In Bhutan, a Penn Stater is No Longer Prime Minister

August 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm 3 comments


The reelection poster for former Bhutanese prime minister Jigmi Thinley ’76g.

There’s nothing like traveling abroad to make you more aware of culture and politics in different parts of the world. And I experienced that in a big way this year—not just when I traveled with a group of Penn Staters to Bhutan, but after we got back as well.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the highlights of our trip was the chance to meet Bhutan’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater.  The Alumni Association had invited Kunzang Wangdi ’80g to the Penn State reception at our hotel in the capital city of Thimphu, and even though he had to have been up to his eyeballs with work—the national primary elections were about 10 days away at that point—he showed up. It was a fun and thought-provoking evening, as we peppered him with questions about his country’s very young democracy and also got to hear a bit about his time as a grad student at Penn State.

The election was also of special interest to us because Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister—another Penn Stater, Jigmi Thinley ’76g—was up for reelection. Wangdi knows Thinley, as you might imagine; they each earned a master’s of public administration degree under Robert LaPorte at Penn State, and Wangdi worked for Thinley in the Bhutanese government at one time.

I remember Wangdi telling us (as did our travel director from Odysseys Unlimited, Yeshey Wangchuk, who lives in Bhutan) that Thinley might be vulnerable—that his reelection was not a sure thing by any means. And they proved to be right: Although Thinley’s party was one of two to survive the May 31 primaries, it was ousted fairly decisively in the July 13 general election. Thinley is no longer the prime minister; instead, he’s now the head of the opposition party.

It made me want to find out more: How could Thinley, who was so well known internationally as an ambassador of “Gross National Happiness,” who had appeared in a CBS 60 Minutes segment about his charming little nation, have been tossed out of office? The answers turn out to be pretty interesting.

From what I’ve been able to read, I get the impression that Thinley’s efforts to put Bhutan on the map internationally, and especially his globe-trotting advocacy for the concept of Gross National Happiness (that sustainability, fulfillment, and other ideals trump commercial growth), didn’t play so well back home. Although Bhutan has done well economically under Thinley, the country has also struggled at times with debt, unemployment, and government corruption—so much so that, according to the BBC, some Bhutanese sarcastically refer to GNH as “Government Needs Help.” That’s not a phrase we ever heard in the course of our 10 days over there, but then again, the locals in any country always put their best foot forward for the tourists, so who knows.

New prime minister Tshering Tobgay says he doesn’t plan to promote Gross National Happiness to other countries the way Thinley did. But Thinley’s work will likely live on: The United Nations now promotes an International Day of Happiness every March, and according to an excellent profile of Thinley in Asia Times, world leaders will gather in Thimphu next June to adopt a New Bretton Woods agreement, further cementing the importance of a happy citizenry in each nation’s economic goals.

The other factor that appears to have hurt Thinley in his reelection bid was an interesting foreign policy move he made in June of 2012. Bhutan’s geographic location is strategically important because it lies right between two rival countries—India and China—and for years Bhutan has been more closely allied with the former than the latter. Bhutan and India signed a friendship treaty in 1947 stipulating that India wouldn’t interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs, but that Bhutan would look to India for advice on foreign policy. So when Thinley went last year to Rio+20, a UN conference on sustainable development, and met with China’s premier Wen Jiabao while there, India was not pleased. And, when India discontinued its oil and kerosene subsidies to Bhutan right in the middle of the national elections this year, some observers think it was a calculated move to weaken the electorate’s support for Thinley. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear from reading stories in India-based news media that that country is happy to see Thinley gone. See for example the story called “India Breathes Sigh of Relief as with Elections, Bhutan Returns to the ‘Fold.’

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what Thinley—whom Penn State has honored as both a Distinguished Alumnus and an Alumni Fellow—will do next. Earlier this week, he resigned from the country’s parliament, and I haven’t been able to figure out what that’s about. (I didn’t even realize that a prime minister could also serve in the parliament.) I’ve set a Google Alert to his name, so I’ll be able to find out what the next chapter in his career will bring.

Tina Hay, editor

Entry filed under: Alumni. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sanjay  |  August 15, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Thinley is among finest and illustrious of Bhutan’s sons. People at home in Bhutan not being very happy with his GNH work internationally is only a view of a minority who would have been happy to see him off. The current ruling party has been rather shrewd at playing on the India factor, and indeed getting Indian government play an active role in swinging the election outcomes. Sadly, it is Bhutan’s loss that Thinley will no longer be playing a role in its governance.

  • 2. Tina Hay  |  August 15, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Sanjay, thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from someone with knowledge of the situation, as I’m just an outsider who happened to visit Bhutan for 10 days. It’s interesting to hear your comment about the India factor, as I was really struck by the anti-Thinley point of view I saw repeatedly in India-based media. –Tina

  • 3. Jo Lantz Prostko  |  August 15, 2013 at 9:48 am

    This post is just another reason to appreciate The Penn Stater, its staff and readers. International insider stuff…love it! We are…

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