On the eve of the official visit of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to Bhutan, I reproduce a blog entry I made six year ago when His Majesty the King visited Bangladesh as the Chief Guest for their most important 40th Anniversary of Independence. The article was carried by the national newspaper, the Daily Star, back then.
Dhaka – March 28, 2011 – I must be honest. In the past when I came across Bangladeshis mentioning that Bhutan was the first country to recognise them in 1971, it never occurred to me that it meant so much to them. I would just smile and give a standard reply. It was only this time, accompanying His Majesty to their 40th Independence celebrations, that I realised the genuineness of their historic claim.
On 26th March in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence from West Pakistan. Bangladesh was till then referred to as East Pakistan and ruled from Islamabad following the Partisan in 1947. Some nine months of bloodshed ensued where over three million people were killed and over ten million displaced.
40 years on, the scars of that liberation war remain deep. The mere mention of their freedom struggle brings back painful memories to many. There is not a single person in Bangladesh, whose life has not been affected by that tragic period. Once this context is clear, one then understands the deeper meaning of Bhutan’s action in their defining moment.
The show of gratitude towards Bhutan was overwhelming. On 26th March 2011, when our King, who was the Guest of Honour, entered the National Stadium, the entire crowd cheered. When Premier Sheikh Hasina, in her Address to the Nation, told the people that they should never forget what Bhutan has done for them, the entire stadium applauded again. Everywhere we went people lined up in thousands to greet our King. The Airport and every street where the Royal Entourage passed were locked for few hours. Our hosts and the hotel staff did everything to make sure we were well taken care. Every little detail was worked out meticulously. A café manager in the hotel where we were staying even offered free espresso to me every morning. “How many times would your King visit us anyway? It is on the house,” He said with pride and gratitude.
Apart from enjoying free espressos and official receptions I couldn’t help but also develop a great sense of respect and appreciation for Bangladesh and for the wonderful people there. In every media report I had come across in the past, Bangladesh was considered a young, poor, over-populated and a disaster-prone country. I now have a different view. I see a nation of 160 million with centuries of history and with a great future. A beautiful country with humble and hard-working people who can build ships and satellites and not just ready-made garments and jute carpets.
Bhutan’s support for Bangladesh in 1971 was historic. As Bhutanese I felt proud of the visionary move by our Third Druk Gyalpo. The Late King went to great length to also help the refugees that poured into India. To add to that, His Majesty the King, in his State Banquet speech this time, offered “a life-long friendship and steadfast support to the government and people of Bangladesh.” It is obvious that Bhutan would always find a friend, ally and good neighbour in Bangladesh. Such developments augur well not only for the people of Bhutan and Bangladesh but also for the peace, stability and prosperity in our region.
We should now work towards nurturing this special relationship so that the mutual trust, goodwill and confidence would translate into actions and benefits for our two people for all time to come.
(PS – the original blog entry is here http://dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com/2011/04/memories-of-bangladesh.html)
Royal birthdays should be celebrated as a day of togetherness and as a reiteration of one’s commitment towards one’s country. The irreversible journey that we have undertaken in democracy will keep us divided more and more. It is only in the institution of monarchy that we will be united towards a common dream, goal and aspiration.
My father was one of Bhutan’s first drivers. In fact he had the License No. 4. He was a royal chauffeur for few years before he was sent to the newly established Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) in 1966. In the seventies I spent my childhood school holidays taking free rides with him.
Since his black-coloured BGTS truck was one of the very few vehicles plying on the “highway” (sometimes the only vehicle on the road that day), my father would stop for everyone seeking a ride. After a while the truck would be brimming beyond its capacity that some passengers would protest, “There is no space, driver sahib. Don’t stop!” My father would pull his head out of the driver’s cabin and shout back, “Let them on board, as we move ahead you will all fit in.”
No one dare challenge him. BGTS drivers were very powerful guys those days. As the new entrants climbed on board and before they could settle in properly my father would mischievously zoom off. People would tumble on each other. There would be laughter. There would be laments. There were screams. Someone has his legs trapped while another has lost his slippers. There would also be some discussions over some extra spaces someone is occupying. Everyone would cooperate and slowly things would settle down. The journey would continue.
The rides were long and hazardous. The roads were narrow and slippery. Sometimes landslides and boulders would have blocked the way. Men would jump out and start clearing them with bare hands. While they worked, women would pull out the lunch packs and ara and zow. An ad hoc picnic would be spread on the road itself. Everyone shared or would be invited to eat and drink. The journey would resume. The progress was always slow. Night fell midway into the journey. It was scary. My father would be more focused. To his aid, someone would start chanting a prayer. Everyone would join in. We always got to the end of the journey. Safe and sound, as a cliché goes.
On 5th February we celebrated the first anniversary of the birth of HRH Gyalsay. I did onboard Bhutan Airlines bound for Bangkok. There was the inflight announcement wishing him “Happy Birthday”. Cakes were served. But for me such days, and birthdays in general, are also a time for serious reflection.
Our country has embarked on a journey – the journey of democracy. Notwithstanding the challenges, the ride has been relatively smooth so far. Other countries have gone through much rougher times.
Still, living abroad these days (I am doing my doctoral studies in Macau), I do catch up with my friends when I am back to Thimphu. Between some bar talks here and some whispers there, I am often confronted with laments and lauds, hopes and fear, screams and applauses.
The first defamation suit against a journalist has been withdrawn. A puzzling sigh of relief can be felt in the industry. Its impact will be there for long – or forever. A feature film has been denied certification. Those affected are screaming against invasion into their creativity and against curtailment to the freedom of expression. Some people claim that their feet have been stamped while others feel that their legs are trapped. Reactions are, far too often, knee-jerk.
For me, we are all going through a process – and a steep learning curve. As the truck of our democracy safely negotiate the muddy bends and shake a bit, everyone will ultimately find a space. However, we should never stop dreaming or working towards a better future or system – or prevent or scorn at someone who is doing that. No system is perfect and no laws are cast on stones. We should accept that they are created by imperfect human beings. There will always be room for improvement.
The mass is getting more vocal. New technological platforms are providing unlimited access to information and news to everyone. The so-called digital divide is now a passé. Even my illiterate sister is heavily on WeChat. Information is not a monopoly of the few. New political parties are in the offing. The overall progress is slow – but we are progressing nevertheless. The old power centres, such as the bureaucracy, are figuring out where they stand in the new era. Others who are too old to climb on to the truck will be left behind.
Where we really need to stop is to claim that the grass is green only on the other side. We can take inspirations and best practices from others. I don’t argue with that. But scrolling through facebook pictures of our compatriots standing in front of high-rise buildings and exotic shopping malls in foreign lands, many of us seem to fantasize that everything is messy in Bhutan while it is perfect ‘out there’. We give up too easily. Or we resign to any issue with a popular phrase, pha lay pha (meaning ‘out there in a foreign land’). We say (and some even claim without having been anywhere) that pha lay pha ghi people are better and brighter; and that, out there, the system is just and perfect and that societies are fair and equal. Maybe, in terms of public infrastructure, things are more convenient in some developed countries. But as a saying goes, the world is a just place and life is not fair anywhere. Out there, there are more countries with bad services and systems than there are with good ones. There are challenges everywhere. But, most importantly, in terms of people and sense of humanity, I feel, it is still a blessing to be a Bhutanese. I say, “still”, because we are also changing.
Democracy comes with more freedom and choices but also with more challenges and responsibilities. It is slippery, at times. In the confusions and confrontations brought about by the changing times, what we, as Bhutanese from all walks of life, must always remember is that We. Are. In. This. Together.
We are in the same truck – part of the same process. There is no ‘us’ or ‘they’. And no one should feel indispensable, indestructible or immortal. Personal interests or egos should not override our sacred duties or official positions.
If there are boulders blocking our system, we remove them. If there are disagreements we discuss and solve them. If we have extra resources we share. If there are criticisms we accept. If people are screaming we listen. We should never forget that on either side of the so-called rules, policies, systems and fancy designations, we have real human beings with faces and families. That’s why GNH is a human-centric development and governance approach.
And whatever happens, remember we have the good fortune of our Golden Throne that has steered us safely along the bumpy and winding road from the not-so-easy historical past. It is an institution that continues to work selflessly for the people. Where in the world do people have such luxury?
Therefore, as we come together to celebrate the first birth anniversary of our Gyalsay, who is a manifestation of our collective moelam, we can make the occasion more meaningful by inner introspection rather than outer displays of posters and advertisements. We can remind ourselves of who we are as people, reflect on how we are doing as a nation and work together towards our common destination as a country. This way our Gyalsay, and our children, will inherit a stronger Bhutan.
This is more than a celebration. It is our sacred duty as citizens.
(I have written an article, titled ‘2008 and Beyond’ in Bhutan Times in 2007, using the same metaphor)
Twenty-six years ago, on a bleak, chillingly cold and wet February day of 1989, in Tokyo, the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a ‘small’ gesture at the State Funeral of the Showa Emperor of Japan. That one simple act of humility would define the relations between the two monarchies.
Almost without exception, on that day the people of Japan were in mourning. At Shinjuku Gyoen in an open pavilion the heads of state, from superpowers to kings from small monarchies such as Bhutan, had gathered from around the globe for the State Funeral for Emperor Hirohito.
The regal State Funeral was held on a cold February day at the end of winter in Japan. Usually along the Pacific coast it is dry and sunny as spring replaced winter. But not that day. There was a misty, freezing and cold rain. It almost seemed as if the heavens were reflecting the grief of the Japanese people.
World leaders from 163 nations, some former foes of Japan from World War II, were officially and formally present or represented for the State Funeral of a political monarch of a geopolitical partner, the nation of Japan. US President George H Bush, French President Mitterrand, King Juan Carlos of Spain and others were there too – dressed in appropriate (for them) Eurocentric mourning black, and not the Japanese culturally correct mourning white or national garb traditional for mourning. They were also warmly insulated from the near freezing temperature in the two white tents.
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was there too but in his traditional Bhutanese attire – the humble knee-length gho. He wore no gloves, not hat, no coat, no muffler or anything but a simple, honest mathragho to survive the 3-hour ceremony.
As the ceremony progressed officials and leaders were called upon, one by one, to pay their respects towards the Showa Emperor’s casket. The VIPs got up, walked towards the imperial coffin, bowed to it – reluctantly in some cases – turned and bowed to acknowledge the new Emperor, Akihito. Then, their official duty done, most left in their limos.
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck the King of Bhutan, when his name was called, stood up, walked solemnly towards the imperial casket, stopped and bowed deeply and longer – showing his deep compassion for the man who had been the Emperor. He then turned and bowed respectfully to the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, new Emperor Akihito.
Then instead of leaving, like many others, he returned to his seat on the icy stand. As other leaders paraded, bowed twice and departed, His Majesty sat there alone, and endured the biting cold, in dignified mourning – for hours until the ceremony ended.
NHK TV, Japan’s national broadcaster televised the entire State Funeral live and telecast it globally. One of the NHK cameras, on several occasions, went back to the lone figure of His Majesty in the VIP seating. The announcers and the audience began asking, kare wa darey deska? (Who is he?) Soon they found out, and was introduced as the young King of Bhutan. His Majesty was just 34.
The TV commentator also added that the Bhutan King genuinely shared the grief of all Japanese people and is staying until the end of the ceremony. This simple genuine gesture raised the mood of a grief stricken nation and teary smiles. His Majesty became very popular, which in turn led to Japanese people knowing about Bhutan. He received wide press coverage. A newspaper almost covered a whole page with his portrait.
Almost three decades later the Japanese people still talk with awe and fondness about that simple and genuine action of His Majesty the King. It generated immense goodwill, which continues to strengthen the bonds the Japanese and Bhutanese people even today.
In 2006, His Majesty has gone on to make another ‘simple’ and yet profound gesture. He abdicated the Golden Throne of Bhutan in favour of His Majesty Jigme Khesar and also established democracy. Perhaps in the simple life that he now leads (he is seen cycling regularly, mingles with ordinary citizens and hitches rides on taxis) one can find an exemplary role model in the greatest monarch of our times. Truly the King of Simplicity – a real Pelden Drukpa.
And as His Majesty turned 60, an important age by Buddhist belief, one can only be proud of having been his subject and pray that the universe shower him with good health so that he continues to inspire, and cycle, and touch more lives and hearts – not just in Bhutan but in the whole world.
(A longer version of this article is published in Bodhisattva King – a book edited by Thierry Matthou and Tshering Tashi for the Sixtieth Birth Anniversary)
(In 1989 I was a student in Italy from where I watched the telecast ‘live’ – with my wife translating the running commentaries. In 2003 when I visited NHK I met one of the production directors of that historic telecast who shared the story to me)
In Thailand there is a beautiful tradition whereby a king is not supposed to sleep at night. He stays awake to protect his people who retire from a hard day’s work – and goes to bed at dawn. The tradition started from the kings of Ayutthaya who were at war with Burmese kingdoms. The people then could sleep peacefully because they knew that their King was awake and would protect them in case some enemies attacked in the middle of the night.
As the capital shifted from Ayutthaya to Thonburi to Krung Thep (aka Bangkok) this tradition, it seems, is still alive. King Bhumibol, it is being said, worked a lot at night going through reports, maps and charts at night. In fact some years back I was in a taxi to the airport when our traffic stopped at a crossing. It was 3 in the morning and the royal motorcade was passing by. I asked the taxi driver and in a rudimentary English he said, “King never sleeps”. “Why?” I asked him with child-like inquisitiveness. He couldn’t explain further because of his limited English.
A facebook picture of our own King looking towards a menacing river at night (which was taken from the recent flood disasters in the South) reminded me of this tradition. Thai people believe that our King embodies the spirit of a king who never sleeps. And who protects his people all the time.
However, we rarely attribute our good sleep to good governance – let alone be thankful about it. We have never thought that if we could go to sleep peacefully it is because we know we are safe; we know it is thanks to someone who is there for us. It is one of those things that we Bhutanese take for granted. Good kings, good leadership, clean air, clear water, what else do we not take for granted?
“You know what? We should be grateful that our King worries for us and that you guys don’t have to worry at all,” I used to tell students at Sherubtse College at morning assemblies during my short stint there.
An Indian media tycoon once told me, “Now I know why you Bhutanese are happy. Because your King does all the work for you.” I was walking the tycoon to his car from an audience with His Majesty – at Taj Hotel in Delhi in 2011. I still think what the Thais tell me is the best. “You people should be lucky that you can sleep peacefully thanks to your King.”
Hopefully our people will say a little prayer before retiring to a peaceful sleep from now on.