Former FT journalist recalls first extended interview with His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo on the subject 

Conference:  When Bhutan’s modernization began in the 1970s, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo began to make public pronouncements about happiness, contentment, and wellbeing.

By 1979, His Majesty began speaking about Gross National Happiness, not only to Bhutanese but journalists as well.

While His Majesty spoke briefly about GNH to a few journalists, it is with John Elliot, a former Financial Times of London journalist, to whom His Majesty spoke at length on the subject in 1987.

On the first day of the international GNH conference taking place in Paro, yesterday, the former journalist revealed that he had found the notebook used for the interview. He shared his notes with the audience.

Elliot pointed out that the first time His Majesty had referred to GNH was in 1979 in Bombay, now referred to as Mumbai. His Majesty was returning from Havana in Cuba after attending the Non-Aligned Summit. An Indian journalist asked His Majesty about Bhutan’s status as a poor country. His Majesty had replied that instead of focusing on Gross National Product (GNP), it might be more useful to measure GNH instead, Elliot said.

The next brief mention of GNH by His Majesty occurred in 1980, when a New York Times correspondent, Michael T Kaufman, visited Bhutan, Elliot said.

John Elliot interviewed His Majesty in April 1987. He was serving as the foreign correspondent for the Financial Times of London in New Delhi then. He had received an invitation, which he described as “extremely rare” from then foreign minister, Lyonpo Dawa Tshering.

John Elliot said that His Majesty spoke about his dreams and hopes for GNH in the interview. The journalist also saw that His Majesty, then aged 32, had realized a few years earlier the enormous challenge of being in charge of a small secluded nation in a time of great international change, and also aware of how some other countries had got it wrong.

“My interview was the first time that (His Majesty) had spoken at length about this with any reporter as I discovered when I came back to Bhutan in 2011 on my first return visit,” Elliot said. “By then I discovered that my article which had appeared in May 1987 in the Financial Times is regarded here as a significant piece of historical record.”

John Elliot narrated direct quotes from the interview.

“The priority, (His Majesty) said, is not so much development as is creating very efficient, very strong, very clean, dynamic government, that is the most important factor,” Elliot said. “(His Majesty) said that right at the start of the interview, it’s was the first thing (His Majesty) said,” Elliot added.

“(His Majesty) said Bhutan needed a smaller government,” Elliot said, adding that His Majesty had pointed out that Bhutan had 13,889 civil servants then. His Majesty planned to reduce that number by a minimum of 2,000 that year, Elliot said.

His Majesty described the task as a “very painful job and also very sensitive”, Elliot said.

His Majesty also spoke to the journalist about Bhutan’s modernization.

“Whether we take five years or 10 years to raise the per capita income, and increase prosperity, it is not going to guarantee their happiness, a lot of things go into it including political stability and social harmony, and the Bhutanese way of life, as well as economic development,” His Majesty told Elliot.

“We’ve seen many countries which have done economically very well, but none, which as a modern society have kept a strong tradition and culture, we’ve seen examples of cultures being eroded, with extreme modernization,” His Majesty added.

His Majesty told Elliot that Bhutan sought to modernize but with a Bhutanese system and culture in place alongside.

“I think we can do it, we have to do it, if we’re to have GNH and a quality of life that is good for the Bhutanese people, we can do it because we’ve a small population, endowed with great mineral and other natural resources,” His Majesty said to Elliot.

John Elliot pointed out that His Majesty was also clamping down on corruption at the time and sought to make the civil service commission “very strong morally and technically” Elliot added.

His Majesty explained to Elliot that the level of corruption, when compared to other developing countries, was not serious but that in Bhutan’s context, it was.

His Majesty told Elliot that corruption was rare before development began in the 1960s but that it was appearing in the government, even down to the local government level.

“It has to be curbed immediately,” His Majesty said to Elliot.

A new problem Bhutan was facing then was the theft of Bhutanese religious items and antiques from monasteries and village homes, which were then sold in Darjeeling and Nepal, Elliot said.

“That was unthinkable, 10 or 14 years ago, because it’s sacrilegious,” His Majesty said to Elliot.

His Majesty spoke about Bhutan’s search for the right political system.

“We’re looking for the right system, we have no hang ups or restrictions, we have today, in the palms of our hands, the chance to mold any system, which will help us face challenges,” His Majesty told Elliot.

Gyalsten K Dorji