Mr. Sonam Tobgye
Deputy Chief Program Officer
Office of the Prime Minister
Royal Government of Bhutan


Your Excellency Most Rev. Teodoro C. Bacani Jr., D.D., Bishop Emeritus, Rev. Fr. Elpidio Biliran, Jr., Rev. Fr. Solomon Jardinero, Msgr. Manuel Gabriel, Prof. Johnny Amora, Dir. Leila P. Areola, Mr. Rodne Galicha, Dr. Kazan Benigno S. Baluyot, Ms. Mayette Biliran, Program Director and Sr. Consulting Partner, SOARZM International Development Company, my dear friend, Mr. Zajel Joshua Biliran Bulawan, Operations Manager, SOARZM International Development Company; distinguished ladies and gentlemen, a warm good morning.

I am deeply honored to have been provided with this opportunity to share about The Kingdom of Bhutan and Gross National Happiness. Gross National Happiness, is commonly known as GNH in Bhutan. I must clarify that I am here only to share my personal thoughts and experiences as a citizen who lived all his life in a Kingdom where happiness is a serious business. For those of you who are wondering where on earth is Bhutan; Bhutan is a tiny remote kingdom, nestled high up in the Himalayas with China in the north and India to the south, east, and west. Bhutan is almost the size of Switzerland. Almost completely cut off for centuries, we have tried to let in some aspects of the outside world while fiercely guarding our ancient traditions. The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul, means “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and it only began to open up to outsiders as late as the 1970s.

Some interesting facts about the country: our entire population is only about 779,666 (PHCB Report 2017) which is about 15 times less the population of Metro Manila (12 million) and 136 times less the population of the Philippines (106 million, Population Pyramid Net 2019). The population density of Bhutan has been recorded at 21 people per sq km (World Bank 2016) compared to 42,857 people per sq km in Manila.

Well, this comparison only goes to put me and my fellow Bhutanese amongst the world’s highly “endangered” human species in the planet.

Bhutan, like any other developing country, faces all sorts of challenges. Our entire economy is barely $2 billion. I understand that the Filipino real-estate business tycoon Manuel Villar alone is worth $5.5 billion (Forbes, 2019).

Our unemployment rate is 2.5% but the youth unemployment rate is deeply concerning at 8% (State of the Nation Report, Bhutan, 2018). And, as mountain people, we seem to consume more alcohol than our friends living along the plains and in the islands. Alcohol is so popular and widely available in Bhutan that there is one alcohol outlet for 98 people. Banning production and consumption of alcohol may not be possible considering it has a special and inherent place in our culture.

By the way, our national sport is archery. It’s supposedly the only sport in the world where players are allowed to drink alcohol while playing. It is believed that drinking alcohol helps improve your shooting skills.

The ever-increasing population of stray dogs in Bhutan continues to be a national concern and the issue has been deliberated in our successive Parliament sessions. All sorts of intervention including nationwide sterilization programs have been implemented but the number of stray dogs would still continue to increase. The only option perhaps that we could now resort to would be mercy killing of the stray dogs. But any idea of killing is considered un-Buddhist and therefore would be shot down in flames by public outcry. Elections may be lost if the government of the day even float the idea of killing the animals.

Notwithstanding all such challenges, Bhutan is still considered to be a happy nation. Therefore, what is it that makes us different or rather a happier group of people?

The answer is clear and simple: it’s because we have the most benevolent King. His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is popularly known as the “People’s King” in Bhutan. Just as tall and good looking he is, our King is also highly revered by every single Bhutanese for his extraordinary statesmanship and farsighted leadership. Not only that, we have in fact, for the frst time in living history, the three generations of our Kings during the same period of time. The Fourth King voluntarily abdicated his Throne at the age of 53 in 2006, and already lives in quiet retirement since. In 2016, the whole nation was overjoyed with the birth of the Crown Prince who is now 3 years old. So, we have the Golden Era of the past, a happy present, and a secured future.

As I was mentioning over tea to his Excellency, the Bishop, our Kings are very special to the Bhutanese. Our Kings are special not because of their position but for the sacrifces they have made for the citizens of Bhutan. What we have today is all because of our Kings. By the way, our King, perhaps is the only monarch in the entire world who does not have a palace. Our King lives in a small wooden cottage. The King and his family live with people in villages, in the deep valleys where you have to walk for days and days and nights. The King lives, eats, and cooks with them.

It is for the continued benevolence of our Kings that Bhutan has Gross National Happiness.

Gross National Happiness in the simple words of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, is simply, development with values. Throughout modern history, societal progress has been measured in terms of GDP. The higher the GDP, the more developed a country; and there is, therefore, a mad rush for increasing GDP. Hence, over time, GDP has been seen as a surrogate for societal well-being. We are, as a country and as a planet, facing a number of urgent challenges. Natural disasters, food, fuel and fnancial crises, deepening poverty, failing states, dwindling water resource, social disruption, cultural disintegration, diseases, human trafcking, and even maritime lawlessness afict our society. And then there is terrorism and extremism of the most barbaric and cowardly kind.

Ladies and gentlemen, Bhutan does not look at these developments as separate disconnected events. Rather, we see them as directly interconnected symptoms of a larger and deeper malaise that threatens our collective well-being and survival. In the words of Former Prime Minister of Bhutan H.E. Jigmi Y. Thinley (2008), we need to treat the disease beyond the symptoms. And the disease, we believe, has to do with our way of life that is just not rational and sustainable. It is not difcult to see how all these crises are outcomes of a way of life that is dictated by greed and consumerism. Our life is all about fear of not having enough, about wanting more, and doing better than our neighbors and friends. Therefore, we spend and consume far beyond our means and those of generations unborn. As we go on expanding our economies by extracting natural resources, the climate is changing.

This brings us to the question, are our fundamentals sound? Is the GDP-led growth that has served as our measure of progress still relevant for the future? Isn’t it about time to shift our focus from wealth to well-being and draw on our values to develop a more holistic human-centric approach to societal progress and development?

Bhutan pursues a unique development approach guided by our former King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, The Great Fourth’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness as early as the 1970s. GNH is based on the belief that happiness is the single most important goal and purpose in life for every individual and that every development must be towards the attainment of happiness. It is the responsibility of the government, of the state to create an environment where the citizens have happiness. It is therefore the goal for balance between spiritual, psychological, and emotional needs of our body. It was the young King’s genuine concern for the well-being and happiness of his people that inspired him to come up with this noble development philosophy.

The Four Pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH)
1. Equitable Socioeconomic Development (not growth)
2. Promotion and Preservation of Culture
3. Conservation of Environment
4. Good Governance

These pillars are supported by a GNH screening tool. All projects in Bhutan have to go through the GNH Screening Tool. The GNH Policy Screening tool is managed by the Gross National Happiness Commission (planning commission). Any proposals for policy and program must be GNH positive or at least neutral. Yet still, how do we understand GNH?

Understanding GNH Through the Lens of Its Four Pillars:

Although a small landlocked economy, Bhutan has continued to stay committed to its core mission of GNH and therefore used our limited resources most carefully and judiciously. This can be better understood through the lens of the four pillars as provided below.

Pillar 1: Equitable Socioeconomic Development (not growth)

Bhutan is set to graduate from the Least Developed Country Category to the Middle-Income Group by the end of the current fve-year plan period. The GDP per capita as of 2017 is $3438, (NSB, 2018) which I believe is comparatively high in the region. We are one of the fastest growing economies—6.9% (IMF, 2017) in the world.

The State provides free healthcare to every citizen (Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan 2008). Medical consultation, medical treatment, medicines as well as referral to super specialty hospitals outside the country are all provided free by the State.

The State also provides free education to every child in the country from primary schools until colleges (Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan 2008). And the medium of instruction in all schools across the country is English. In addition to free education, we have boarding central schools provide uniform, delicious meals, textbooks, socks, and shoes. Youth Literacy rate is 93%, with 100% primary enrolment across the country (State of the Nation Report 2017).

Bhutan is set to generate 10,000 MW of clean and renewable run-of-theriver hydropower energy by 2020 against the installed capacity of 30,000 MW. We have 99.8% coverage of Rural Electrifcation, and electricity is free for rural households (State of the Nation Report 2017). This is a big deal for us because for a mountainous country, taking on-grid electricity to every house that is sparsely located on the mountain tops, across ridges, and in the valleys is both capital and labor intensive. Almost every community has access to mobile connectivity with 94% coverage (State of the Nation Report 2017). As a high-end tourist destination, Bhutan has been listed in the Top 17 Best Places to Visit by CNN in 2017.

Pillar 2: Promotion and Preservation of Culture

Bhutan was never colonized and had remained isolated from the outside world until 1970s. Therefore, our culture and tradition remain not only unique but also flourishing. We are also known as the only surviving Vajrayana (Buddhist) Kingdom, and therefore, our culture is closely intertwined with Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Bhutan has a mandatory national dress code. Men wear traditional, kneelength garments called Gho and women wear ankle-length dresses called Kira. By the way, thank you very much Ma’am Mayette for wearing our national dress. May I request you to come up the stage for people to see you.

This is the traditional coat—we wear this to the ofce every day; this is mandatory. Everybody wears it in Bhutan. By the way, this attire that I’m wearing is designed in such a way that it can withstand chilling mountain cold and I’m here trying to fght tropical summer heat.

We have been successful in preserving and promoting our unique architecture which is evident from the uniform design of structures across the country. This mountainous country doesn’t welcome mountaineers. Mountaineering has been banned in the country as a government policy since 1994 (BBC World) as the mountains are considered as sacred home of our deities that are worshipped by the locals. Hence, Bhutan has the highest unscaled mountain in the world—Gangkhar Puensum—at 7570 meters.

We do not have a celebrity culture. Celebrities are left to themselves. Therefore, many Hollywood celebrities who visit Bhutan must not only breathe our fresh mountain air but also sigh relief from paparazzi and “selfe” fans. For the Bhutanese, the top celebrity is the King.

Bhutanese have no surnames. It is based on a general belief that as human beings, we do not own anyone even if you had given birth. And therefore, it is an individual endeavor and choice to be a good human being—something you could neither inherit from your father nor pass down to your children.

Pillar 3: Conservation of Environment

Seventy-two point fve percent (72.5%) of our area is under pristine forest cover, as against the Constitutional requirement of 60% to be under forest cover for all times. Therefore, Bhutan is one of the 10 Biological Hotspots in the world (RSPN Bhutan).

In a world aficted by the vagaries of climate change, Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country. Our forests sequester more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide we generate, which makes us a net carbon sink for more than 4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year (Ted Talk 2016). So, inside our country, we are a net carbon sink. Outside, we are offsetting carbon (Ted Talk 2016).

We export clean renewable hydropower to India and offset about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide in our neighborhood each year. We are the only country with no trafc lights. The busiest trafc junction in the capital is managed by trafc cops. By the way, the trafc cop at this particular junction is quite a celebrity for our tourists. Sale and use of plastic bags are banned inthe country since 1999 (Government Notifcation 1999).

Pillar 4: Good Governance

Bhutan is ranked as the 25th least corrupt country in the world in the Transparency International Corruption index for 2019.

Democracy—Gift from the King

In a country that has enjoyed continuous justice, stability, and progress, democracy came not by the traditional way of struggle and violence nor did it come by the will of the people. Bhutan became a democracy by the persuasion and personal efforts of a King who worked consistently over 30 years to establish the prerequisites of a democratic culture and institutional arrangements. The King insisted that the destiny of the country must lie in the hands of the people themselves and not depend on a single individual. Bhutanese people accepted democracy not because of its inherent virtues but because we trusted our King (Jigmi Y. Thinley 2008). The Constitution of Bhutan mandates the retirement age for Politicians and the King at 65 years.30

All members of Parliament are required to have a minimum qualifcation of a bachelor’s degree.

The institution of monks is considered above politics, and therefore, monks do not vote, much less engage in politics or the elections.

Sale of tobacco and smoking in public places are illegal by law (Tobacco
Control Act of Bhutan 2010).

Bhutan strongly adheres to a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism (TCB website) which serves the purpose of creating exclusivity as well as keeping away mass tourism. Therefore, Bhutan is regarded as one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world and enjoys a reputation for authenticity, remoteness, and a well-protected cultural heritage and natural environment.

Therefore, if you wish to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila, breathe some mountain air and share local wine with the highly “endangered” human species on the planet, there is a hidden kingdom where happiness is a place.

Tashi Delek! Salamat Po! (Thank you!)