The transition of the Himalayan Kingdom from Monarchy to Democracy has been marked by an open-door policy and an inclination to open to a larger world. Having revised the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship of 1949 with India in February 2007, the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in its new avatar clarifies Bhutan’s status as an independent and sovereign nation. Under the revised norms, Bhutan no longer requires India’s approval over importing arms. India supports Bhutan’s progress towards sovereignty and democracy. What has kept India-Bhutan relationship kindling is Bhutan’s deep social imaginaries of gyagar (the holy-land India) linked to the wisdom of the 8th century Indian Buddhist monk Guru Padmasambhava. Bhutan and its people have diligently stayed true to their religio-cultural links with India- their gyagar neighbor. India over the years took its smaller neighbors for granted creating trust deficit among its neighbors and compelled them to wayfind newer friends – Bhutan has largely been an exception to that trend.
However, the signing of the Agreement at New Delhi between Australia and Bhutan on 15th May 2012 reflects this wayfinding in two senses. First, the agreement marked fifty years of Australian development initiatives in Bhutan and; second, the calibrations and negotiations to find new centers that matter in the Indo-Pacific for landlocked countries like Bhutan. The relationship between Australia and Bhutan began wayback in 1962 when Bhutan attended the Colombo Plan meeting as Observer in Melbourne, Australia. Formal diplomatic relations were only established in 2002 and were conducted from the Australian High Commission in New Delhi.
Australia has become the second most popular foreign destination for Bhutanese students, after India. The Australia Awards (AA) offer diploma and certificate level courses in a variety of subjects including tourism and hospitality. There were 1,450 Bhutanese students in Australia. Through education exchanges and deep links, an understanding has been built between the people of Bhutan and Australia. Reciprocal student exchange provides Australian students to have the opportunity to study in Bhutan under the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan and have an embodied experience of Gross National Happiness to ensure sustainable, holistic development. As late as November 2017 there were 88 Australian students in Bhutan. These scholarships subsidize the expenses of the Bhutanese students.
However, a good number of students move as ‘private’ students to try their luck in Australia. ‘Studying in Australia presents a great opportunity to enhance not just knowledge and skills but develop lifelong networks and possibilities of permanent residency,’ said Dorji (name changed), a Bhutanese. ‘The popularity of Australia over educational centres in India such as Darjeeling, Bangalore and Delhi has to be seen in the current social imaginaries in Bhutan where 6 out of 10 cabinet ministers got their degrees from Australia. In the past, India especially Darjeeling had been the choice of educational destination for the Bhutanese for the simple reason that the King had studied at St. Joseph’s (North Point) says Wangmo (name changed). Kekay (name changed) says, ‘the low marking system of the university (North Bengal University) at Darjeeling makes studying at Darjeeling less attractive, while studying at Pune (Pune University) is more attractive but when compared to Australian universities it does not stand the test.’ Lekey (name changed) mentioned that a student has to show at least 31 lakh BTN (Bhutanese Ng or AUD$ 62000) in his/her bank account beside the yearly tuition fees, health insurances and daily expenses (11 lakh BTN or AUD$ 22400). The financial expenses and risks are considerable and the negotiations that one has to go through to move to Australia is interesting for instance, Lekey mentioned that individuals get embroiled in the thick of documentation exercises that form the part and parcel of immigration channels. Agencies specializing in procuring Visas and assuring quick and guaranteed movement of people have mushroomed taking a cut from those willing to move abroad. In many cases, individuals mortgage family property, take loan from friends and relatives and show ‘family money’ as ‘individual bank savings’ for purpose of Visa and admission to colleges. These agencies provide liaison with agencies in Australia and assist the ‘private students’ with admission and part-time jobs/work etc. These Bhutanese students join the pegs in the highly contested shrinking service sectors of metropolitan centers such as Perth in Australia; sometimes working double shifts at multiple sites and in disjointed sectors from chicken farms to shopping complexes, to pizzerias and cafés. The remittances appreciation in conversion and possibility of Permanent Residency (PR, after completion of 2 years of Post Graduate studies in Australia) remain the major attraction for the Bhutanese youths.
The experiences of the Bhutanese students in alien territories, and cultures in Australia is one marked by paradoxes of negotiations, freedom from cultural constrictions and restrictions back at home that ‘wayfinding’ circumvents through institutional connections. Bhutanese students in Australia have conditioned themselves to being perplexed by the state of ‘being away from home’, and making a ‘home’ at multi-locations through ‘homing practices’. The movement of Bhutanese youth to Australia marks new trends in the movement of people from unusual geographies across the Indo-Pacific.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science & Political Studies, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata; and member Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (MCRG), Kolkata. Also Visiting Faculty, Department of South and South East Asian Studies (SSEAS), University of Calcutta.