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Bhutan: The Pursuit of "Gross Domestic Happiness"
Diplomatic Pouch / June 2011

By Larry Luxner

The Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny mountain nation wedged between India and China, isn’t exactly on the Washington diplomatic circuit. Not surprising, considering it doesn’t have an embassy here. Nor does this Himalayan Shangri-La maintain the barest of diplomatic relations with the United States.

For years, Bhutan didn’t have a postal system either, and 90 percent of its people were illiterate. But that didn’t stop the kingdom from issuing outrageous postage stamps prized by philatelists the world over. Aluminum-foil stamps. Three-dimensional stamps. Scratch-and-sniff stamps. Stamps that played the Bhutanese national anthem when played on a 45-rpm turntable.

These days, Bhutan is known more for its stunning adventure tourism and its pursuit of “Gross National Happiness” — a concept endorsed by the United Nations and explored during a May 4 event at the Asia Society.

“Imagine a place where people care more about preservation of their culture, fairness and equality than they do about material gain, a place where wealth is measured by happiness and the acquisition of contentment rather than the acquisiton of material wealth,” said longtime environmental activist Bruce Bunting.

“That place is Bhutan, where you can go from lush tropical forests to 24,000-foot mountain peaks in a distance that’s less than that from Washington, D.C., to the Shenandoah Mountains.”

Bunting is president of the Washington-based Bhutan Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Bhutan’s 670,000 people while preserving the country’s astonishing biodiversity.

No bigger than Switzerland — and about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined — Bhutan was until very recently one of the most isolated nations on Earth. As late as 1980, only 1,200 citizens had access to a phone. (It’s a very different story today; more than 300,000 Bhutanese — nearly half the population — carry cellphones, and thousands of young people have Facebook accounts). Its capital city, Thimphu, still doesn’t have a single traffic light.

It was Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who, in the 17th century, arrived on foot from Tibet, built many of Bhutan’s castle-like “dzongs” and united it into a nation-state.

“Bhutan was perceived as a united country when the British arrived on their doorstep in the 18th century,” he said. “In 1907, Ugan Wangchuk was elected as Bhutan’s first monarch. Since then, it has become a country built on Buddhist values, a sovereign state committed to an equitable legal system and a century of remarkable leadership.”

In 1954, Bhutan began sending its brightest children to India to be educated. Today, six out of the country’s 10 cabinet ministers have degrees from U.S. or British universities.

Thirteen years ago, His Majesty Wangchuk, the Fourth King, made history when he announced he was turning over authority to a council of ministers. That led to the establishment of a constitutional committee. On Dec. 6, 2006, the king abdicated after 34 years on the throne, handing power to his 26-year-old son, Crown Prince Jigme Kesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who created Bhutan’s first democratically elected parliament in early 2008.

“Bhutan is therefore the world’s youngest democracy,” said Bunting, “but the culture of democracy remains considerably foreign to many Bhutanese.”

Bunting, a veterinarian by profession, knows more about Bhutan than any American in Washington. He first visited the country in 1986 as vice-president of the World Wildlife Federation. Later on, as an advisor to the government, Bunting helped establish Bhutan’s national park system as well as the Bhutan Health Trust Fund. In 1990, he wrote an article for National Geographic magazine entitled “Bhutan, Kingdom in the Clouds.”

Bunting explained that for Bhutan, GNH is the achievement of individual contentment in one’s life.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure an environment in which the Bhutanese people can pursue happiness,” he said. “This is based on four pillars: good governance, environmental conservation, preservation of culture and equitable development.”

“The people of Bhutan have a living, vibrant culture, a unique identity of being Bhutanese — something very important in an increasingly globalized world,” said Bunting. “And probably no country has done a better job of preserving its environment than Bhutan, whose constitution states that 60 percent of the country’s land area must remain forested.”

As a result, rare tigers are found at elevations of up to 14,000 feet. And Bhutan has one of the largest populations of elephants remaining in Asia.

The country’s major source of revenue is the sale of hydroelectric power to its energy-starved neighbor, India. At present, Bhutan generates about 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, a number likely to exceed 10,000 megawatts by 2020. India is also helping Bhutan build its first railroad link to the outside world.

Tourism is another big foreign-exchange earner, yet arrivals are severely limited by the fact that Bhutan has only one airline, and that has only two aircraft flying in and out of the country.

As a result, only 25,000 foreigners may visit Bhutan annually. And they must book their trips only through companies that work with a local travel agency, with the requirement that foreigners spend a minimum $250 per day per person, meaning that only very upscale tourists visit Bhutan. About half the country’s visitors are Americans. The rest are mainly Japanese and Europeans, with a smattering of Indians and others.

So, has the so-called “middle path to development” worked for the people of Bhutan? Bunting answers with a resounding yes.

In 1982, a baby born in Bhutan could expect to live 43 years. Today, life expectancy is 66 years. Since 1980, the literacy rate has shot up from 10 percent to 75 percent. In 1988, annual per-capita GDP was $400. Today it exceeds $2,000 — more than twice the $980 average for South Asia overall.

“When you’re in Bhutan, you can speak English with anybody under 40. Seven of the country’s nine newspapers are in English. The country has five radio stations and 200 TV channels — this in a country that did not have television until 1999.”

Some more statistics: 14 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, who also own 70 percent of the land in Bhutan. In addition, Bhutan allocates close to 30 percent of its budget to the social sector, providing free education and health care — but it still has only one doctor per 5,000 inhabitants.

“There are some real problems in this modern-day Shangri-La,” said Bunting. “Bhutan faces major demographic pressures from neighboring India and Nepal, whose people would love to benefit from Bhutan’s pristine environment and economic growth. Bhutan is a little island in a sea of humanity. Bhutan cannot just open up its borders to everybody who wants to live there,” he said. “Sikkim did exactly that, and it’s no longer an independent country but a state of India. Bhutan doesn’t want to go down that path.”

Asked why his favorite country doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the United States, Bunting explained that Bhutan “lives in a rather dangerous neighborhood,” sandwiched between the world’s two most populous nations.

“Over the last 50 to 60 years, Bhutan has developed strong relations with India. It’s now working on its relationship with China. But the Bhutanese feel that before they can formalize relations with yet another distant neighbor — the United States — they really need to have their own neighborhood in order. So the next step is China.”

Bunting added that while Bhutan doesn’t have formal diplomatic ties with the United States, informal relations are excellent. He predicted that full relations between Washington and Thimphu are likely to develop in the next five to six years.

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