By Naomi Canton

Manju Wakhley is thought to be the first Bhutanese woman to study at Oxford University. She read an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation & Management at St Hilda’s College in 2008 – the same year that the fifth King of Bhutan relinquished his absolute power and the country became a democracy. In this interview, the 27-year-old speaks to Oxford Today about life in the tiny Buddhist kingdom, its unique conservation ethic, the recent elections and her financial struggle as a student.

Oxford Today: The current Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, went to Oxford. What is the perception of Oxford in Bhutan?

Manju Wakhley: Oxford is considered as a place for kings! The people that have gone there have made it very big back in Bhutan. Very few Bhutanese people have studied at Oxford; it’s a small country. Some are now Members of Parliament, but there have not been many Oxford alumni like me – becoming entrepreneurs or doing something green.

OT: How did you find your time at Oxford?

MW: Oxford was a name I learnt in primary school, so going there was like living a childhood dream. My course was about the interaction and conflict between wildlife, humans and livestock. It was really nice, but then I faced the harsh reality of trying to live in England. I could not afford to go to a ball as it cost £50 to £100 and there were lots of social events I did not have the right clothes for.

I did not even have enough money to pay my department fees. My family had shown on paper we had the money, but we did not. In the end my parents mortgaged the house they had built and that’s how I went. I had hoped to get a job in Oxford, then my tutor told me not to work. I had no idea how expensive the UK would be.

For all that, I enjoyed the academic side tremendously. After two months I was so broke that I went to the Bursar’s Office at St Hilda’s and asked if I could go back, but he refused and helped me apply for some college grants. In June 2009, when my course was finishing, the King of Bhutan called me to say I was getting the first annual King’s Scholarship covering living expenses and tuition fees.

It was £23,000 and cleared my family’s debts. The King personally selects who receives it. I am most grateful to the King. At 23 I think I was also the youngest Bhutanese to gain a postgraduate qualification from Oxford.

OT: What did you do when you left the University?

MW: At first I took a 40-hour a week job at Poundland in Oxford on the minimum wage. The problem was I was overqualified but had no experience. Working in the pound shop I saw a really different side to Oxford – the real Oxford that most students don’t see. It wasn’t postgraduate students but plumbers, electricians and cleaners.

After eight months I moved to London but still could not find a permanent job in my field and instead distributed Save The Tiger flyers outside tube stations. I returned to Bhutan after my visa expired last year with just £15 and two solar light bulbs in my pocket and focused on my two businesses instead.

I had started my business Light of Asia in 2010 when I was at Oxford in 2010. It is an eco-green technology company that sells solar-powered light bulbs, street lamps, mobile chargers, water heaters and other green technology across the world. The idea is to take solar lightbulbs out to remote villages where there is no electricity. We are looking for dealers in different countries.

This year I also started Bhutan Eco Traveller, an eco-tourism company. We plan to offer home stays in villages and sustainable treks so that tourists get to see the real Bhutan. The money will trickle down into the community.

OT: What was it like growing up and living in Bhutan?

MW: Economically it’s a poor but rapidly improving country. There is TV, Internet, hip hop and discos, yet about 80 per cent of Bhutanese are farmers. Unemployment is increasingly becoming an issue. Every year there are thousands of graduates; we need more venture capitalists. A few western brands are coming in, but we don’t have traffic lights, McDonald’s or KFC yet.

There are people who don’t have a square meal but there is contentment among them because of Buddhism: they don’t perceive life as about material things. We're a country rapidly dealing with rural to urban migration, and a biodiversity hotspot – it's one of 35 places left in the world with more than 70 per cent of its original natural habitat. Our constitution states that 60 per cent of the country must have forest cover. The population has to coexist with the wildlife.

OT: Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world to get TV, back in 1999, along with the internet. What impact has that had?

MW: The Internet has had a very positive impact by connecting Bhutan to the rest of the world. It was quite isolated before. Lots of kids are glued to Korean soap operas but TV has not had a negative impact. Before, it was compulsory to wear national dress in public; now you can wear jeans. More than the wearing gho and kira, Bhutanese culture is the Bhutanese heart and social value system and I can’t see that changing.

OT: What it the state of sexual equality in Bhutan?

MW: Compared to elsewhere in Asia, Bhutanese women are quite empowered but there is room for improvement, in politics especially. We got our first woman minister this year.

OT: What do you think of the second parliamentary elections in Bhutan in July 2013, in which the opposition party, the People's Democratic Party, won?

MW: It was the first time the people had voted for change. Our first democratically-elected government had lots of ministers that had been in that position for more than 10 years. The new cabinet is completely different. A lot of election campaigning was done online this time: the current prime minister used social media and blogging, which is so powerful in a small country where we have mountains, different languages and people used to walking for days to convey messages.

OT: Gross National Happiness is a policy introduced by the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s. How is that working out for the population?

MW: It’s about judging the success of an economy not on material growth but on the happiness and wellbeing of a person. We are used to this – it is not new. The Gross National Happiness philosophy is a very holistic and profound development vision to measure a nation’s progress based not only on Gross Domestic Product, which is the way growth for many economies around the world is judged. His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s vision is being applauded around the world and rightly so. What is the purpose of development if not happiness? In Bhutan there is now even a Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat and a GNH Lab so things are becoming more practical. Countries like Thailand, Brazil and others are emulating it, and even the UN has recognised an International Day of Happiness. While this GNH discourse is one of Bhutan’s narratives, one can’t ignore the refugee issue that the Bhutanese and the Nepalese Government have been trying to resolve for more than two decades. These two narratives work as a paradox and there has to be an end to this refugee narrative if the GNH philosophy is to flourish out of Bhutan, as it is, without an opposing discourse!

Editor’s Note: In the 1990s tens of thousands of Bhutanese of Nepali origin known as Lhotshampa who were living in the South of Bhutan were deported from Bhutan to refugee camps in Nepal. They are yet to be repatriated in Nepal or Bhutan so many are still living in those camps. Some have managed to be resettled as refugees in the USA, Europe, Canada and Australia. The first reported arrival of Nepalese immigrants to Bhutan was the 17th century when a small numbers arrived as craftsmen. In the late 19th century the Bhutanese government encouraged many Nepalese to settle in South Bhutan to cultivate the land. Many Bhutanese of Nepalese descent say their ancestors came from East Nepal between 1890 and 1920. Immigration continued until 1958 when Bhutan passed its first Citizenship Act giving the ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese citizenship. In the 1960s and 1970s many Bhutanese of Nepalese descent took up influential positions in the country and many more of Nepalese origin arrived from India as construction workers in the 1960s. However, by the 1980s the Nepalese were perceived as a threat to the native north Bhutanese known as Ngalop whose roots are in Tibetan Buddhism and who speak the national language of Bhutan, Dzongkha and wear the Bhutanese national dress, which is Ngalop in origin. The King of Bhutan is Ngalop, as is most of the Government whereas those of Nepali descent follow Hinduism, speak Nepali and dress differently. A new Bhutan Citizenship Act was passed in 1985 making immigrants prove their residency back to 1958 to be classed as citizens. The Nepalese language was withdrawn from schools and everyone was forced to wear the Bhutanese Ngalop national dress. In the 1990s this led to demonstrations and inter-ethnic conflicts leading to clashes with the Royal Bhutan Army and hundreds of casualties. Under increased repression, tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese were forced to flee Bhutan after being stripped of or unable to obtain citizenship and they ended up in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal. By the mid 1990s there were 100,000 of them living in several United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps in eastern Nepal, all of whom lost their land and houses in Bhutan. Those from North Bhutan have since been resettled on their land. The situation has not yet been resolved and none of them have been repatriated to Bhutan. Some have obtained asylum in third countries such as the USA and Canada and some are living outside of the camps in Nepal or India. Approx 70,000 remain in the camps. The southern Bhutanese who remain in Bhutan continue to face repression.