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Kyle Eller's Gadfly Dharma: The CIA has the facts

Do you want to know how the other 99 percent of the world lives? Are you not sure where Iraq is in relation to Israel and the West Bank? Check out the Central Intelligence Agency's "World Factbook."...

Do you want to know how the other 99 percent of the world lives? Are you not sure where Iraq is in relation to Israel and the West Bank? Check out the Central Intelligence Agency's "World Factbook."

Now, I understand invoking the names of agencies involved in our growing intelligence state may put me on any number of "General Ashcroft's" watch lists, and it may give you the shivers -- I'll leave that between you and the Department of Homeland Security. But don't let it keep you from checking out the "Factbook."

With its country listings, including data on population, economies, transportation, weather, geography, environmental issues, religions and governments, plus pictures of flags and country maps, you can quickly outpace the knowledge of some congressmen. At worst, it's a more interesting waste of time than another game of Freecell.

I was browsing the national flags when I came across Bhutan's -- yellow and orange with a white dragon in the middle. Turns out it's a fascinating country.

The "Factbook" says Bhutan (not to be confused with Bataan in the Phillipines, site of the infamous Death March in World War II) is half the size of Indiana and has between 2 million and 810,000 people, depending on the estimate. (Actually, official estimates are now about 700,000.)

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The country is also located right in between the world's two most populous countries, India and China, where it sits over critical strategic Himalayan passes. It's close to Tibet and has a similar Shangri La reputation.

Subsistence agriculture has been the dominant employment. (The "Factbook" drily notes a "massive lack of skilled labor.") The mountainous landscape gives the country one of its historic names, which translates to "Land of the Thunder Dragon" after the mighty Himalayan storms that roll in.

The country is supported and partially funded by India, which took over that role from the British after independence. The CIA lists Bhutan as having no television stations, two radio stations -- one FM and one shortwave -- no Internet service providers and no cell phones, although it turns out the CIA is outdated on several of these points. Also: no railroads and only about 1,200 miles of paved highways.

The "Factbook" describes a relatively enlightened monarchy, with a legislature and a legal system based on English common law. It does not quite tell you about Bhutan's state religion -- Buddhism -- but it does mention that 75 percent of the population practices it (the other 25 percent is Hindu).

The entire gross domestic product for Bhutan is just $2.5 billion, a listed GDP per capita of about $1,200. Life expectancy is just 53. In spite of this, the literacy rate is over 40 percent. Bhutan's economic strengths are tourism and hydropower, which supplies 99.95 percent of its meager energy needs and even provides export income.

The Bhutanese official language is Dzongkha, a name nearly as unpronouncable as the name of the currency, the ngultrum. Some ethnic groups speak Tibetan and Nepalese dialects. There is a long-standing dispute over about 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal, mostly in UN camps.

If you dig a little deeper than the facts of the "Factbook," reading up on current events and first-person stories, you find a country in flux.

Bhutan, a country that prides itself on courtesy to visitors, long resisted outside influence, limiting even its lucrative tourism industry. It billed itself as a place to come seeking spiritual enlightenment. It had no television. Its concern for its natural environment is palpable.

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But the government, billed as "the only Democratic Monarchy in the world," has taken on reforms, including a democratic constitution and (sigh) an income tax. Landlocked Bhutan, whose capital was once believed the only one without a single traffic light, is undergoing a sea change.

The Internet has arrived. Television is now a major force and a major point of concern -- people already argue over what to watch and how much time it eats up. Joining the global economy and the World Trade Organization is a serious issue. Bhutan has become outspoken against terrorism.

It's tempting to leap to paternalistic conclusions about the global culture eating these poor newbies, but every indication is that the country weighs these choices carefully. Many Bhutanese seem happy about the changes.

Apparently some there believe their ideal of a peaceable kingdom is not incompatible with making more than a hundred bucks a month. Bhutan seems to be willing to dream of a country where people live fully but also live past 53, where they can have an Internet connection and still find time enough for meditation after dinner.

Good for them.

Bhutan lives in the world. Its problems -- the refugee issue (with religious overtones), Indian separatists hiding out in the mountains, finding the balance between technology and tradition -- are not so different from ours. But their answers might be, and that's always worth looking at.

And to think that Bhutan is only one story, one tiny group of people in our big "small world." Some UMD music students just got an education on life in Venezuela and its problems. That's not even scratching the surface.

So we can all browse. You can check out the "Factbook" at the CIA's Web site, http://www.cia.gov . You can even download the whole 217 megabytes to your hard drive if you like.

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Do take a look.

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