Thimphu, BHUTAN — As they prepared for the biggest international event ever to be held in Bhutan, leaders of the secluded mountain kingdom asked their people for help.

First, make the place look magnificent. Thousands of volunteers heeded the call, pouring into the streets of this capital city to pick up trash, unplug storm drains and cheerily wave flags at passing motorcades.

And please, said a broadcast announcement, no jeans. Everyone on the streets of Thimphu this week should wear traditional Bhutanese dress as the heads of eight nations arrive for a diplomatic summit that begins today.

"You're supposed to wear it all the time, not just this particular period," said Karma Tshering Namgyal, director of the bureau of law and order. "But we've made it more stringent, so the nationality, and the cultural point of view, is showcased."

Perhaps more than any other country in the 21st century, Bhutan has managed to create a sense of national unity and loyalty to the national psyche. Even after the country became a constitutional democracy two years ago, devotion to the 30-year-old king, the nation and Buddhist culture often trump the temptations of a Western way of life.

South Asian leaders from India's Manmohan Singh to Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai begin formal meetings today in the isolated and heavily fortified city, perched more than 7,000 feet above sea level. The meeting is the 16th annual summit of the South Asian Association for Cooperation, an organization whose eight member countries represent about a fifth of mankind.

Tiny and landlocked Bhutan, with about 700,000 residents, is a small player in the populous region, but it is trying to make an impression at the annual gathering of political leaders by highlighting its achievements on environmental protection and its model of economic growth based on happiness.

Bhutan is also facing growing pressure from the United States and elsewhere to allow back at least some of the roughly 100,000 refugees who fled the country in the 1980s and 1990s. For some of the refugees — many of whom are now relocating in the Bay Area, especially Oakland — the compulsory wearing of the gho and kira at work and school was one of the triggers of ethnic tension when it was imposed on southern Bhutanese people who did not identify with the northern style of dress.

Rumors abounded among residents of Thimphu this week that police would arrest or fine those not in compliance with the traditional dress code of gho for men and kira for women. Authorities said those rumors were untrue, and argued that everyone was wearing the clothes because they agreed it was important.

"In the early '80s, we had to tell them, the government had to emphasize the dress and its importance," Namgyal said. "But now it's the natural flow."

Gho are robes with large white cuffs. They are tied tightly around the waist, resembling a kilt, and men often wear formal shoes with knee-high argyle socks. For women, the kira is an ankle-length dress. Many youths update their traditional outfits, which stem from the 17th century, with modern accouterments.

"Nowadays, the youths don't like to wear it. They like the hip-hop," said Suk Bahadur, a 24-year-old computer importer. "But people from outside countries, if they see people wearing jeans or skirts, it won't look good."

Bahadur learned about the heightened attention to traditional clothing the hard way Saturday when he briskly walked a short distance in black Levi's jeans, a sweater and Converse sneakers. He always wears the gho, he said, but he was in a rush to get somewhere that evening. A pair of police officers stopped him on the street.

"They said, 'Where is your gho?' They said, 'If I see you tomorrow like this, I'm taking you behind bars.' "

Bahadur said he understood the importance of showing Bhutan's best traditional face to the world.

"You know, Bhutan has a great culture," he said. "If we lose our culture, heritage, Bhutan won't be anything."

Though initially reluctant to host the summit, its first ever, because of its limited infrastructure, Bhutan is hoping its model for a society where happiness is paramount has something to offer neighboring countries beset by strife and environmental degradation.

"We are all excited about it," said Kinley Duba, 18, who joined high school classmates in cleaning up a swimming pool last week. "We can know the prime ministers of each and every country."

Gem Tshering dropped his usual work at the power company to lead 25 volunteers building a wooden pedestrian gate on a field near the city's center. The gate will welcome dignitaries who wish to watch a traditional archery match.

"There are lots of volunteers giving a helping hand to the government," Tshering said. "This is a big privilege for all the people."

More than 500 students of a primary school took two days off classes, standing along a sidewalk and greeting dignitaries as they arrived by motorcade through the capital.

"Yesterday, they had to stand in the rain for an hour. Still, they are very excited," said Kinley Sithup, a second-grade teacher.

Some are hoping that Bhutan address its own faults as it promotes its development model, known as Gross National Happiness, as an example for the rest of the world.

The national unity that many Bhutanese officials pride themselves on today would not have happened without the forced flight of tens of thousands of people the government felt did not belong there, said Dick Chettri, who runs the Alameda-based Bhutanese Community Support Organization in America.

As it began to enforce the preservation of the country's majority Drukpa culture in the 1980s, a resulting ethnic conflict led many people of Nepali descent, who objected to the compulsory cultural norms, to flee the country. Stranded for nearly two decades in refugee camps, more than 20,000 of these mostly Hindu exiles have resettled in the United States in recent years, with more on the way.

Hundreds have moved to the Bay Area, making Oakland one of the hubs for the Bhutanese exile community outside Nepal.

Bhutan will continue talks with Nepal at the sidelines of the summit to discuss what to do about those who remain in the camps, said Khandu Wangchuk, the foreign minister of Bhutan.

Yet those who fled are skeptical that this summit will bring any relief to the refugees unless a powerful nation, such as India, gets involved.

If the member countries take serious action in pressuring Bhutan, "it can make a huge impact to resolve this refugee issue," Chettri said.

The issue, however, is likely to gain little attention in a regional organization preoccupied with shared problems such as terrorism and climate change.

"It's important for us to show how efficiently and effectively we can host such important meetings," Namgyal said. "It's a landmark, a watershed, and we will leave no stones unturned."

About the series
The Bay Area, especially Oakland, is a new home for hundreds of refugees from southern Bhutan who fled their country in the late 1980s and 1990s and have been living for nearly two decades in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Bay Area News Group reporter Matt O'Brien and photographer Jane Tyska, at left, are traveling to Bhutan to find out more about why the refugees fled from there, why they are now resettling in the United States and the challenges they face. This is the first in a series of stories. Reporting for this project was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association. Go to www.saja.org for more information about the association.