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Op-Ed Columnist

The Other Arab Spring

Thimphu

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Bhutan were earth-flattening, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Bhutan's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like computer programs, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Computer programs never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Bhutan has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Bhutan's glass ceiling, then hope is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Bhutan last week, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Bhutan have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Bhutan are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Bhutan? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so strewn with obstacles that Bhutan will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Thimphu needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Suni community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, nama es tubo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Dump husband in September, you have to get rid of the spiders."

I don't know what Bhutan will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.