by Rinzin Wangchuk
THIMPHU, Bhutan: As countries across the world continue to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, a few including India and Germany are in search of a silver lining. Their quest let them to Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country dubbed as one of the happiest countries in the world.
Moderated by the journalist and the award winning writer, Gopilal Acharya from Bhutan, a group of renowned resource persons from Bhutan, Indian and Germany discussed the concept of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), it’s uniqueness and liberty in the light of Covid-19 pandemic.
In a recent online penal discussion on ‘liberty and happiness in Bhutan’ organised by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in New Delhi, India, Member of Parliament Passang Dorji (PhD) said international friends often referred Bhutan as the happiest country in the world. “Bhutan might not be the happiest country but a nation with happiness as its national goal,” he said.
MP Passang Dorji said it was also important to look at happiness from a constitutional point of view. “The state actually has a constitutional mandate to create enabling conditions for citizens to pursue happiness. That’s wonderful and we are proud of it,” he said.
Explaining the liberty, he cited nineteen-century British parliamentarian and philosopher who defined liberty as having individual choice, whatever it may be unless it harmed others.
Bhutanese Constitution, he said enshrined that every person had the right to liberty, life and also to pursue his/her happiness. However, the right to liberty cannot be exercised at the cost of others’ freedom and happiness. “Bhutan has a balanced constitution that promotes individual’s liberty and happiness while liberty for others are also respected at the same time.”
MP Passang Dorji, who is also a student of international politics, said that research has found that democratic countries had higher level of happiness than countries that were not democratic. “Bhutan, under the dynamic leadership of His Majesty The King, we have always enjoyed happiness. As a young democracy, we had three consecutive political parties ruling the country and that’s the greatest achievement that Bhutan has made in implementing the quality democracy,” he claimed.
He said that while pursuing Gross National Happiness (GNH), the country did not undermine the economic development. “We are saying, as a citizen, we must be able to balance the pursuit of spiritualism and materialism.” MP Passang Dorji explained that economy was a means to an end that was the happiness.
Fondly known as the Godfather of conservation of Bhutan, Dasho Paljor J Dorji said that when His Majesty the fourth King initially talked about GNH, it was about the country’s value system. He said that His Majesty’s message to the people was that the country would see development.
“Our lives are going to improve but we should never forget our value system; our family values, values for our elders and values for our religion,” he recalled that the fourth King had always cautioned on losing these values that cannot be bought back once lost.
Dasho Paljor J Dorji, who is popularly known as Benji, said, “We see GNH as a holy grail and very time we tried to close in, the grail drifted away farther. He said focuses, time and governments changed as the time passed”. “It’s alive because of these changes and it’s dead otherwise,” he said.
Dasho Benji reiterated his experience of people getting mixed up with individual happiness and national happiness. He said that as happiness cannot be measured, we look at it by a set of indicators. “The indicators like democracy for all, good governance, environmental governance and education for all pointing at the right direction meant we were heading in a right direction,” said Dasho Benji who is the special advisor to National Environment Commission of Bhutan.
One of the participants of the discussion asked if strict restrictions imposed on the people’s mobility and social behavior could mean depriving people of their liberty and happiness. The question demanded the speakers to explain how Bhutan has been able to balance individual liberty and public welfare while fighting the pandemic.
Responding to the question, MP Passang Dorji reiterated his view by saying that one could enjoy liberty only if the person respected the liberty of others. He said that given the current situation, the country is in problem and the nation must be placed before the individual.
“The regulations are enforced to protect ourselves from the virus through collective efforts and individual should come after the nation,” MP Passang Dorji said.
Dasho Paljor said Bhutan was successful in managing this pandemic because all of us listened to a single leader, The King. “To keep the country and public safe from the virus, everyone must obey the rules and protocols,” he added.
A senior columnist with the Hindustan Times and distinguished fellow of the Antana Aspen Centre shared about deteriorating Indo-China relationship and what it means to Bhutan which is located right in between the two giant powers. He said Bhutan must be very nimble in geo-politics to preserve freedom and happiness.
On the sidelines, the speakers also talked about Bhutan-German relations especially the diplomatic tie that was established last year. Dasho Benji said the two countries could realize this after a long wait. “I hope decision makers in the government would take Bhutan-German friendship ahead.”
A German politician (FDP) and a member of the German Bundestag, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, MdB said that Bhutan has agreed Germany set up honorary consulate office in Thimphu and Germany in recent years supported Bhutan in cultural preservation.
* Writer is Executive Member of SAARC Journalists Forum, SJF and President of Journalists Association of Bhutan, JAB