Bhutan’s Thinley still on the happiness trail

By Vishal Arora

The defeat of former Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley’s party in the Himalayan nation’s second general election this month came as a surprise to most observers, given his international stature. However, in hindsight, the reasons are discernible, and point to popular disapproval of his aggressive pursuit of what can be termed as “Bhutanese exceptionalism.”

Bhutan was one of the most isolated nations until recent years. Its currency was introduced and borders were opened to foreign tourists as late as in the 1970s. Its first television set and Internet cafe arrived only by 2000. But Thinley, the first democratically elected prime minister, led the nation to become a leader in placing happiness at the heart of the global economic agenda.

Thinley’s name is often associated with “gross national happiness,” Bhutan’s unique way of measuring progress of the nation with happiness and wellbeing of its people, as opposed to purely economic yardsticks such as gross domestic product.

Empowered by a UN General Assembly resolution, Thinley, as a representative of the tiny country, last year lectured the world about the need to adopt happiness as a key component of a nation’s economy.

While it was Bhutan’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck who coined the phrase gross national happiness in 1972, the concept’s global acclaim can be attributed to Thinley’s international public relations campaign. It was Thinley who helped establish Centre for Bhutan Studies, which was tasked to quantify GNH as a state policy.

Thinley steered global efforts to challenge the efficiency of the Bretton Woods system, which established the rules for commercial and financial relations among the world’s major industrial states in the mid-20th century and led to the establishment of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

One of the fruits of Thinley’s labor, a “New Bretton Woods Agreement,” which proposes to give centrality to people’s happiness in nations’ economic goals, is expected to be signed by world leaders in June 2014 in Thimphu.

Bhutan’s international public relations campaign also helped the nation to find new friends. Thinley, who doubled as the country’s foreign minister during much of his five-year tenure, helped establish relations with 32 countries.

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Thinley’s GNH campaign was a smart move. A nation with a little more than 700,000 people that is crammed between the rival Asian powers of China and India and seen as over-dependent on the latter, had perhaps didn’t have an option to find its place in the world, but by using cultural diplomacy with GNH as its most powerful vehicle.

However, the pursuit of a global leadership role by Bhutan didn’t come out of a vacuum. Thinley sought to take Bhutan’s self-perception – which is somewhat akin to the notion of “American exceptionalism” – to the next level.

Like American exceptionalism, which is the notion that the United States has exceptional society and polity and therefore also has a world mission to spread freedom and democracy, “Bhutanese exceptionalism” can be described as the self-perception that Bhutan is so unique in its culture, polity and history, especially in relation to the West, that it is entitled to play a distinct, positive role on the world stage by spreading “happiness.”

Bhutan, the only Mahayana Buddhist country in the world, has never been colonized, and has, therefore, seen the continuity of its unique culture. Bhutan’s erstwhile self-imposed isolation has largely shielded the nation from wars and mindless consumerism that characterize much of the rest of the world and earned the nation the reputation of being the “Last Shangri-La”. The nation’s distinctive features have instilled a sense of pride in Bhutanese people.

However, the country’s media and people did not cooperate fully with Thinley in projecting Bhutan as a model nation to the world. Perhaps, because there was a price to pay.

Thinley was known for his dislike for public criticism of his government – though it was apparently neither because of his ego and nor due to his unwillingness to address real issues. Thinley’s idea was to portray Bhutan as a nation that would be deemed worthy of the global leadership role it was seeking. Therefore, he did not want stories of corruption and social evils to feature in the social or mainstream media, though he appeared open to discuss and deal with those issues quietly and within closed doors. But this was seen as an attack on the people’s right to freedom of expression.

A darling abroad, Thinley faced criticism in his own country with little appreciation for his GNH project. Allegations of corruption against some leaders of his government and its alleged inability to address unemployment and economic inequality, coupled with projections of the nation’s tensions with India due to his alleged overtures to China, overshadowed his other achievements at the domestic front.

Bhutan’s poverty rate came down to 12 percent, from 23 percent five years ago, and the country experienced an average growth rate of 9 percent. But perhaps more was expected domestically from the leader who had a larger than life image.

Thinley’s international stature, his most valuable asset, didn’t help him get votes. His endeavors to fully develop the notion of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” to carve out a highly respectable reputation in the world were perhaps seen as too lofty and too hurried by a nation that had just started its transition from an absolute, benevolent monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy.

The voters, instead, chose to go with the erstwhile opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay, whose party made pledges confined to the boundaries of Bhutan and showcased its foreign policy as just being focused on fostering good relations with India.

It is yet to be seen if Thinley will be able to continue his efforts to sell happiness around the world, apart from his new job as a leader of the opposition. While Prime Minister Tobgay is likely to cooperate with institutions and individuals involved in the GNH campaign, he may not like to repeat the mistake that cost Thinley dearly. The next five years are likely to be defined by “Bhutanese realism” instead.

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