Interview: Dr. Karma Phuntsho

What prompted you to write this book?

The Bhutanese have a very great sense of belonging—and therefore a strong attachment to history and their origins. But most of the educated people in Bhutan are affiliated with the system and the government; they have more or less signed an agreement that only allows them to say certain things. So we get a very watered-down version of our history. I’m an independent academic so I have no obligations to abide by any particular version of history.

Are there concrete examples of how that history can inform the present?

A lot of people come with this naïve view of Bhutan: that it’s an isolated Shangri La that’s suddenly been exposed to democracy. In fact, democracy is deeply engrained here. The whole Buddhist system is very democratic, very egalitarian, almost republican. Buddhism doesn’t accept any virtue by birth; there’s no absolute power; you are an independent individual, free to choose your own course. It’s only the election system—of appointing a government—that’s new, and there are big powers at play. The Bhutanese are very shrewd and smart; but things beyond their control, like counting of the votes, mean there’s a risk of manipulation.

What about Gross National Happiness (GNH)—is it a helpful model for development?

To some extent it’s largely rhetoric. It’s a good vision to have; a high ideal. If it happens, then we ought to be optimistic. But I often find GNH comparable to communism. It sounds like a utopian idea: a fantastic ideal, but no one really practices or implements it.

Where do you think Bhutan’s future lies?

We can’t just be isolated like we were 100 years ago. But we’ve become excessively and unnecessarily dependent on India; partly fuelled by the illusion that we cannot exist without Indian support, though that history only goes back 100 years. I’d rather choose to keep India as a very good friend, but pursue multilateral relationships.