A couple of years ago I was contacted by an American journalist who thought that an article I wrote in the Financial Times in 1987 was the first to record the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan’s search for “Gross National Happiness”. Some sources suggest the phrase was coined in 1972, but my report (above) of an interview with the then 32-year old King Jigme Singye Wangchuck certainly happened around the time that he was developing his utopian idea.
“We are convinced we must aim for contentment and happiness,” the king told me. He put gross national happiness above the more usual economic targets of GNP, and listed the GNH. parameters: “Whether we take five years or ten to raise the per capita income and increase prosperity is not going to guarantee that happiness, which includes political stability, social harmony, and the Bhutanese culture and way of life”.
The king rarely gave interviews. I arranged mine after meeting the veteran globetrotting Foreign Minister, Lynopo Dawa Tsering, at a SAARC conference in India and promising to write about development. I was also warned not to ask the burning question of the day – which of four girlfriends, all sisters, he would marry! I stuck to the deal, but a Time magazine reporter didn’t a few months later, and foreign correspondents became an unpopular commodity.
After a couple of years, the monarch married all four and today, one of their sons, 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (left) is being crowned in Thimpu, the capital, as the world’s youngest monarch of one of the most remote and appealing nations on earth. His father began moves to give up the throne two years ago so that his son could take the country on to the next stages of development.
Tucked away between two giant neighbours, India and China, towards the eastern end of the Himalayan mountains, Bhutan has been edging its way towards a democratic and consumer society since the mid-late 1980s. As a country, it is much wealthier than it was then because nearly 90% of its exports now come from selling hydropower to India, but most of its population remain poor and 98% of them still work in subsistence agriculture.
When I met the shy, unassuming but dignified king in his ornate Thimpu palace, he worried about how to develop the country – how to open it up, but not so fast as to be disruptive, while maintaining Bhutan’s traditions and peaceful Buddhist culture. In a paternalistic way, he was clearly agonisingly aware of the enormity of his inheritance – and that his decisions could make or break his tiny nation. It needed protecting from what could become uncontrollable and avaricious outside influences.
““Independence through an independent culture”, was one of the aims he said, clearly anxious to avoid neighbouring Nepal’s pitfalls of wasted resources, mass tourism, drug abuse, and rampant corruption. How wise! The king of Nepal, who used to out-rank him in regal stakes because he was revered as the reincarnation of a Hindu god, has been ousted by Maoist rebels, whereas Bhutan last year held peaceful democratic elections under a still revered monarchy.
“We are fortunate in developing late at a time when other countries, which went through our present stage of development 30 or 40 years ago, are becoming aware of what they have done wrong. Many have developed a modern society but none has kept its string traditions and culture which we want to do”. For example, he added, “corruption began when development started in 1961, maybe not seriously compared with other countries, but serious by our standards”
In 1987, Bhutan’s first ever newspaper, Kuensel, had just been launched, replacing a typed newssheet. Leapfrogging Caxton’s technology of clanking mechanical presses, it replaced a typewriter-written news-sheet and was being produced on partly solar-powered Apple Mac computers with laser printers. Now there is FM radio, television and a just-launched daily paper.
Foreign tourists were allowed in the 1980s but were strictly controlled (they still are). A sacred mountain and one of the world’s highest peaks, the 24,700ft Gankar Punsum had just been closed after two years to climbers because local people claimed a deity living on top was being disturbed and was causing hailstorms and bad crops. In India today, when tribals living in Orissa’s mineral rich mountains make such a claim, I suspect vested interests are making up stories to block a company’s development plans. In Bhutan, in 1987, I took the story at face value.
Ethnic Bhutanese men wear, as they did in the 1980s, colourful knee-length tunics and women have similar long dresses, adding a distinctive style to the country. Two of my sons who came on my trip also recall amazing archery and horseriding skills, prayer flags fluttering on the hillsides, the dzongs that combine the role of a town hall with a monastery - and fantastic cheese.
Sustaining the environment – and not smoking in public – have been added to the list of happiness items, and a GNH index of some 30 items if being prepared. Economic growth is rising at some 20% a year, but unhappy problems of drug use, unemployment and crime are all increasing, as is corruptions at all levels, while deprived Nepali-speaking Hindus, who live in the south of the country, still make up some 20% of the population.
Happiness will not be an easy goal for the new King as he tries to maintain the identity of his kingdom in a relentlessly globalising world. As one of my sons, Nick, remembering idyllic days on our trip in Bhutan, put it to me last night: “How would it be possible to let the good in without the bad. How to stop people taking advantage of you too”.