After years of no end in sight to the depressing national economic rhythm, the Gelephu project is like cold water to a parched throat. The fact that it is the brainchild of the fifth King is a cause for encouragement and renewed hope for the nation’s future.

Recently I was in the company of some acquaintances and talking about my favorite subject Buddhism when the conversation veered inevitably toward the Gelephu Mindfulness City project. In an instant the sky above cracked open and beams of opinions streamed in. Everyone present had a thing or two or three to say about it.

Like the similar situation I had unwittingly been in before, what stuck out was the general air of pessimism that colored the talk. Apparently the new Gelephu project is all we chat about these days and, it appears, away from the ears of the media, not necessarily optimistically. The concerns are perhaps understandable because a project of this scale has never been attempted before in our nation’s history.

But while I get the anxieties floating around it, I don’t get the sourness toward it. Armed with a thick chili sauce of guesswork, we seem to magnify its perceived weaknesses and traps and feed into a general public suspicion. Like holding someone’s feet to the fire before he’s even had the chance to perform his task. The crankiness toward the project has also distracted genuine debates.

Our economy, the lifeline of our nation, is in bardo, in the ICU if you like. It’s been there for quite sometime no matter how ministers in the past or politicians in the present like to exaggerate its robustness because it makes for a good story. It came undone when the Covid pandemic struck.

The much vaunted hydropower white gold that was supposed to catapult us to prosperity and everlasting happiness has not happened. Quite the opposite, it has shoved us down the rabbit hole of a crushing national debt and stands as a grim parable, a warning of what can come from our economic hubris.

Inflation is high and rising. Our currency’s purchasing power is low and falling. Investment and employment opportunities are scarce and the rich-poor gap is threatening to morph into a chasm. Responding against these shrinking horizons Bhutanese are leaving for foreign lands in droves while those stuck back home are staring at an empty glass.

Against this gloom and doom the Gelephu project has landed. The fact that the project is the brainchild of the fifth King and has taken it upon himself to see it to the finish line is a cause for encouragement and renewed hope for the nation’s future. It’s been a long time coming but finally there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

The dismal state of our economy has been the political and moral issue of our nation for a long time but no one had a solid idea what to do about it, the kind of solid ideas that are bold and swift and far reaching, not random quick fixes, which our dire economic situation called for — and which the fifth King has provided.

I doubt if our elected politicians could have done it. They tread so carefully and look so vulnerable to a gust of wind that the question of their toughness to come up with such bold ideas arise. Even if somehow a party were to come up with such ideas, it would be near impossible to fish them out of the cesspool of our tribal and agenda driven politics let alone see them through. Luckily for us, a King has no such handicaps.

With the Gelephu project the fifth King is offering the nation a way to come out of her economic limbo. He’s presenting a blueprint for remaking her economic identity. He is building for the nation a bridge to the 21st century and beyond. It is the boldest and the grandest and the most transformative vision as anything I’ve ever heard a leader lay out for his nation.

The era of agriculture and industrial production as the main economic drivers are in the history books. We live in an information age where innovation and creativity are the engines of economic growth. For innovation and creativity to work, however, it require hubs. The nation that can best provide an enabling environment for these hubs to bloom and thrive can make itself the crossroads to the world and as a result can bring in enormous economic and political gains.

After years of stagnation and no end in sight to the depressing national economic rhythm, the Gelephu project is like cold water to a parched throat. The reality that a small nation like Bhutan can dare to dream this big and can be challenged to change this extensively is mind-boggling .

I don’t expect the project to be a magic wand that’ll rid us of all our problems and for sure there will be roadblocks and setbacks along the way, but since the national day last year after the King broke the news I’ve gone to bed feeling secure and proud and for the first time in a long time optimistic about my kids’ future. The very image of the fifth King at the steering wheel of this project has provided me with immense affirmation.


The shift

Through his words and his actions, the fifth King has left no doubt that he means business, how he sees the nation’s problems, how he intends to fix them and the necessary sacrifices he’ll ask of us Bhutanese; his views shaped by years of touring the nation and seeing up close and personal her state of affairs.

Some of the national reforms the fifth King has pushed through in the run up to the Gelephu project have been astonishing and speaks volumes of his intimate and clear-eyed assessment of the nation’s obstacles to progress.

His decree on educational reforms have focussed the nation on our education system as never before. Our ministers and politicians have talked for years about the importance of education, but until the decree it has been lip service. The fifth King understands that the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens. He understands that the prosperity and security of our nation were at risk unless we drastically reverse years of our educational decline. Improving our nation’s education system will be a long hard road, but the fifth King has done far more than any other government leader in this area, arguably our single biggest national challenge.

The decree on civil service reform was another watershed moment. Our nation has long suffered from inertia, its vitality smothered by the bureaucracy and opacity of the civil service. The labyrinthine public administration system, painfully slow public service, open secret nepotism, ingrained corruption, mind-bending apathy, and various entitlement programs are some of the issues that have bedeviled our civil service and slowed our progress.

As a journalist for more than a decade and then as a private sector person for about the same duration, I’ve had the misfortune to experience these sufferings first-hand and no amount of writing or complaining about it changed it.

Call to such reforms will go to waste unless they lead to structural changes that break the system out of its business-as-usual loop. Which means the nation’s deeply structural productivity problem, decades in the making, will require tough and painful decisions to address them.

Putting our houses in order will be a long slog, but I’ve never in my wildest imagination thought I’d live to see such crucial reforms being actually implemented in our country much less a leader with a willingness to take such quick and bold actions even when it carried huge potential risks. Surely that’s among the most significant hallmarks of a great leadership.


The leadership

They say crisis test leadership like no other. It’s also in times of crisis leadership is the most easy to identify. Many fall short. But there are also those who rise to the moment demonstrating extraordinary sagacity, resolve and courage. We’ve witnessed it in the fourth King whose swift and decisive actions through the anti-national problem in the 80s and 90s and the Indian militant threat in the 90s and early 2000s helped fortify the security and the future of the nation.

A chip off the old block, we are witnessing the same mettle and resoluteness in our fifth King who at a time of complex national economic crisis is guiding the nation to the shores of firmer economic foundation and safety.

To bring about change, however, is never painless. Change can and often does hurt and understandably those that have been hurt or thought they were going to get hurt have reacted to it by migrating to greener pastures, adding to the number of Bhutanese who were already going there or were already out there.

But it’s not only our compatriots leaving the country who is hurting, the whole nation is hurting too, but I suspect our King is hurting more. Imagine taking care of a nation. Many of us can’t even take care of our own small family. He has to stand like a tree and even as he is dealing with the many behind-the-scenes heavy lifting required to bring about the change, he has to reassure a frightened, insecure and stricken population about the change. But being the empathetic and compassionate leader that he is, the fifth King has done just that and more. To him the big picture is never far from view.

That is why watching and hearing the fifth King speak so passionately about the Gelephu project during the national day celebration last year and a day after that at the project pre-unveiling meet with the private sector at the RUB was a singularly moving experience.

Not only did he soothe the fears of the people about the project but also spoke to their hopes by driving home the moral and existential urgency of the project and in turn lifted their spirits by appealing to their collective patience and sense of duty, and destiny. The King gave his people strength and also the comforting knowledge that he would always be there for them no matter what. It was a story the Bhutanese people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear.

I’ve seen no other Bhutanese leader who can move an audience quite like the fifth King can. This is because, I think, apart from his model of elegance and oratory he never sugarcoats the reality of our hardships or the tough road ahead of us. At no other time was this more evident than in 2022 when the King speaking at the parliament gave one of the most brutal and heartbreaking assessments of the nation’s economy in crisis through the story of 27-year-old Karma Dechen who toiled at a Thimphu cafe for a paltry pay to take care of her family of three.

The fifth King gives the nation the unvarnished truth because it’s a story that we Bhutanese need to hear to wake us up from our sandcastles and sleepwalking. And because he understands that the nation can only properly take aim at the future when it’s anchored within that truth.


The call to action

Future historians will write about the fifth King’s time on the Golden Throne as the era in which Bhutan took a huge step toward becoming the nation we aspire to be. By this time now, it shouldn’t be difficult for us to recognize that we have a very special King in our midst. That the Gelephu project is merely a sparkling extension of that extraordinariness.

Naturally, a change of this scale require overwhelming public backing. The King has asked for and expects our help. Let’s not allow temporary national ills to cloud our judgment and magnify perceived problems in ways that become self-fulfilling. The future belongs to our King’s expansive vision not to our narrow, backward-pointing lens.

In the Gelephu project, the fifth King has articulated a grand and inspiring vision for the next chapter of the Bhutanese story. In a first for a monarch, he has also pledged to lead the project, like a company CEO. Other leaders give speeches of stirring visions to their nations but leave the translating-it-into-reality part to their subordinates and typically that’s where their vision meets its end. But not our King. He understands all too well that to bring change in a culturally state dependent society like ours would require more than just inspiring words.

From such displays of assurance and leadership, the fifth King has made the national call to action to the Bhutanese people. He has asked each one of us to get involved to achieve the promise the project holds, not as children that need to be rescued but as partners who must share in the sacrifices. The king has asked us to stand with him and together build a stronger and better future for our children and our children’s children. The King has asked us to serve a cause greater than self-interest.

Long after we are gone when historians pick up their pens to write the story of the Gelephu Mindfulness City, let them say that it was our generation who answered the call of our King.


Contributed by

Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is the former editor of Kuensel and can be reached at