Posts tagged ‘Jigme Thinley’

In Bhutan, a Penn Stater is No Longer Prime Minister


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

August 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm 3 comments

For Penn Staters, Bhutan’s Elections Hold Special Interest


Bhutan’s elections commissioner, Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, visited with our group on our first night in the country.

Our Penn State group happened to visit Bhutan at a really interesting time: The country is in the midst of its national primary elections, in which voters will be choosing, among other elected officials, a prime minister. The current prime minister is well known to many Penn Staters: Jigme Thinley ’76g earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State, and the university has honored him as both an Alumni Fellow and a Distinguished Alumnus.

If you saw the 60 Minutes segment on Bhutan back in 2008, you saw Thinley talking about the country’s program of Gross National Happiness. I haven’t been successful in finding an online video of that 60 Minutes piece, but you can read a transcript here.

Actually, it’s not quite correct to call Thinley the current prime minister. The way it works in Bhutan, when the elections roll around, the current government steps down and an interim government is put in place for about three months. So Thinley is out of office while he seeks reelection.

Thinley isn’t the only Penn State connection to the Bhutanese elections. The guy in charge of the whole process—the country’s chief elections commissioner—is Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, and our group had the pleasure of spending an evening with him early in the trip.

The folks in the Alumni Association’s travel office invited Wangdi to our opening-night reception, and despite the fact that this has to be an incredibly busy time for him, he showed up. He sat in the hotel bar with us for an hour or so, munching on snacks and answering our questions about the elections.


Bhutan is a fascinating study because it’s relatively new to democracy. Starting back in 1907, the country was a monarchy, and there have been just five kings in its history—all part of the Wangchuck family, all called the “dragon kings,” and typically referred to simply as “the first king,” the “second king,” and so on.

As I understand it, it was the third king who, back in the 1950s, started transitioning Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, with the establishment of a National Assembly—akin to a Parliament. His son, the fourth king, formed a royal commission to study democracies around the world and pick the best elements of each. Just four years ago, that same fourth king abdicated the throne in favor of his 29-year-old son, in part to help accelerate the move toward a democracy. (Vanity Fair did an interesting article at the time on the coronation of the fifth king.)

In talking with Wangdi, the elections commissioner, we were struck by how much foresight and selflessness the kings had shown over the decades in realizing that their country would be better served by a democratic government than a monarchy. We also were impressed at how Bhutan had learned from other countries’ mistakes in creating its elections policy. The requirement that the incumbents step down at election time, for example, is based on the idea that you shouldn’t be trying to govern and campaign at the same time. And the government funds the elections in full, leaving no room for political action committees and their influence.


Jigme Thinley ’76g (third from left) is running for reelection as Bhutan’s prime minister.

You also don’t see the roadsides in Bhutan littered with campaign billboards and yard signs. Instead, every so often you come across an “Election Advertising Board” like the one shown here.

We loved the evening we spent with Wangdi and were so impressed that he took time to visit with us. As if that weren’t enough, on the last day of the trip we received a package from him—a box of Bhutanese gifts for us. A very nice touch.

As for Jigme Thinley, it obviously would have been cool to meet him as well, and my colleague Deborah Marron ’78, ’86g did some advance legwork starting last winter to see if she could get it arranged. But we were visiting the western part of Bhutan at a time when Thinley was campaigning over in the eastern part of the country—and, after spending a few days bumping along at 12 mph on those narrow Bhutanese roads, I fully understood why the distance made that impossible.

Bhutan’s primary election is just days away now—Friday, May 31—and it will narrow the field of prime minister candidates from four down to two, with the general election to follow in July. It’s safe to say that the Penn Staters on this trip will be keenly interested in the results.

Tina Hay, editor

May 27, 2013 at 10:29 am 1 comment

A Jam-Packed First Few Days in Bhutan


Greetings from Punakha, a city of about 30,000 in western Bhutan. It’s the former capital—Thimphu is now the capital—and is still the spiritual capital of the country. I’m a little fuzzy on what qualifies a city to be the spiritual capital, but I suspect I’ll have a better grip on that after we visit the dzong (kind of a combination of fortress/palace/monastery) later today.

Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve done in our first few days over here:

—visited a school where Bhutanese teenagers spend six years learning any of 13 handcrafts, such as woodcarving, painting, sculpture, and embroidery;

—visited a small factory where workers make paper by hand from the bark of the daphne plant;

—went to the post office to browse (and buy some of) the fancy stamps that Bhutan is famous for;

—eaten a lot of foods that I can’t pronounce, but that involve things like red rice, river grass soup, mustard oil, and green chiles;

—seen lots of Buddhist prayer flags and smelled so much incense I thought we were back in the ’60s; and

—hung out for an evening with the country’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80. 

I’ll share a few photos with you for now, and hope to update you more in a few days, when we get to a spot that has better wi-fi access. First, to give you a sense of the scenery, here’s what awaited us when we landed at Paro airport (Bhutan’s only international airport) the other day:


That’s an Airbus operated by Druk Air, the national—and only—airline of Bhutan. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can see that on the tail is the national flag, the emblem of a dragon.

Next, some of the students at the painting school. Check out the guy on the left—apparently the occasional bout of boredom in the classroom is a universal phenomenon:


Something we noticed from the moment we landed is how thoroughly Buddhist a country this is. Prayer flags are everywhere, and when we visited the Memorial Chorten (a large Buddhist shrine in Thimphu), you could see people like the guy below, walking around twirling their prayer wheels:


After a couple of days in the capital city of Thimphu, we headed off to the Punakha Valley, a three-hour ride over a bumpy, narrow, mountain road that is essentially the national highway. It’s the only road between Thimphu and parts east. Here’s a glimpse of what it looked like out the front windshield of our maxi-van:


By the way, people drive on the left side of the road over here.

After our stay here in Punakha, we head to a city called Gangtey, where we’re told the electricity will be a little hit-or-miss. I’m guessing that Internet access will be out of the question. Other than an upcoming post about the local currency, it may be a few days before I can post again. Talk to you then.

Tina Hay, editor

May 18, 2013 at 1:08 am 1 comment

Heading to Bhutan

Tigers Nest

The iconic Taktsang Monastery, better known as Tiger’s Nest, above Bhutan’s Paro Valley. We’ll hike to this sacred site (legs and lungs permitting) on the last day of the trip.

When I tell you that I’ll be leaving in less than a week for Bhutan, I’m guessing you’ll have one of two reactions: either “Where the heck is that?” or “I am sooooo jealous.”

Those have consistently been the responses I’ve gotten when I’ve told people that the Alumni Association has asked me to accompany a group of Penn State travelers on a tour called Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom. Some people, understandably, have barely ever heard of the place—it’s a small, landlocked Asian country, bounded on the north by Tibet and on all other sides by India. Others, though, know that its location in the Himalayas makes it a place of stunning beauty, and that its Buddhist history and culture make it a fascinating place to visit.


This map from gives you a good idea of where Bhutan is situated. (Click to view bigger.)

Bhutan has added interest to Penn Staters because its prime minister, Jigme Thinley ’76g, earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State. Thinley was featured in a 60 Minutes segment five years ago on Bhutan and its vision of “Gross National Happiness,” a concept puts such qualities as sustainability and cultural values ahead of economic development.

My colleagues in the Alumni Association who put this trip together (it’s one of about 30 or 40 trips they’re offering this year) had hopes that perhaps our group would be able to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Thinley. But as it turns out, he’ll be in the thick of campaigning for reelection at the time we’re over there, so we’re not holding out a huge amount of hope for a get-together. Interestingly, Bhutan’s chief election commissioner is also a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, who also has his MPA from our College of the Liberal Arts. We have possibly a better chance of meeting him, which would be pretty cool.

The trip involves visiting some of the country’s historic sites, including a lot of dzongs, or Buddhist monasteries. There’s also a rafting trip on the Mo Chu River near Punakha (that’s OK—I never heard of it either), a visit to a place where paper is made by hand, a visit to a center honoring the sacred and endangered black-necked crane, and a trip over the Dochula Pass, described this way on our tour itinerary:

Then we embark on the three-hour drive to the former capital of Punakha via the Dochula pass (alt. 10,000 feet), which affords stunning views of the Himalayas. We stop to follow the sacred tradition of raising prayer flags for peace and wisdom at Dochula, where the bracing winds will help spread the prayers’ spiritual power to all sentient beings.

Prayer flags at Dochula Pass.

Prayer flags at Dochula Pass.

The big finale of the trip is a hike up to Taktsang Monastery, also called the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That’s the building clinging to the side of the mountain in the photo at the top of this page. It’s a two-hour hike with a nearly 2,000-foot elevation gain, from about 7,500 feet to more than 10,200 feet. I’m currently trying to tame a bout of plantar fasciitis (heel pain), so between that and the altitude, this oughta be interesting. But I’m determined to hike to the top.

I may try to blog a bit from over there, as our schedule permits. I’ll be curious to see what kind of Internet access we have. There’s one place, for example, about which the itinerary says: “Phobjikha is slowly being electrified, though service can be highly inconsistent. Please be aware that the availability of both electricity and hot water may be limited during our stay.” Hmmm, what do you think are the chances they’ll have wi-fi?

Tina Hay, editor

May 6, 2013 at 8:39 pm 2 comments

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