The Former Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay delivered the main key note address at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford University on 9th January as the main event of the three-day International Society of Bhutan Studies (ISBS) conference.
The topic given to the former PM was, ‘Does Bhutan Matter? Stories from a young democracy.’
As per the title, the main task before Dasho was to show that ‘Bhutan matters.’
He said that while he is acutely aware of the many problems and challenges he asked to be indulged for glorifying his country in the interest of establishing that ‘Bhutan matters.’
Dasho started his speech by conveying the greetings and warm wishes of His Majesty the King of Bhutan.
He said that Bhutan was never colonized, its culture is thriving, the country is a biodiversity hotspot, Bhutan is the only carbon neutral country, it is a functioning welfare state and that Bhutan is one of the youngest democracies.
“But what we revere the most – what we hold to be the most sacred above all else – is our leadership, specifically the leadership of our Kings. Bhutan is unique, and successful in its own way, because of one and only one factor – the extraordinary leadership of our Kings who have led by example and who continue to do so,” he said.
“That’s why the monarchy is the most important institution in Bhutan. It is the symbol of our unity, the protector of our people, and the fountainhead of our future. Bhutan’s monarchy was established in 1907, so it is only 111 years old. All of us in Bhutan love our Kings – we revere them, and we look up to them as Plato’s ideal of the philosopher king,” said Dasho.
He gave various examples of the democratic reforms instituted by the Monarchy to the handing over of democracy.
“Here’s another extraordinary fact: our King has no personal wealth. Today, when some of the richest people in the world continue to be monarchs, our King does not own any personal property,” said Dasho.
“All citizens have access to the King. We celebrate the fact that the poor, the landless and the destitute can approach the King for intervention and help. To create easier access for the people, His Majesty travels throughout the country. He has personally visited almost every village, in every nook and cranny of the country, making him the most widely travelled person in Bhutan.”
Dasho said that most importantly, Bhutan’s Kings have single handedly secured Bhutan’s sovereignty.
Dasho said that Bhutan still remained sovereign despite being surrounded by bigger and more densely populated neighbors.
“It’s not that foreign powers didn’t try to colonize Bhutan. The Tibetans invaded Bhutan no less than 17 times. And after lasting peace was secured with our Tibetan neighbor, we had to fight the British. First in 1772 with the British East India Company, and then in 1865 with the British Empire,” said Dasho.
“Added to that, Bhutan had to deal with threats from missionaries, immigrants and political interference. But we succeeded in persevering as an independent country.”
Dasho said that Bhutan’s Kings did not fail to lead their troops personally in battle be it in 1865, when Deb Jigme Namgyel, the father of the First King, personally fought the invading British army or more recently, in 2003, when His Majesty the Fourth King, led his small army literally from the front – to dislodge Indian militants from Bhutan’s southern jungles.
“So the single reason Bhutan is a sovereign country is the extraordinary leadership exercised by our Kings,” said Dasho.
“But what’s the point of a sovereign nation if people are not happy. That’s why our Kings have given us, and the world, Gross National Happiness, a pioneering vision that aims to improve the wellbeing and happiness of our people,” said Dasho.
Dasho expounded on GNH and its implementation and said, “His Majesty the King has paraphrased GNH as simply “development with values” and commanded that GNH must be “our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”
He said the Center for Bhutan Studies has identified nine domains as the conditions that influence the happiness and wellbeing of people.
“The first three domains are straightforward. Living standard, health and education. The importance of these have been widely accepted by all governments for quite some time now.
The next two domains have also started gaining currency among governments. They are environment and governance,” said Dasho.
“The final four domains, however, are still at the cutting edge of government development policy. These are psychological wellbeing, time use, cultural resilience and community vitality.”
He said the Center for Bhutan Studies conducts extensive GNH surveys periodically to establish where we stand as a nation in GNH terms. The results of these surveys are used by the government when formulating national policies and plans.
“GNH – Gross National Happiness – therefore, is what defines us as a nation and what guides us as we move forward as a society. GNH has become Bhutan’s brand image. That image is so influential that many people are convinced that the Bhutanese are the happiest people in the world. We are not. But we do take happiness seriously, and we are trying hard,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that the holistic approach to governance and development has caught the attention of several international thought leaders and public policy experts who are attempting to advance the ideals of GNH in their own constituencies.
“GNH has also been deliberated in the United Nations, and contributed to the development of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dasho.
“All this has made many visitors to Bhutan wonder if GNH is influenced by Buddhist values. In some ways it must be so, as Bhutan has been a predominantly Buddhist society for an uninterrupted 1500 years.”
Dasho said that Bhutan is one of only four countries in the world that has Buddhism as a state religion and Bhutan is the only and last surviving independent Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom today.
“But in Bhutan, Vajrayana is thriving. We have more monks than soldiers, and many of them – the monks, that is – spend years in solitary meditation,” said Dasho.
“For a population of 700,000 people we have about 2,500 monasteries. What’s more, we have 10,000 chortens or stupas,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that that Vajrayana is so pervasive in Bhutan that it has not just influenced Bhutan’s unique culture but it has defined it.
“Our culture is unique. You can tell by the way we dress. You can also tell that our culture is different from the way we eat. We eat red rice, chew on rock hard cheese, and add butter and salt to our tea. And we consume copious amounts of chili. To us the chili is not a spice; to us the chili is our principle vegetable,” said Dasho.
“Similarly, the way we sing and dance is also different. But what’s truly unique is archery, our national sport. It is a celebration of our martial past, our love for song and dance, and our belief in rituals and ceremony.”
“What I like the most about our culture is our women. Or rather that they have a special place in our society. Women do not take their husband’s name or wear their wedding band when they marry. Forget about taking the husband’s name, in Bhutan, a man is expected to move into his wife’s home and to serve her family. That’s why family inheritance traditionally passed from mother to daughter,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that any people think that the Bhutanese are a homogenous people since there are barely 700,000 Bhutanese but this couldn’t be further from the truth as Bhutan has 19 separate languages.
Apart from the forest cover, constitutional protections and Bhutan being the only country world that is carbon neutral, Dasho said Bhutan has great bio-diversity in its forests with 5600 vascular plant species.
“Bhutan has more than 200 species of mammals. To put this in perspective, all of Europe has just 219 mammal species. 27 of Bhutan’s mammals are globally threatened. These include the rare Bengal Tiger and the shy Red Panda. 770 bird species have been recorded in Bhutan. All of Europe has 700 bird species. Plus, we have about 900 species of butterfly. Europe has just 482 species. What’s more, every year we hear of more species of birds, butterfly and insects being discovered in Bhutan.”
Dasho said that human activity in protected areas is strictly monitored to the extent that mountain climbing is strictly forbidden in Bhutan. “As such we have the tallest virgin peak in the world: Gangkar Phuensum which stands at 7570 meters has never been climbed.”
“All this is ultimately because of the visionary leadership of our Kings. They are the true champions of the environment,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that a little known fact about Bhutan is that Bhutan is a fully functioning welfare state. He said education and healthcare are free, and all citizens have recourse to compensation in times of disaster, deprivation and destitution.
“This is why, in a recent survey, our people indicated that their biggest expense for healthcare was conducting religious rituals.”
Dasho said that it is expensive and almost 30% of the government’s budget each year is set aside for social programs including healthcare and education.
“But the returns are also phenomenal. In the last 30 years, life expectancy increased from 45 years to 70, while infant mortality rates have plummeted from 140 per 1000 live births to just 15.
Literacy which was under 50% has increased to 72%, and youth literacy is now at an impressive 93%. And importantly, the proportion of the poor reduced from 31% to 8% in just 15 years. Multidimensional poverty is even lower at 5.8%,” said Dasho.
“Our GDP is barely 2 billion pounds! But there too we’ve made considerable progress: 30 years ago our per capita GDP was only $155; today it has increased manifold to $3500 making Bhutan eligible to graduate from the Least Developed Countries category,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that though multiparty parliamentary democracy was introduced in Bhutan in 2008 the democratic process has already taken firm root, with citizens being fully aware of the power of their franchise.
“Having voted for three different governments in our first three elections, one has to conclude that the Bhutanese have already developed a thorough understanding of democracy. Whether my party wins or not, and whether I’m happy with the outcome of the elections or not is inconsequential. What is of consequence is that, through the democratic process, our people win,” said Dasho.
Dasho said that His Majesty the King did not just introduce democracy in Bhutan, he imposed it. “But His Majesty went further – he educated and trained all his people in the democratic process. And most importantly, His Majesty The King designed our democracy to suit our unique needs, ensuring that it is fit-for-purpose to serve country and people,” said Dasho.
“So our democracy is not an end in itself, it is the means to protect our sovereignty, to nurture our unique culture, to preserve our pristine environment, to strengthen our welfare system, and to ensure that political leaders and decision makers remain faithful to the ideals of Gross National Happiness.”
Dasho then gave some suggestions on how the areas mentioned by him intersect with Bhutan Studies.
“First, focusing on each, it is interesting to study and understand each of these qualities well. For example, why is it that visionary environmental policies are politically feasible in Bhutan even if they have serious economic implications? And why are such policies absolutely impossible in many other countries,” asked Dasho.
“Next, studying change is vital: How are the rich traditional cultural and language groups navigating the entry of cell phones and globalization? We know from our statistics bureau that in the five years between 2012 and 2017, multidimensional poverty halved. But what do better services in education, health care, roads, and electricity feel like,” added Dasho.
“Last and perhaps most importantly, research for policy is also needed to address some of the challenges that Bhutan faces – climate change is a prime example.
But there are other challenges too: rapid and unplanned urbanization is a big one; creating desirable jobs for the young is another. And as we graduate from the Least Developed Countries category and donor presence changes, we need to re-adjust our economic patterns – but how do we do that?”
He said coming to Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has learnt that it does not need to necessarily follow the policy models of other countries. In some areas Bhutan can innovate and can lead.