Feb 2018 Bhutan


Bindhya Priesner has been away from home for 17 years now, but time has not dimmed her love and enthusiasm for her native land.

Her personal perspectives gave us numerous development achievements for Bhutan – a small nation squeezed strategically between India and China and with a population of just over 800,000.

In the 1960s there were only two doctors in the country and just 440 children were enrolled in 11 schools and there was a p.c.i. of just US$51 pa. Now roads criss-cross the nation and 32 hospitals with 203 doctors and 799 nurses look after the population’s health.  GDP is now US$2,440 per head and life expectancy is up from 38 in the 1960s to 69.8 yrs now.

This transformation has come about through a strong national will to maintain independence and cultural integrity.  Bhutan has always been determined not to be swallowed up by her larger neighbours – a fate known only too well to Tibet and Sikkim. Bhutan has never been colonised, probably largely due to its extreme mountainous terrain and allied limited access.

Theocracy was established back in the 1600s and the Bhutanese ‘Dalai Lamas’ led the nation for around 400 years.  A hereditary monarchy has been in place since 1907 and today that has moved to a constitutional monarchy.  The third King is viewed as the Father of modern Bhutan and made many reforms but still within a policy of self-imposed isolation for the country.  A national assembly was initiated in 1953, serfdom was abolished and the landless inherited land from the all powerful monasteries. The country is 70% Buddhist, 27% Hindu and 3% Christian.

In 1971 Bhutan joined the UN and declared itself to be self-reliant and happy.  This was the first appearance of Bhutan’s now famous philosophy of Gross National Happiness that has entranced the whole world and caused many nations to seek for the key to the happiness door from this tiny nation.

Bindhya told us the fourth King, who took over at the age of 17, said Bhutan wanted to have GNH not GNP.  GNH evolved from the country’s unique historical and geopolitical circumstances of almost medieval existence combined with geographical isolation. Bhutan has 20 peaks over 7,000 metres and is home to the highest untouched mountain in the world – no one is allowed to access it.

The GNH philosophy was crafted into four pillars which are:  good governance and self reliance, equitable social and human development based on education and health care, the preservation of culture and tradition and environmental preservation.

Druk Air, the national airline, opened in 1983 to help bring in tourists.  Previously they had only arrived in the late ‘70s by road from India.  Tourism is still very tightly controlled to avoid such a pure environment from being overrun as has occurred in many other parts of the world.

In 1998 the fourth King dismantled the Cabinet of Ministers and forced a change to democracy and self rule.  The role of Prime Minister was established and so the Monarchy drew back from direct rule to Head of State rather than Head of Government.

Today Bhutan is a country in transition with a growing population of 60% under the age of 34.  With improved infrastructure there are insufficient jobs in the underdeveloped private sector.  Rapid modernisation and reliance on hydro-electric power cause concern to development experts and  democracy is still in its infancy.

However the guiding principles of GNH: improved living standards, free education and health care for all, environmental protection, community vitality, work/life balance, psychological well-being, good governance and cultural resilience mean Bhutan is in a strong position to cope with its challenges.

In conclusion, Bindhya shared with us a childhood fairytale that all Bhutanese children grow up learning.  In summary it involved four animals:  an elephant, a monkey, a hare and a hornbill.  They are depicted as standing on each other’s shoulders – the elephant is planting seeds, on his back the monkey fertilises them, on his shoulders the hare protects the seeds and finally on his back the hornbill accesses the grown seeds and shares them.  The tale fosters the interdependence that Bhutan needs to survive and prosper.

And the power and impact of the GNH philosophy gives confidence that Bhutan will deal with its challenges and show the world an alternative way forward.

Our thanks indeed to Bindhya for her personal, vivid and loving account of her home country.



Melanie Bolland