Bhutan — Thought-leader to the world

Ambassador Dasho Tashi Phuntsog

His Excellency Dasho Tashi Phuntsog, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bhutan in Kuwait, is a diplomat by profession and one could say a philosopher and intellectual by vocation. Holding strong opinions and perceptive insights on wide ranging issues, the ambassador is also not reticent about expressing his ideas lucidly, unequivocally and often quite emphatically. The Times recently had the unique privilege and honor of engaging in a very stimulating discussion with Ambassador Phuntsog.

During the course of the interview, the ambassador expressed his outspoken views on life, politics, government, his official career and the growing bilateral relations between Bhutan and Kuwait. In our present chaotic world where global leaders are often accused of muddling around and leading without a clear vision, Bhutan is emerging as a thought-leader and a strong voice of reason. The government’s unique barometer of success, its Gross National Happiness (GNP), is gaining credence among economists and countries around the world. It is unfortunate that their recent attempt for a non-permanent member seat at the United Nations Security Council did not meet with success. The world, at least for the moment, is poorer by their absence.

The Times on the other hand were luckier in that we could spend some time with Bhutan›s representative in Kuwait and get to share some of this visionary form of thought-leadership. For many years now, Bhutan has linked the country’s economic growth with good governance and a concomitant emphasis on conserving and sustaining the environment, while preserving and promoting culture and heritage. The government’s accent on GNH, in place of gross national product (GNP), to measure the country’s growth and success has led to braiding economic growth and development around people, rather than people around development. And, the policy seems to be working, last year the country notched an impressive economic growth rate of 7.9 percent and this year it is expected to be around 8.4 percent. Not only is Bhutan one of the fastest growing economies in the region, it is also, according to Transparency International, the least corrupt country in South Asia.

Starting his career in 1975 at the lowest rung of bureaucratic ladder, Ambassador Phuntsog worked his way up the official hierarchy to eventually become Cabinet Secretary to the Government of Bhutan.

The Royal approval for his Cabinet Secretary post came after he was hand-picked by the prime-minister from seven top merited candidates who were shortlisted by the government. However, his strong views and firm beliefs on the need for propriety and probity in personal and public life from everyone, appointed or elected to serve the people, has often brought him in direct conflict with officialdom.

A strong family man who values the bonds of family and friends, the ambassador insists on walking the talk when it comes to integrity, uprightness and diligence to work in his own personal life. The 4th King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who acceded to the throne in 1972, was responsible for many modern reforms in Bhutan, including the creation of GNP, said Ambassador Phuntsog.

He transformed the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and in 2008 held the first general elections to a democratic parliament. The same year the king abdicated in favor of his eldest son and current King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.

“Among the reforms introduced by the 4th king during his rule was opening up of the kingdom to the rest of the world. The king believed that in a rapidly growing modern world, a small kingdom like Bhutan could not afford to remain isolated forever. He initiated contacts and interactions with other countries to enhance and strengthen Bhutan›s profile and to secure its sovereignty through foreign policies and bilateral relations. It was this focus on improving international ties that led Bhutan in 1982 to initiate diplomatic relations with Kuwait,” said Ambassador Phuntsog.

“Bilateral relations between Bhutan and Kuwait began with the opening of a Consulate in May 1982. Corresponding with the arrival of our first ambassador to Kuwait in 1986, the Consulate was upgraded to the status of an Embassy. Since then there have been numerous contacts and high level visits between the two countries with the aim of deepening engagement and strengthening cooperation.

In December 2010, His Excellency Nameer Kathem Al Quraine assumed his post as the first resident ambassador of Kuwait to Bhutan. And in February 2011, His Majesty the King of Bhutan visited Kuwait at the personal invitation of His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al- Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to attend the 50th Anniversary of Kuwait’s Independence. In October this year, the Finance Minister of Bhutan, Wangdi Norbu and the Foreign Secretary Yeshey Dorji attended the ACD Summit held in Kuwait.”

“Currently, Bhutan and Kuwait are in the final stages of signing a joint commission headed by our respective foreign ministers that will oversee mutual relations, economic cooperation, financial investments and cultural exchanges between the two countries. Already, there are several ongoing projects in Bhutan that are financed by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and there is growing interaction in various other domains. In the near future, we are also planning on an exchange of visits by media personnel of the two countries.”

“In a further reflection of the deepening relations between the two nations, the Kuwait Shooting Federation sponsored the participation, for the very first time, of a Bhutanese shooter at the Olympics held in London earlier this year.” Kunzang Choden, a Bhutanese mother of two, who had the potential and passion for the sport but lacked the equipment and training was able to participate in the 10m air rifle shooting event at the London Olympics 2012, due to support from Kuwait’s Shooting Federation. Also earlier this year, a Bhutanese Under-19 women’s team won third place at the Asian Cricket Council U-19 Women’s championship held in Kuwait.

There is close cooperation between Bhutan and Kuwait in Football as well. In 2010, during a visit to Kuwait by Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, President of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, by the President of the Olympic Council of Asia Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah and the President of the Bhutan Football Federation, to provide technical and financial assistance to the Bhutan Football Federation for promotion and development of the game in Bhutan.

“I arrived in Kuwait in March, 2012 and presented my credentials before His Highness the Amir in April. The nine months that I have been in Kuwait is not enough time for me to venture comments on the country. But from what I have seen during my short stay, I find the local people friendly, hospitable and willing to go any length to make one feel most welcome. The country continues to surprise me in many ways; coming from a land with limited road infrastructure, I was amazed at the wonderful road network in Kuwait. However, what was sadly even more surprising was to learn the country has over 400 road fatalities per year. I am sure with a little more care for fellow drivers and better respect for traffic rules and signals, the roads in Kuwait will not only be a pleasure to drive on, but also safer.”

“The other irony I observed is that despite being one of the most arid regions in the world, the abundance of flowers, trees and greenery everywhere in Kuwait is really incredible. I am sure this must come at a heavy cost, in the form of extensive water usage and exhaustive labor on regular maintenance. So it astonishes me whenever I notice the rampant waste of water in the country, or while walking along the seafront promenade, the wide spread littering that takes place all over. I understand that the per-capita consumption of water in Kuwait and its carbon footprint are among the highest in the world.

As an advocate of conservation and sustainable development I feel that this general disregard of resources for future generations is worrisome,” concluded Ambassador Phuntsog on a reflective note.