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Catherine Makino interviews Bhutan Prime Minister JIGME Y. THINLEY

TOKYO, Sep 8 2009 (IPS) - A tiny kingdom located at the eastern end of the Himalayas and bordered by China and India used to be one of the most isolated countries in the world until it became a full-fledged democracy in 2008.

Bhutan’s shift to democracy began when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne to his son in December 2006, signaling the end of absolute monarchy in this country.

Today, Bhutan prides itself not only on its democratic freedom, evidenced by its first national elections in 2008, but also on its unique concept of development that has become the foundation of the country’s path to progress — Gross National Happiness (GNH).

GNH was coined by King Wangchuck in 1972, when he opened up Bhutan to modernization. It is an earnest attempt to meld material and spiritual well-being and, in Thinley’s view, lies in stark contrast to conventional development models such as gross domestic product or GDP.

In Tokyo recently, Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley, whose party won 45 of the 47 lower house seats in Bhutan’s legislature during last year’s elections, spoke with IPS about GNH and other issues facing his country.

IPS: You were in Japan recently, where you gave a speech about gross national happiness (GNH). What is it in a nutshell?

JIGME Y. THINLEY: GNH is the development paradigm for Bhutan. It is different from the conventional development models which are gross domestic products creating and fueling consumerism. (GDP) is not sustainable.

In order to keep our traditional culture we need GNH, or else our heritage and customs will be threatened. We knew we had to change, so we set up a different approach that would not sacrifice the well-being of our people. We don’t want to give up happiness for material development.

IPS: On what is GNH based?

JYT: Its aim is to create conditions for the pursuit of happiness by citizens. It can be achieved through material needs of the body and the emotional, physiological and intellectual needs of the mind.

IPS: How have you been explaining it to Japan and other countries?

JYT: That Bhutan is offering them a new alternative development model. It is a paradigm shift that leaders must consider and explore. We offer them an idea on which they can build. Japan knows it needs to rethink its growth model and it can play a leadership role here.

IPS: What was Japan’s response?

JYT: Yukio Hatoyama, (opposition) DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) leader and future prime minister, said in his manifesto that too much American or Anglo-Saxon capitalism has influenced Japan.

I also met many members of both major parties, including (outgoing) Prime Minister (Taro) Aso, and there wasn’t much difference between them. They both say Japanese prosperity and happiness cannot be sustainable if they stay on the same path

IPS: How does your model differ from that of GDP?

JYT: GDP is a measure of goods and services produced at a given period of time but does not in any way measure the environmental or the social costs (of development), leaves out the human aspect and focuses entirely on economic growth.

IPS: But don’t we need economic growth?

JYT: Economic growth is necessary to eliminate poverty. That said, we do not have a shortage of food in the world, but people are going hungry and there is poverty in one part of the world. We know there is so much wastage and excessive consumption in another part of it. We also have medicine, but people are dying for lack of access to it.

IPS: How can we get it distributed?

JYT: Fiscal policies to tax the rich would ensure equal distribution. I think the rich will be willing pay taxes to help others.

While I also think most countries have good taxation systems, there are many kinds of (tax-)evasive methods, so we need to put measures in place to stop it.

In the end we know as rich as a society may become, it will never have enough to sustain a welfare system, which is based on state intervention and handouts.

IPS: Can we achieve it when there are dysfunctional families, especially given the current financial crisis?

JYT: You either discard it or fix it. You can’t discard yourself or the human race because we are part of it, and so we need to fix it.

IPS: How do you fix it?

JYT: We need to reprioritize and redefine what matters most to people. What is it that human beings pursue in life? We all pursue wealth and prosperity and now we need to define that in a way that is more meaningful. It is more than material wealth, which is a fleeting pleasure, and comes at the cost of family and relationships.

There is only so much a government can do and much more an individual must do to find happiness.

The Bhutanese government does not in any way pretend to say it is a purveyor of happiness. ‘There it is — a little bit of happiness for you.’ We will make sure that your basic physical needs are met and intellectual development opportunities are given. Whether you are happy in the end is up to you and what you want to achieve in your life.

IPS: How do you convey this message?

JYT: We tell them family is important and whether you are happy or unhappy depends on whether you are surrounded by people who will laugh with you or cry with you in times of success or sorrow. Having people around to comfort you means you won’t find yourself jumping off the Brooklyn or the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridges.

IPS: How does Bhutan manage to navigate the neighbourhood? Your survival and success is at stake as you are sandwiched between two huge powers — China and India.

JYT: We have good relations with these countries…. We will meet them (officials of the two states) at the end of this year to negotiate our border disputes.

IPS: Please tell us about the reported discrimination of minorities in your country.

JYT: It’s a myth. Every Bhutanese has citizenship. We are an inclusive government and ethnic minorities have equality and justice. It has been done. Twenty-eight percent are of Nepalese extraction and many are elected to Bhutan’s National Assembly. Our cabinet of 10 ministers includes two (from a minority group).

IPS: Some critics are saying the Bhutanese are having a hard time adapting to the rapid changes in your country and there are now murders and suicides.

JYT: We only have about one, two or three suicides and a murder a year. But it was never reported before. Now we have a very active media for 650,000 people. It occupies the front pages…. It is newsworthy and is an important part of the media. I think it is good.

IPS: What is the situation of women in Bhutan?

JYT: There is gender equality. Women in Bhutan have few reasons to complain, both socially and politically. Because of our (mountainous) terrain, they suffer and have fallen behind. For example, there are only 14 women in parliament, but it will change to 30 percent (in the next election). I went down on my hands and knees to get them to run for office (last year).

The women outnumbered the men voters. When the European observers came, they were amazed by the number of active women in our gatherings.

IPS: What is your message to our readers?

JYT: The economic recession and the threats we face from climate change are problems that have been created by the way we live, consumerist-orientated, market-based GDP, (and) macroeconomic paradigm that we have been following. These stimulation packages will only lead to short-term solutions. We need long-term solutions.

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