It was a call whose time had come. The moment was epochal. The nation was one in body and soul. The royal proclamation came from the King of Bhutan as Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck addressed the nation from the Grand National Stadium at Changlimithang. The occasion was the historic 112th National Day of Bhutan.    

It was Druk Yul’s moment of truth, a call to look inward, a promise made to the future…

We marked every word of the royal address with awe and gratitude as His Majesty highlighted the compelling rationale for the introduction of the all-encompassing Gyal-Süng: Guardians of the Nation programme and detailed the strategy for its implementation. There was general acclaim and a palpable feeling of joy and relief in the multitude as the royal vision was shared with extraordinary clarity accompanied by a deep sense of urgency.

Come 2022 and all of Bhutan’s young men and women graduating from school will be enrolled in a year-long National Service programme under the auspices of Gyal-Süng. The first three months will involve intensive engagement with various aspects of military training and the next nine months will put the participants through practical training in different vocations of their choice including agriculture farming, business start-ups, information communication technology, industrial experience, socio-cultural immersion, team-work as well as other critical professional and personal enrichment opportunities.

The royal proclamation comes against the backdrop of a deeply inward-looking, culturally unique, geo-politically sensitive people’s experience of trying to find our place in the fast-globalising world. The long period of self-imposed isolation was a difficult experience but a wise policy. Our far-sighted monarchs ensured that with all the challenges that accompanied such a choice, it ensured the preservation of Bhutan’s unique identity, sovereignty and world-view as an independent nation.

Succeeding generations of our enlightened monarchs and dedicated citizens have worked hard to secure the well-being and continued progress of the country in all spheres of our national life, choosing our own unique vision of development even as we play our expanding role as a member of the global family of nations. 

With the conclusion of World War II and the independence of India, Bhutan was obliged to gently lift the veil and look around and beyond. The following decades were a period of rapid development in all sectors as dictated by the need for Bhutan to shape itself up into a progressive, modern nation-state. Becoming a member of the United Nations and other international and regional bodies, reforming and strengthening service delivery systems and infrastructure, decentralisation and democratisation of governance, leveraging the benefits of science and technology, and achieving the highest per capita income in the region while keeping our natural environment and age-old culture largely intact, and more, have propelled Bhutan into the 21st century and made it into an enviable success story.     

Thanks to the vision of our far-sighted People’s King, our young scientists have put Bhutan II into space and the country is poised to achieve greater heights in all domains of national life. A simple yak-herder in Bhutan’s high mountains or a farmer in a remote hamlet is able to connect with the rest of the world to negotiate the price of cordyceps or cardamom today. We have met most of our commitments as signatories to international conventions and greatly improved the quality of the life of our people now on the road to graduating to the coveted league of developing countries.

This is no ordinary feat for a landlocked country that till a few decades ago struggled to meet even the most basic needs of life.  

“The longest journey is the journey inward”, so said Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations long ago.  It is indeed a wise society that looks inward as it looks outward, returns to its soul to guide its role, and surveys the distance it has covered even as it examines the cost of its progress.  

It is in the nature of sheltered societies to often move much too fast once the gates are open and the horizons expand. While we take legitimate pride in the successes that the country has achieved within a remarkably short time, we owe it to ourselves and to the nation at large to reflect on the price that we might have paid as we launched on our journey. 

For one thing, as a people, we, Bhutanese, are quick to adjust and accommodate, adopt and adapt. This quality is to be admired especially in the social and technical domains. As it is, we befriend people easily and learn the technical quirks quickly. And, it brings us tremendous advantages. 

But as time changes and our people travel far and wide and explore the big world beyond, some of the vital elements that have held us together hitherto tend to come loose. We often become more comfortable in borrowed or adopted customs and costumes, habits of mind and display of mannerisms, and even neglect our vital links with the inner life of our society and the state.  

And, now with the advent of democracy, we often witness the manifestation of divisive and destructive impulses when the essential inner core of the new-found system is missing or dismissed. Families are often torn apart, neighbourhoods get fragmented, and citizens divided. As lower order impulses are invoked and questionable means adopted to achieve short-term ends, the deep core of the nation’s being gets hurt.

The objective life as well as the subjective self of the nation and indeed our public pronouncements and individual actions need to harmonise to instil confidence and trust in the citizens. The profound words of Bhutan’s King of Destiny, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, gifted to a group of us, young civil servants, during an audience years ago, come to mind: “Every Bhutanese must be a soldier – soldier not in the military sense, but soldier in the sense of discipline, dedication, and loyalty”.  

The revered King went further: “All Bhutanese must be professionals – every man, woman and child doing the best that they are capable of” – in all stations of life. “We should never allow our people to develop an orphan-mentality and expect the state to do everything for them”. 

“A small effort on the part of the people is far more important than a great deal done by the government”. This was the coronation message of the youngest king in the world in 1974.

Self-reliance and self-sufficiency, the integrity of a soldier, the excellence of all Bhutanese, these, and more, were to be the cornerstones of Bhutan’s security, peace and sovereignty.

The Gyal-Süng programme speaks directly to the heart of this profound royal wish. 

At a time when many houses in our villages remain locked, with a lot of our children and youth never having set foot in their parents’ native birthplaces, there is a growing disconnect between different  generations within the same family and ignorance about the geography and culture of one’s own country. 

Cases of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and general cynicism are a growing concern for a country that values the preciousness of all forms of life and considers human beings as milu rinpochhe. The negative impact of social media and mass advertising is already taking a toll on young people’s lives. 

The Gyal-Süng programme is, therefore, seen as a great moral rearmament and professional skilling effort to secure the personal, emotional, psychological, cultural, and occupational life of Bhutan’s youth and to strengthen the inner and outer spheres of the nation. It is a means to an end, not an end itself, and the end is a more harmonious, far prosperous, and happier Bhutan. 

A return to the country’s self, to an understanding of its inner life, an appreciation of its myriad sights and sounds and smells, a celebration of our diverse cultures and our history, a discovery of our many hamlets and valleys, our varied foods and drinks, our songs and dances, our games and sports, art and architecture, our rites and rituals, wonder and awe – these, and more – will constitute a transformative rite of passage as our youth discover themselves and the throbbing heart of our beloved country.   

The year-long Gyal-Süng programme will be a return to one’s true self in relation to the nation, an affirmation of one’s identity and a celebration of the collective life that we honour as Bhutan, our beloved home. Generations of positive, productive, and patriotic citizens whose lives are founded on the strength of their character and integrity will build a Bhutan that will be the envy of the world.

As I receive it, Gyal-Süng is a call to discover and affirm and to assert the best that we are capable of and to bring it to bear on the making of a Bhutan of our dreams, a nation that we will be proud to have been a part in building, and handing over with joy to the generation next. 

This path-breaking national project, born of fatherly love and royal vision, is a robust blue-print for a brave new Bhutan. Thank you, Your Majesty, for this timely intervention to bring Bhutan back home again, to secure its wandering soul.  

Contributed by Thakur S Powdyel

Former Minister of  Education