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Most Bhutanese People Preferred Life Without Democracy, Prime Minister Tells VICE News

The reclusive Asian nation emphasizes Gross National Happiness over GDP, but PM Tshering Tobgay said that this shouldn't be at the expense of development, and he doesn't mind Starbucks.
Photo by Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Bhutan is famous for its emphasis on Gross National Happiness over GDP — which some say masks a darker reality — but the reclusive and tiny Asian kingdom is fast being forced to embrace the wider world.

The last country globally to introduce television in 1999, following decades of tight media restrictions — Bhutan is finally opening its doors, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay told VICE News.

"We are open for business but we are open for only businesses that are clean and green and sustainable, and share in the values and ideals of Bhutan," he said.


Tobgay met VICE News in Brussels where he was attending a European Union development event — the first visit by a Bhutanese prime minister to the European Union and a "big honor," he said.

He claimed that Bhutan — which has historically had very limited religious freedom, and during the 1990s persecuted and expelled its ethnic Nepali minority and has refused to ever let them back in — was now a fully functioning democracy where freedom of speech was readily exercised.

In 16 years, the country has gone from legalizing television to embracing pervasive social media, a development which Tobgay said he welcomed. "I think it has given us access to the world, and given us unprecedented access to one another. All good things," he said.

The country only recently transitioned to a democracy, holding its first general election in 2008, and Tobgay has been prime minister since 2013.

He said Bhutan's democracy had "unique characteristics — the first one being we didn't have to fight for it, it was given to us by the king. The second being that people didn't want democracy and the king had to force us to have democracy. So in some ways hiccups, but in some ways these are characteristics that are very unique and special to Bhutan."

He added that Bhutan's multi-party democracy was not accustomed to disagreements. "Political parties were formed not to fight or put forward any particular interest or ideology, but because we were told that we have to make democracy work and therefore we have to have political parties. We have a system where political parties are not very ideologically different."


Many Bhutanese citizens actually preferred life before democracy, according to Tobgay. "The public, most of the people expected democracy to be worse than monarchy — the earlier form of monarchy, earlier form of government — and most people feel that their fears have come to bear," he said. "That democracy is not as good as the enlightened monarchy that we had. So it's quite different. Otherwise there's no hiccups."

The constitution also cements the need to strive towards the country's Gross National Happiness. "We don't even need to emphasize Gross National Happiness because we take it for granted," Tobgay said. "However, it is our responsibility to ensure that the high ideals and principles of Gross National Happiness are implemented. It is the responsibility of the government in particular, but also the responsibility of all our citizens to nurture the ideals of Gross National Happiness."

A 2010 survey — the most recent of its kind — found that only 41 percent of Bhutanese citizens could actually be classified as "happy."

In response to further questioning, Tobgay elaborated by saying that happiness was an ideal, and one that shouldn't come at the expense of the economy. "The idea of Gross National Happiness is not just expressing happiness, being happy as it were. It is to provide opportunity, include society, to provide hope, to grow, and to provide a balance. It's a holistic approach to development. A balance between material growth and the overall growth — including spiritual growth — of the person.


"Can a poor person be happy?" he continued. "It depends from person to person. But I would seriously doubt anybody would want to be poor, so you fight poverty regardless. Even if a poor person says he's happy, you fight poverty."

While happiness was important, he added, pursuing it didn't mean disregarding everything else — including industry. "Unless you have a strong economy you can't do everything else, you can't take care of everything else you consider important," he said. "In Bhutan, the fight against poverty is important, conserving our environment is important, taking care of our culture is important, ensuring that all people have access to free education and free healthcare is important, so none of this is going to be possible unless you have a good firm economy as a platform to achieve all the other goals."

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More recently, an issue highlighted with increasing regularity is the problem of people trafficking. In 2014, the US government labeled Bhutan as a country vulnerable to human trafficking, and suggested that while the government was making some efforts to combat it, these were being choked by their "denial" of the issue. On Monday this week, the Times of India published an article saying that Bhutan was becoming a "center for trafficking" after nearby Nepal.

Tobgay said that he had seen the most recent newspaper report, but couldn't verify its claims, and apparently was not aware of the US allegation. "I actually don't know because I just read about it in the newspaper, so I need to study whether that merits any attention or not," he told VICE News. "The headlines merit huge attention, but now we have to see whether it's true or whether it's just blown out of proportion."


Bhutan has historically been very strict about what cultural influences were allowed — to the extent that local dress was once compulsory for residents — part of a strategy to suppress ethnic minorities, according to rights groups. Tobgay himself wears a gho — a colorful knee-length robe tied at the waist. Is the globalization that comes with a more open country perceived as a threat? Tobgay said no. "Culture is organic. It must evolve. It's not static. So yes, things should change. And things must change. But values and ideals will hopefully be constant."

He added: "English was introduced as the medium of instruction before the first motor road was built in Bhutan, and you don't get any more global than the English language. So if we've survived that we should be concerned, but not overly concerned. We should be concerned, but we have the experience to be confident."

As to whether they'll be allowing multinational chains like Starbucks or McDonalds to enter, Tobgay said that really depended on the will of the people.

"I personally don't see why you have to have Starbucks, but I also think if Starbucks is there, you enjoy good coffee. Starbucks is not going to determine whether we are succeeding or not. It depends on the people. But just because you don't have Starbucks doesn't mean you are Shangri-La, and just because we have Starbucks and McDonalds doesn't make us economically successful or a failure."

"Given my own opportunity I have my own mocha," he added. "You know the Italian percolator? But if I'm outside I will have some Starbucks coffee also. I'm influenced by anything that's good."

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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd