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Farewell to innocence

Although Bhutan has modernised more slowly than the rest of Asia, the pace of change has been dizzying for locals. Private cars have become a common sight on its roads while traditional modes of transport, such as travelling on horseback, have become rare. 'We've moved from horses to BMWs and Toyotas in probably one of the shortest spans in world history,' notes journalist Tenzing Lanzang. (PHOTO: GO-FAR/GOH CHAY TENG)

Publication Date : 05-09-2012


While other emerging economies try to show a modern face to the world, Bhutan's Prime Minister has no qualms revealing that he cycles 13km of winding mountain roads to work. Jigme Thinley walks the talk - or in this case pedals - for his little nation's big ideals, it would seem.

The landlocked Himalayan kingdom once shut out the world for fear of being consumed by it. Now, it is opening up (direct flights to Singapore start today) but it's trying to do so on its own terms. Its biggest export is a home-grown idea - that sustainable development means focusing on happiness in its fullest sense, not "irresponsible growth", as Jigme Thinley, 60, puts it.

"We will try to contribute, with humility but with sincerity, in the making of a better world," says the Prime Minister, sitting in a high-backed armchair in an office overlooking a 13th-century fort that houses both government offices and Buddhist monks, backed by verdant foothills of the Himalayas.

Since becoming the country's first democratically elected head of government, Jigme Thinley has been trying to promote Gross National Happiness (GNH) around the world. For an aid-dependent country of only 700,000 people, Bhutan's national brand has travelled impressively. Global financial crises and mounting unease with the human and environmental costs of untrammelled capitalism have made policymakers sit up and take notice of Bhutan's alternative approach.

A United Nations resolution on happiness was adopted in July last year. March 20 was recently declared World Happiness Day. And Bhutan's current bid for a seat on the UN Security Council should give an even higher international profile to the country's unique model.

But the real test for GNH is at home. Bhutan still retains its rustic charm, but nobody pretends that a focus on happiness - first mooted by the country's beloved fourth king some 40 years ago - can completely protect it from the woes faced by other developing countries.

"It's not yet corrupted, it's not yet gone through the extremes of world wars or industrialisation; it's still a very innocent society," says journalist and publisher Tenzing Lanzang, 28, adding that he has yet to be cheated by a taxi driver, unlike in "cynical, money-minded, cut-throat" New Delhi where he first cut his journalistic teeth.

But Tenzing Lanzang is readying his country for a loss of that innocence. In February, he founded the country's 13th newspaper, The Bhutanese, which is not afraid to upset the establishment in order to reveal the less-than-happy side of life in the Dragon Kingdom.

Rising youth unemployment, a rupee crunch that has stalled construction projects and prompted a ban on vegetable imports, and rural-urban migration that has emptied farms of young workers - all these tell a story similar to that of Bhutan's developing counterparts.

In addition, the government's cautious approach to industrialisation is said to have stifled business and spawned inefficiency. For example, the vaunted Thimphu Tech Park project, built at a cost of around 400 million ngultrum (almost US$7.20 million), saw two anchor tenants pull out at the last minute. Screening criteria, requiring tenants to provide a certain level of employment for Bhutanese, have kept the complex largely empty since its completion in April.

"You can't have your cake and eat it too," notes economics professor Sanjeev Mehta of the Royal Thimphu College. "There's a need to accept a degree of trade-off - because foreign investors will not come just to protect your environment or culture."

A snaking highway into the capital city Thimphu - simply known as "the expressway" as it is the only one - was, at the time, the largest infrastructure project entrusted to local contractors in an economy dominated by Indian firms. But a year after its completion, in 2005, cracks started to appear - a worrying metaphor as Bhutan attempts to pave and find its own way in the 21st century.

Next year's election will be a test of the people's support for Jigme Thinley and his government's policies. But he is convinced that, no matter who wins, the next government will be just as committed to GNH - which is written into the Constitution as a national goal.

"I think every Bhutanese is connected to GNH, more so after this government came to power than before," he says.

Sherubtse College political science professor Sarbajeet Mukherjee agrees with that assessment. "There is, across the table, a high sense of consensus on this philosophy of development," he says.

Indeed, although four new opposition parties have emerged, it is hard to find any major ideological disagreement with the ruling party. Instead, a key issue is likely to be whether the government - stocked with technocratic elites who had served under the King - is out of touch with the common people.

Says opposition party secretary-general and retired policeman Tshering Dorji, 59: "We are preaching GNH outside but if you really look in-depth, gross national happiness is not being carried out. It's only on paper."

Too many of the "common people" are not benefiting from the kingdom's progress, adds Tenzin Rigden, 45, a volunteer with another opposition party. "Now in the urban areas we have a section of the population racing ahead. There are others who cannot catch up," he says.

Listening to Bhutanese like him, you realise that although the country has modernised more slowly than the rest of Asia, the pace of change has been dizzying for locals. "We've moved from horses to BMWs and Toyotas in probably one of the shortest spans in world history," notes Tenzing Lanzang.

Television only arrived in 1999, but since then the deluge of Indian entertainment and flashy commercials has transformed people's tastes. Likening TV to an "aerial invasion", civil servant Kinley Dorji says: "That itself creates a momentum - what we call desire, greed - within society."

To Kinley Dorji, one of the country's leading spokesmen on GNH, Bhutan knows that change is inevitable. GNH is ultimately a small, vulnerable nation's strategy to buffer itself against the excesses that it sees playing out elsewhere, he says.

"We used to survive by hiding in the mountains, literally, and refusing to open up," he notes. "But since the 1960s, when we realised we cannot be left behind, we decided to open up, but with caution and at a manageable pace."

GNH Commission secretary Karma Tshiteem says that in an era of "great distraction", the happiness doctrine is like a "bell" that summons the people back to basics. But Kinley Dorji notes wistfully that the effectiveness of this rallying chime remains to be seen.

"I don't know if we'll be able to do it in the end, or whether we'll go the way many societies have gone," he says. "I would say Bhutan has a better chance than most. It's not that we're brighter people... we are lucky to have started late."

For Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, a late start may mean some wobbles along the way. But he and his government are determined to press on along their chosen path, despite being buffeted by global forces. "By and large, I feel that we will be able to resist," he says. "Even as we go through these trends, we will be able to prevail."


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