I would like to remind our youth that television and Internet provide a whole range of possibilities that can be both beneficial as well as detrimental for the individual and the society. I trust that you will exercise your good sense and judgment in using the Internet and television.
– His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Silver Jubilee Celebrations, 2 June 1999
Communication: This is a story of Drukyul’s past. This is a present narrative of god’s chosen land of Gross National Happiness. This is a saga of Bhutan’s achievement in the area of communications systems. This is a chronicle of change that a nation saw since it woke up from a long slumber in the cloistered peace of self-imposed isolation.
Evolution takes time and it comes on its own terms. For Bhutan, the way it came has a special narrative that weaves into the history of the country’s march to progress. The scattered and independent regions of the country had their own lords, lacks and laws. Yet there was the desire for more effective and wholesome union of head and heart, for the world beyond had started to assert and affirm their will and power on nations weak and small. Change was at Bhutan’s doorstep.
The visionary leaders of the country realised early on that the country could achieve little if its communications systems were not strong enough. The days of the legendary postal runners who were able to walk from Punakha to Trongsa and back in one day had long gone. Thus, modern telecommunications was introduced in Bhutan on November 17, 1991, with the opening of the first public telephone booth in the heart of Thimphu town.
The first facsimile service was established a few weeks later. Communities no longer sent smoke signals to pass important messages.
Sixty-two-year-old Ugyen Tenzin shared with the people of Thimphu how communications systems developed in the country over the years. When he started as a postal runner in Lingzhi in 1976, his salary was Nu 217. He would have to carry official letters and salary of government officials, crossing torrential rivers and dense forests.
“Those were dangerous times. Animals didn’t bother me so much. I was more afraid of robbers. In the line of work I was in, failure would have ended in behind the bars,” said the little man. At the launch of Postal Museum in Thimphu this week, Ugyen Tenzin was recognised for his long and dedicated service for the country.
The modern postal network in Bhutan started in 1962 with the opening of the first post office in Phuentsholing. In the same year, two post offices were established in Thimphu and Paro. This opened the country to the world beyond. Gross National Happiness, which gave the country an international face, came much later. The world then knew Bhutan as the land of beautiful stamps. Bhutan became a member of the Universal Postal Union in 1969. Fourteen years later, in 1983, Bhutan became a member of the Asian Pacific Postal Union.
Since then, the development of communications systems has given Bhutan its right of place in the world, defining and solidifying its sovereignty and soul.
Telecommunications received a major boost in 1999 with the launch of Internet and television. This was a major stride that a reclusive country took in its development history. A year later, Bhutan initiated the first telemedicine project in 2000 between Mongar Regional General Hospital and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital. Three years later, the country launched the first mobile communication service. Today, Bhutan has four licensed Internet Service Providers and the country has achieved access of Internet to 40.9 percent of the population. Fibre optic cables have reached 20 districts and 187 gewogs.
This is a significant achievement for a country that aspires to be an ICT-enabled knowledge-based society. Today, Bhutan Post’s network comprises 89 outlets, including two General Post Offices and 17 Post Offices. In July 1993, International Express Mail Service (EMS) was introduced in the country. Money order services were improved with the introduction of Facsimile Money Order for Bhutan and Express Money Order (EMO) for exchange with India. In 1997, Bhutan Post set up a transport network, carrying both passengers and mails.
Communications systems have develop by much since official letters were carried by runners known as garps, who were selected by the King, or regional chieftains, based on qualities such as speed, power of memory (messages often being verbal), clarity of speech, and being trustworthy.
Email, WeChat and Facebook have now replaced the role of garps. This is the story of change. This is the story of a nation’s success. Bhutan Post celebrated this success this week with the opening of Bhutan Postal Museum in Thimphu.