Posted by: John Elliott | May 29, 2011

Bhutan climbs a learning curve for happiness

Jigmi Yoeser Thinley, the 58-year old prime minister of Bhutan, (below) says he was rebellious when he was young with “hair below my shoulders”. In 1974, he even wore jeans to a royal coronation that took place in front of a golden Buddha in Thimpu’s majestic Tashichhodzong.

“Now I am a soldier of tradition” he says proudly – arguing, as do many Bhutanese of his generation, that the remote Himalayan kingdom’s unique traditions will not be undermined by consumerism, satellite television and other diversions that are currently spawning violent teenage gangs on urban streets with drug and other problems.

“Youth must be given an opportunity to experiment and have our support and tolerance for what may be worrying signs that what we value may be lost,” he told visitors to an India-Bhutan Mountain Echoes literary festival a few days ago. “Our youth are having their fling, but they will return”.

That optimism is based on the experience of the prime minister’s generation, who initially rebelled against their homeland’s traditions when they returned from education in neighbouring India and elsewhere abroad 30 or 40 years ago (Bhutan’s schools then were inadequate).

The outside pressures are now enormously greater, challenging the basic precepts of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that were first mooted more than 30 years ago by the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to initiate broader national priorities than economic growth-oriented GDP.

The GNH principles, which include maintaining traditional culture, good governance, and a sustainable environment, give a perspective and a policy framework for Bhutan’s parliamentary democracy that was introduced by the king three years ago. They are however being challenged, and not just by the young, as economic growth (mainly based on exporting hydroelectric power to neighbouring India) and prosperity breed corruption and greed that threaten to reduce the priority of GNH’s basically Buddhist values.

Bhutan’s new parliament will also inevitably become more party-political, with politicians looking for way to maintain their power and be re-elected rather than caring for tradition, and there will be large population movements from placid rural communities to tougher competitive urban centres.

Squeezed in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan and its tiny population of under 700,000 are on a steep learning curve, which would challenge the most sophisticated societies, as the country adapts and its rulers learn new roles.

“We are moving from being subjects to being citizens responsible for governance,” says Kinley Dorji, a prominent journalist who is now the government’s secretary for information. “Everyone is trying to figure out how we relate to each other,” says Pek Dorji, who runs the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy.

This was illustrated by 31-year old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck when he opened parliament (and announced his plan to marry) on May 20 (above, with his fiancée, Jetsun Pema, later that day).

He told the ministers to “work together, not in competition” and asked them “to establish the practice of meeting regularly, sitting face to face every now and then, so that you will always be in collaboration as you carry out your separate responsibilities”.

Occasionally the learning goes awry, as it has just done over a ban on smoking and owning tobacco. Banning smoking appears to have popular (and Buddhist) support, even though it is described by the prime minister as “the tyranny of the majority”, but the law’s implementation is not popular. You can own tobacco and smoke it (privately), providing you declare where you bought it and don’t import too much from abroad, and smoke it quickly enough (import receipts are only valid for as month).

Those who get caught in the ill-thought-through and badly implemented Tobacco Control Act (TCA) could end up in jail – as a 23-year old young monk has done, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for owning a small quantity of chewing tobacco (worth about £1.30 or just over two US dollars). He has recently lost an appeal against the sentence, and three more men have been similarly sentenced to jail in the past few days for smuggling a few packs of cigarettes.

Social media

This has unleashed a torrent of complaints on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.  Tshering Tobgay, the parliament’s opposition leader, spoke about the growing role in Bhutan of social media – including 43,000 people on Facebook – at a session I moderated during the Mountain Echoes festival.

There are only two opposition MPs in parliament, but Tobgay is emerging as a serious voice of constructive opposition, partly through his blog  and Twitter!/tsheringtobgay  activities. “I called the Tobacco Control Act draconian. It’s much worse. It’s utter madness. Amend the Tobacco Control Act. And stop this madness before our people go out of control,” Tobgay wrote this week.

On Twitter, maybe significantly, Dorji Wangchuk, director of the king’s Royal Office for Media, has backed the complaints. He runs a Royal Twitter page!/RoyalBhutan , but a few days ago he said on his personal page : “I have written to my MPs to revisit certain provisions of the TCA. Wish I could also make my letter public”.

It looks as if this will be sorted out soon because the law is a muddle and the sentences excessive. The prime minister is likely to tidy up the border controls, and King Jigme, who appears to believe the penalties are far too harsh, could encourage legislative amendments and even pardon those jailed under his constitutional rights to command legislation and reduce sentences.

The significance of the saga is that it illustrates the hazards of the country’s learning curve. If such legislation were introduced in India, I would instantly assume that it had been designed to benefit specific tobacco companies, plus border officials who could take bribes for bending the rules. I don’t know enough about Bhutan to make such a judgement but, whatever the intentions, complex laws breed corruption.

Foreign investment

There are more problems looming. Tobgay has just tweeted on planned laws that would strangely give foreign investors bigger stakes (51%) in financial services than the (20%-30%) stakes allowed for Bhutanese individuals and companies. Looked at through my Indian prism, who is that supposed to benefit?

Tourism is planned to more than triple from 30,000 to 100,000 visitors annually within two years. That includes Indian visitors who have visa-free access, but it runs counter to Bhutan’s restrictive past GNH-oriented policies and is presumably intended to help hotel owners who have opened far more facilities than are needed.

There is also concern about growing traffic congestion, especially in Thimpu, the capital, but the government seems loath to regulate car buying through adequate taxation. An initial taxation proposal has been delayed because the government tried to introduce it without going to parliament. Tobgay (who is in favour of the tax) appealed to the supreme court that ruled against the government – another step on the learning curve.

The pressures on Bhutan to give up its traditions, sliding southwards to be subsumed in the Indian subcontinent’s social, environmental and other failings are therefore immense. As the king told parliament; “If even a small fraction of the problems that plague other nations appear in Bhutan, our small society will be forever afflicted and we may never regain our jewel of a nation”.

There is however one basic reason why this Buddhist country seems to have more hope than the rest of the subcontinent. Elsewhere – especially in India – governments fail even to bother to try perform, hoping that jugaad (‘we’ll manage’) and  kaam chalao ( “make do”) will carry them through – which they don’t.

Bhutan, on the other hand,   does seem to be positively planning for the future, debating (though maybe not yet widely enough) how the over-arching happiness creed should be adapted to modern life. The challenge is for the King to steer the government and the country on its learning curve.

* See for an interview last week in Bhutan’s Kuensel newspaper on my 1987 Financial Times interview with the then King on GNH

* I also wrote about that 1987 visit here – Bhutan’s king told me about his plans for Gross National Happiness


  1. When intentions are good, the result will be good. May be late and slow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: