Bhutan: Happy grow lucky

THE national sales pitch of Bhutan sounds oddly boastful for a shy mountain kingdom. “Happiness is a place,” it declares. But for the numerologically obsessed citizens of this Switzerland-sized country squashed between India and China, happiness may also be a time. This year happens to be not only the 400th anniversary of Bhutan’s creation as an independent state, but also the most auspicious point in the 60-year cycle of Bhutanese astrology: the Year of the Fire Male Monkey marks the birth anniversary of the country’s patron saint, Guru Rinpoche, a powerful 8th-century mystic who conquered demons and spread Buddhism across the Himalayas.


This year also began with the best of news for the 750,000 Bhutanese: the birth of a male heir to Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, the fifth in the line of Druk Gyalpos or Dragon Kings. Loyal subjects, which is to say just about everyone, now beam that they have not one but three kings: the reigning monarch, who is 36, his baby son Jigme Namgyel, and also the fourth king, Jigme Singye. The king-father, as he is known, ruled the country for 34 years, gently steering Bhutan out of isolation and towards democracy before his abdication in 2006. Still hugely popular, the 60-year-old ex-king lives in a modest house outside the capital, Thimphu, visits his children and grandchildren by four wives (who happen to be sisters) and is occasionally spotted cycling along country roads.

Outside Bhutan the fourth king is best known for his institution, in the 1970s, of Gross National Happiness as a measure for national achievement. Despite the government’s best intentions, improving GNH remains a vague goal. Yet by more pedestrian measures Bhutan is doing very well. The Asian Development Bank expects GDP to grow by 6.4% this year. For a country that had no secular schools before the 1950s, no paved roads before 1961, no commercial airport before 1983 and no television, internet or mobile-phone network before 1999, the progress is striking. Infant mortality has halved since 2000 and poverty fallen by 90%. Incomes have tripled and the spotless capital, where one in five Bhutanese now lives, buzzes with new cars and new buildings that are, without exception, painstakingly adorned with mythical symbols to ward off evil. To know whether a day is auspicious, Bhutanese now consult not monks but smartphone apps or the state broadcaster’s website.

Whatever the stars say, Bhutan’s fortune also hinges on the whims of its twin neighbours and their 2.5 billion people. Fearful of China, India has long subsidised Bhutan’s budget. The country’s biggest export, hydroelectric power, relies on Indian capital and demand. The Indian army builds Bhutan’s roads; its “training camps” block possible Chinese invasion routes. But a more likely invasion is of tourists. Chinese already make up 20% of Bhutan’s visitors; from their smoky cities its green hills look tempting indeed.

Source: The Economist

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