consumerist, and gradually lead to the disruption of its own natural and cultural heritage.

"Surreptitious foreign cultural infiltration" can be countered, he said, only by alert Buddhist monks, nuns and elders.