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Tshering Tobgay

Tshering Tobgay (Prime Minister of Bhutan)

Bhutan's Balancing Act: Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan

Sep. 25, Thu.

*This program was first broadcast on Sep. 11

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has often been called the "Kingdom of Happiness" for using Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of people's prosperity rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), measuring economic growth. GNH places importance on people's well-being and the environment. But along with advancing globalization and expanding foreign tourism, the country is struggling with high levels of youth unemployment and a growing economic gap between urban and rural areas. It is in this climate that Tshering Tobgay was sworn in as prime minister last year. He has pledged to grow the economy and create jobs while continuing efforts to protect the environment and the nation's culture in pursuit of GNH. Bhutan is also facing the challenge of managing relations with the 2 major powers it borders: India and China. We ask Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, who has just marked his first anniversary in office, how he plans to balance the aims of spiritual and economic growth while establishing Bhutan's place alongside two of the world's most populous nations.


Today's "Asian Voices" comes to you from Bhutan, often known as the "Kingdom of Happiness." We'll ask Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay what kind of nation he aims to build for the happiness of its people.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is home to 750,000 people.
The country aims to preserve its traditional culture. The national costume is the dress code in public. Most people are Tibetan Buddhist. The constitution describes Buddhism as the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.
What has triggered the world's interest in this tiny kingdom is the concept of Gross National Happiness, or GNH. It is an indicator that focuses on people's well-being, rather than the rate of economic growth. GNH quantifies the degree of people's satisfaction in 9 categories, including health and psychological well-being.
A national census in 2005 indicated that 95 percent of Bhutanese were happy. The country has often been referred to as the "Kingdom of Happiness."
But with advancing globalization, the income gap between urban and rural areas has widened. High levels of youth unemployment and eliminating poverty in the country has become a major challenge.
It is in this climate that Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay took office last year.

PM Tobgay: "We need economic growth, we want economic growth, we want to work towards economic growth, but that growth must be inclusive. It must be equitable. And it must be green."

How is it possible to strike a balance between material prosperity and spiritual wellness? We sat down with Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.


Bhutan has become increasingly known the "Kingdom of Happiness". Is that an accurate portrayal of the country, or do you think this is a little bit romanticizing of the concept?

"The Kingdom of Happiness"; the answer would be yes and no. Yes, because I think our people are generally, in my view, happier than most other people. No, because it is rather simplistic. We are all not one big monastery. We are all not as happy as the world imagines us to be. We are all human beings. We have our own struggles. We need commitments to make the opportunities available to achieve our goals and targets while wishing for happiness.

So whenever you meet guests from international communities, do they often associate you with the notion of happiness?



They do? And you don't mind?

Again, yes and no. We don't mind when it is genuine. But yes, sometimes I do think that it can get too intrusive that we are supposed to be happy all the time, which is not too much of a problem.

Perhaps the world was in need of an alternative paradigm or a lens to assess the state of the world especially after the financial crisis. People were questioning the meaning of happiness and well-being. And then came the notion of Gross National Happiness from Bhutan. Would I be right in saying that?

What makes people happy at an individual level varies from individual to individual, but GNH is a policy tool of governance to remind ourselves that mindless economic growth is not what the people want. Economic growth must be mindful of the true desires of people. Economic growth must be mindful of the pressures of the environment. We must value, continue to value, and nurture it in our culture and our value system. To achieve what our people truly want, good governance is extremely important. It is about balancing economic growth with spiritual development, emotional growth.


In Bhutan, 60% of working people are in farming. The country had almost no diplomatic relations with other countries until the 1960s.
But even Bhutan was not immune to the trend of globalization. In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the internet. Cellphone services rolled out in 2003.
Along with rapidly growing consumption, commercial and other buildings are popping up in the capital Thimphu, one after the other.
But this economic growth has come at a price. The income gap between the cities and rural areas has widened. Another problem is high unemployment among young people migrating to the city to work.

Many young people difficult to find jobs. Is it true?

Woman: "They don't have the qualifications. Young people, they don't have the qualifications. They don't have the experiences."

But if they do not have work, they do not get experience. So it's a cycle?

Woman: "Yes, cycle, yeah."

Man: "Bhutan is a small country and it's difficult to give job to every single person who is a graduate or undergraduate. So it's a bit of problem with the job."

In 2008, Bhutan shifted from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay took office following the nation's second general election in July last year. The prime minister has pledged, among other things, full employment for young job seekers and free electricity for rural villages.


Would you say that Bhutan has come a long way, almost 50 years since it first opened its doors to the outside world?

Yes, I would say, we have come a very long way. 50 years ago we did not have motor roads. We didn't have any car roads. My mother was involved as a conscripted laborer in building the first road.

And today whether it is a network of highways, airways, or internet connectivity, we have come a long way. I would say we have come a long way when you have a woman involved in building the first highway of a nation and 50 years later her son is involved in policy making to expand highways for the breadth and length of our country.


I had a chance to speak with the young people on the streets of Thimphu. They generally say that they are happy with the country and their way of life. But according to some of the statistics like the 2005 national census, 97% said they were happy, while the 2010 survey indicated 41% said they were happy. The methods employed were different but does this suggest the shift in the people's perception?

Yes, as we grow, we must be able to perceive things differently. Happiness cannot be static. The country's goals and targets cannot be static also. Our people's wants cannot also be static. The government's job is to implement the policy of Gross National Happiness and to be true to that being implemented within the country.

Right, but Bhutan remains to be one of the poorest countries in the world. Statistics indicate that, one in four live on less than two dollars a day. Is that not a serious challenge for Bhutan?

Yes, we are a very poor country. Our entire GDP is just US$1.7 billion for instance. Among 190 countries, we rank 167. Economically, those countries with smaller GDPs are very small Pacific islands. That said, we give free education to all our citizens. That said, we have absolutely free health care. And our people have access to social security.


And I understand that 56% of the Bhutanese population are under 24 years old. Young. Very young. Yet as the Prime Minister has stated, unemployment remains to be the serious problem. That's a serious issue if you think about bringing about a prosperous Bhutan in the near future.

Yes, I see unemployment both as a big problem and a big opportunity. We have large numbers of youth who have completed school because all of our youth are going to school now. If they have completed school, they are available for productive work. Right now, youth unemployment stands at about 9.6%...

Which is quite high...

Which is high, but in absolute terms, you are talking about 4500 unemployed youths. That is large by Bhutanese standards, 4500 youth unemployment. Unemployment is large by Bhutanese standards, and we must redress this problem.

I had the chance to speak with one of the college graduate students in Thimphu who told me that although he does have a degree, it is highly difficult to find a job in a country like Bhutan at this point. How would you aim to create jobs for those people who are educated but are unable to find jobs?

Well, you see there are jobs. We have a lot of construction projects going on, but do you want to take up construction as a job? We must learn to build our own homes. Then there are jobs in the farms. Farming is not attractive, but it can be very, very profitable, especially organic farming, for ourselves and again for export. Whether you want to take up those jobs is a different matter, but these are opportunities that are available.


Meaning, young people tend to look for white collar jobs.

Now the white collar jobs, we have a choice. Do you want to provide as a nation economically in that direction, creating only white collar employment? I am not too sure. We need white collar jobs, but they must be balanced with blue collar workers and blue collar jobs.

You have articulated what you define as the five jewels in order to strengthen the economy. Five areas for the Bhutanese to focus on: tourism, agriculture, hydroelectric power, minerals, and small enterprises. Since 60% of Bhutan's population are engaged in agriculture, would I be right in saying that one way to improve the economy would be to modernize farming and agriculture, and make it more profitable and productive?

Absolutely. Our agriculture and farming practices have largely been limited to traditional use of natural farming and traditional technologies. We have so much opportunities in the farming sector. As of now, a good 69% of our people are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture and farming and we can use this again as an opportunity to increase food and livestock productivity with the right technology and the right financing. We have the system in place now, in terms of financing, technologies, and marketing. We hope that in the next few years, we will be well on our way to achieving food sufficiency, which is going to contribute towards economic self-reliance. Economic self-reliance that is sustainable, through which we would have provided jobs for the Bhutanese.

And with regards to the system in Bhutan, you have stated that the country is moving on from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy into a full-fledged democracy. Isn't there, on the part of the people of Bhutan, perhaps a need to adjust their mentality in how they themselves take part in that democracy?

We are not in a transition. We went from one extreme to the other. Normally when you go from one to the other, from an absolute monarchy to a full democracy, there is a shock. Here we did not have that shock only because His Majesty the King guided the people. We the people didn't want democracy. His Majesty the King forced the people to have a democracy, to accept democracy. He had to literally command us to accept democracy. Having agreed, or rather having been forced to accept democracy, he himself built the foundation for a viable democracy.

It sounds like an experiment in history over politics, perhaps. I mean in terms of world history, as you have articulated, it is a rather rare case.

Every case is rare. And I think every people can learn from other people's journeys. Our journey is unique, yes. It is unique and other people may be studying our journey, maybe watching our journey. But it is up to us, the Bhutanese, first and foremost to enjoy the journey, and also learn from that journey.


Bhutan sits between two major powers, China and India. It has territorial issues with China, and depends heavily on India's economic assistance.
In 2012 on the sidelines of an international conference in Brazil, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay's predecessor held his first meeting with the Chinese leader and accelerated moves toward China.
India then suspended its subsidy on fuel bound for Bhutan. As a result, fuel prices skyrocketed, a reminder of the influence New Delhi has in the small Himalayan kingdom.
In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhutan just weeks after taking office. Some experts viewed this as a check on Chinese influence.
Prime Minister Tobgay is trying to mend fences with New Delhi while also pursuing economic self-reliance.

It seems like balance is the keyword in thinking about the future of Bhutan. That might apply to foreign policy as well. As we know, Bhutan has a long standing close relationship with India. India, by far, is the most important trading and economic partner to Bhutan, accounting for 75% of both exports and imports to Bhutan. How would you phase out the dependency and maintain the favorable relationship with India? That's a balance also.

A good relation is not based on economic reality. We have good relations because our two countries enjoy genuine friendship and goodwill at all levels: our leaders, our officials, and our businesses.

We are genuine friends. Our friendship is time-tested, and is based on the principals of mutual understanding, goodwill, trust, and confidence. It is not just economic. Now in terms of the economy, our goal is to become economically self-reliant. As a friend, India would want us to be economically self-reliant. How we achieve that is by exporting more to India and importing less. I think that is what good neighbors are all about: prospering together. Friendship cannot be where one prospers and the other does not.


So mutually?

Mutually. When the neighborhood prospers, everybody is happy.

You have another rather powerful neighboring country across the border, which is China, with whom you also have a territorial issue. How do you intend to shape the relationship with China, another major power in the region?

China is our neighbor. And as a neighbor, we are friendly. We have a good relation with them. We are yet to demarcate officially the boundary between our two countries, and this is something that we are working on.

If you look at the map, Bhutan is a relatively small country and you have India and China. Bhutan is sort of sandwiched between these two major powers in the region. If you compare the population, Bhutan has 700,000 whereas the population in India and China are both in their billions. Throughout the history has Bhutan had to navigate the ways to survive the very delicate balance of power politics in the region?

We have been blessed with wise leadership; wise leadership in the form of successful monarchs. They have chosen the right path. They have formulated the right policies for us.


You have also have spoken about decreasing the dependency on ODA's as well.

What we would like to achieve is economic self-reliance. We have many friends with whom we have partnerships. This is a friendship between countries among people, among governments. I'm sure there is room to cooperate, to partner, to work together. This is in keeping with our nature. We are not that arrogant. As a small country, a small population, with a very small economy, we cannot afford to be arrogant.

Would I be right to say that there is a wisdom in that thinking, where you would have diverse partners engaging the country rather than the selected few?

If economic self-reliance was excluding ODA, that is wrong. That is not the purpose. The purpose is not just to isolate ourselves and to exclude partnerships in the form of ODA. We can grow economically, and yet at the same time, we can cultivate our friendship. We can use, with dignity, the assistance that may be offered.


This is a horticulture center in the capital Thimphu. In order to train gardeners, researchers here are studying how to grow a variety of flowers and plants.
In one corner of the facility, the researchers are cultivating some saplings. They are cherry trees, a gift from Fukushima Prefecture in Japan.
In 2011, Bhutan's royal couple visited areas in the prefecture hit by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. They offered their consolation and prayers for the victims.
They were presented with the saplings as a token of appreciation.
The saplings are a variety of cherry tree known in Japan as "Miharu Takizakura", said to be more than one thousand years old.

Have you seen cherry blossoms?

Florist: "Yes, I have seen."

Do you like them?

Florist: "Yes, we like. It's very beautiful. We will multiply some more siblings and we will supply to the city for greenery purposes. So after 4, 5, 6 years, we will see that."

And then many more years, there will be cherry blossoms in Thimphu.

Florist:" Yes, Thimphu."


I'm not a specialist in agriculture, but I am sensing that there might be a potential in nurturing the landscape gardening perhaps for Bhutan.

So our landscape gardening requires attention?

It is a potential.

Yes it does.

And creates jobs as well.

In the area of agriculture, or rather with Japan, we have enjoyed 50 years of relations. In 1964, a Japanese gentleman, Nishioka, we call him Dasho Nishioka because he went on, after rendering service in Bhutan, to be awarded the title of Dasho by our King, who served in Bhutan for many years until his death. His arrival in Bhutan marked the beginning of our relations with Japan. A lot of our relations have expanded in all development and most economic sectors, but most of our engagement has been in the area of agriculture. So even today whether they are cherry trees, cherries, avocado, persimmon, pears, paddy, or farm mechanization, there is a footprint of Dasho Nishioka and Japan. Can we work together for the future? That is our intention.


So that is the area we should keep our eyes on, perhaps.

Yes, and that is the area where we are working together.

I saw the trees were about 150cm tall perhaps, and very thin. In ten, twenty, or thirty years to come, how would those trees look? How would Bhutan look if you think about the future?

The sakura is a beautiful tree with its roots firmly embedded in Bhutanese soil. A soil that can nourish the tree. The tree that can feed the people and yet be absolutely beautiful for the Bhutanese, for Bhutan and for the world.


It would really be a moving scene to watch.

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much Mr. Prime Minister for making the time for us.




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