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History, hagiocracy and happiness in Bhutan

By Winton Bates - posted Wednesday, 16 January 2013


I doubt whether many Australians who see Bold Bhutan Beckons on display would associate the name of one of the authors, Tim Fischer, with the person they remember as a former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, and later, Australian Ambassador to the Holy See. It is not common for former Australian politicians to write books with sub-titles like, Inhaling Gross National Happiness.

Tim Fischer visited Bhutan in 1985, as a newly elected member of federal parliament seeking to learn more about Asia. He obviously became fascinated by what he describes as the 'simple and extraordinary' dimensions of this tiny nation. He has since visited Bhutan at least seven more times.

In the introduction, Tim mentions that while he and Tshering Tashi - a businessman and writer who lives in Thimphu - were contemplating joint authorship of this book, someone warned him that joint book writing was 'possibly a guaranteed way to spoil a friendship'. That might have been sound advice, but the way the book has been written seems designed to reduce the potential for conflict. Rather than attempting to write jointly, for the most part the authors have each made separate contributions and have told readers who wrote each chapter.

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In writing this book the authors claim to have been inspired by the need for the world to have a better understanding of the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). They describe this as 'a vital concept for the future'. The Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, famously asserted during the 1970s that 'Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product'. This led to adoption of GNH as a national policy objective, with emphasis on protecting cultural values and the natural environment, and ensuring good government, as well as enabling economic development.

The 16 chapters of the book are a collection of articles about various aspects of history, geography and the attitudes of the people and their rulers. Each chapter is interesting in its own right, but in combination they shed light on the context in which the GNH policy was developed. After reading the book it is easy to understand why the Fourth King would have been concerned to ensure that his isolated kingdom, sandwiched between China and India, was opened gradually to outside influences, with minimal disruption to culture and the natural environment.

Why do the authors describe Bhutan as bold? The main reason seems to be that boldness has been necessary for this small country, with a population probably less than one million, to maintain its independence and to avoid the fate of other small countries in the region – Assam, Sikkim and Tibet - of being absorbed into either India or China. Since 1971, membership of the United Nations has helped Bhutan to maintain its independence.

The authors note that Bhutanese are increasingly known throughout the world as ambassadors of happiness. Since this book was written, this reputation has been enhanced by Bhutan's sponsorship of a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a universal goal and calling on member states to measure happiness and use happiness measures as a guide to public policies.

It is indeed bold for the government of Bhutan to seek to lead the world towards greater happiness because this has the potential to draw greater attention to the impact of its policies on its own citizens. In particular, in discussions of GNH the question is often raised of why substantial numbers of Bhutanese of Nepali descent left Bhutan during the 1990s, to take up residence in refugee camps in Nepal. The book does not neglect this question. Tim attributes the exodus to implementation of stricter safeguards against illegal immigration and a requirement for members of the Nepali community to prove Bhutanese citizenship. Other commentators, such as the authors of the Wikipedia entry on this topic, have suggested that ethnic conflicts were aggravated by enforcement of government requirements for all citizens to wear the traditional attire of the Druk majority in public places.

The authors should possibly have been more critical of some of the methods used by the government of Bhutan in pursuit of its objectives. Nevertheless, it would be difficult for any impartial observer to object to the government of a small country, particularly one that has been largely isolated from foreign influences, placing high priority on preventing illegal immigration and preserving a unique cultural heritage.

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From my perspective, one of the highlights of the book is the discussion of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, whom Tshering describes as the founder and conscience of Bhutan. Tim tells the story of how two Jesuits visited Bhutan in 1627, when Zhabdrung was a young king. Zhabdrung offered them hospitality and apparently allowed them to attempt to convert local people to Christianity. Zhabdrung might have been confident that the Jesuit's proselytising efforts would be unsuccessful, but he also claimed to be respectful of individual liberty in other contexts. Tshering notes that many times the king told his lamas that 'though they are most submissive, everyone is his own master to do what he likes'.

Zhabdrung stressed the virtues of perseverance and self-discipline. He quoted his teacher who said: 'If you do not work hard you will not find sweet food. If you do not know the taste of suffering, you will not know the taste of happiness'. Zhabdrung's achievements include the building of seven dzongs (combining the functions of fortresses and monasteries) built in strategic locations in different parts of the country.

I was also particularly interested in the discussion of road-building in Bhutan during the 1960s. While in Bhutan in August 2011, attending a conference on 'Happiness and Economic Development', it took me several days to come to terms with the idea that Bhutan had been virtually closed to the outside world before the major road construction effort that occurred about 50 years ago. It was not until after the conference, when I was being driven over the busy, narrow, winding mountain road from Thimphu to Punakha, that I fully realized that provision of basic road infrastructure was still very much a work in progress in Bhutan.

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This is a review of Bold Bhutan Beckons, Tim Fischer and Tshering Tashi (CopyRight Publishing, 2009). To order a copy click here.



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About the Author

Winton Bates is author of Free to Flourish, published as a Kindle eBook in December 2012.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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