Bhutan grapples with influence of TV wrestling violence

Television only came to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan five years ago. Until then it was banned, for fear of the corrupting influence it might have on the country's Buddhist way of life.

Now, after five years of unrestricted viewing, the influence of the small screen on a country that has been described as the "last Shangri La" has its leaders worried - especially by American wrestling. The choreographed fighting of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is being blamed for rising violence and plans are being considered to stop it being shown.

Television and the internet were allowed for the first time in 1999, to mark King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's silver jubilee. The decision was taken after thousands filled the main square of the capital, Thimphu, to watch a special showing of the 1998 World Cup final in France on a giant screen.

In those early days the only broadcaster allowed was the BBS - the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, a national service. But after six months, global broadcasts were allowed and that, according to Bhutanese interviewed for a BBC programme called TV Invasion , is where the trouble started.

Bhutan lies among the wild peaks of the Himalayas, wedged between China and India. Most of the country is without paved roads. Even where there are good roads, the terrain is so untamed it can take two hours to travel 40 miles. About 70 per cent of Bhutan's 800,000 people still live without electricity.

The country only opened up to foreign tourism in 1974 and since then travellers have brought home stories of an unspoilt landscape of 24,000ft peaks and a traditional way of life.

So the arrival of international television came as something of a shock to many. When WWE wrestling was first shown in Bhutan, it perplexed the people, who did not know that the violence depicted was carefully staged. The country's only newspaper received several letters from Bhutanese children asking why men were beating each other up.

And now there are reports of increasing violence in Bhutan's schools, with children copying wrestling moves they see on television.

But many are sceptical about the influence of television on previously isolated communities. A study in St Helena, which only allowed television nine years ago, found no link between television violence and children's behaviour.

Dorji Ahm, a Bhutanese youth worker who spoke to the BBC, was dismissive of wrestling's influence. "The violent channels are CNN and the BBC," she said. "There, you know this is not a movie, this is reality."

But there are also fears that Bhutan's traditional culture is being eroded. "Young people are now much more in tune with what is happening around the world," Shockshan Peck, who has studied the influence of television in her country, told the BBC. "The more we learn about the world the more we lose our own culture."

Bhutan is the last survivor of the independent Buddhist states of the Himalayas. Tibet is under Chinese occupation, while Sikkim has been annexed by India.