John Elliot is one of three foreign journalists to have interviewed the fourth Druk Gyalpo. The interview, which took place in 1987, resulted in an article that is believed to be the first news report on GNH. John was recently in the country for the Mountain Echoes literary festival. Currently, he is the India contributor for Fortune magazine.
As a journalist, you’ve had the rare privilege of interviewing the fourth Druk Gyalpo. What did you talk about?
I didn’t realise until I came back to Bhutan a few days ago for the first time since 1987, that the interview that I had was so unusual. I knew at the time that I had a scoop. I knew that I had a very rare privilege of an interview as a foreign correspondent based in Delhi with the fourth King. But I didn’t realise at the time how few interviews His Majesty had given during his reign. And GNH was the story to be talked about then.
His Majesty’s concerns were about tourism. That was the big issue then, just like the issue now might be the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and TV programs changing the culture of Bhutan. The issue then was tourism because you had just started letting tourists in and the Tiger’s nest had just been closed because of too many people going there. And the tops of the mountains had just been closed because of people thinking that their traditions were being spoilt. There had been a lot of theft, I believe, of various treasures.
And GNH, it was pegged, as I mentioned in the article, mostly to Nepal. Bhutan didn’t want to become like Nepal. Now remember, Nepal at that time had a stable monarchy. It was simply in reference to the way Nepal had opened its doors to tourism, backpackers, and all the other problems that come with it.
His Majesty was thinking about how to look after this great inheritance that he had received. How to steer Bhutan into the modern world, while at the same time maintaining traditions. The same issue that is an issue now, but then, I felt when I sat with him that I was listening to a young man, who was really puzzled, or maybe he wasn’t puzzled, but he was thinking his way into the problem, of how to manage the conflicting pressures of inevitably having to open up but at the same time, being determined to keep the country with its traditions as much as possible.
How were you able to set up the interview? Anything specific you were looking for?
I met your foreign minister at a SAARC conference at Bangalore, and I said that I was a Financial Times correspondent in New Delhi, and that I would like to come to Bhutan, and write about development and life in Bhutan. I mentioned that I would like to, if possible, interview the king, as well other senior ministers and officials. I brought my family because it was a rare chance. So I brought my wife and two sons, we took them out of school because they may never get the chance again.
So we came and the foreign minister was very helpful. And Kinley Dorji had just launched Kuensel. He was helpful and I learnt as I went. Like a reporter, I don’t think I had any books to read at the time on Bhutan. I may have had a world bank report or something like that but I think I came in, which is often as a reporter the best way to do something, is just to come in and follow the story and see what you find.
You found GNH. Will it work?
The instinctive view of an outsider has to be that there’s little chance because of all the outside pressures. The pressures of the young, the youth, who haven’t got the traditions, who in their teens have not been brought up in the traditions, even guys in their late 20s or 30s, who haven’t got their base. On top of that, the pressures of democracy and political parties, that will need to be more policy oriented and different and have to prove themselves every five years. The pressures of growing consumerism and wealth. The growing pressures of business, and business is not totally honest in any country, not many anyway. With all these pressures how could you possibly, the instinctive reaction of the outsider, think that it could last.
On the other hand, I keep on hearing stories as I’ve heard from your prime minister and other people about how the young are interested in traditions. How there is a strong base and despite all the things that I’ve just said, and all I’ve said is what I’ve heard from other people, there is a strong enough belief in Bhutan for the thing to survive.
Since your last visit what changes have you noticed?
Thimphu – I didn’t recognise. The only place I recognised in Thimphu was when I stood outside the Taj hotel and looked up the hill and thought, “Ah that’s where I stayed, in that hotel.” I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I asked Kinley Dorji and he said, “That’s my office, it’s the ministry of information and that used to be the Bhutan hotel.”
The way the buildings are spreading along the hillsides, along the valley, is in a way awful because it’s a sign of what’s happened to the hill stations in India. I think the thing that I’ve been struck by is this great debate of what you do to this place to keep it as it is, and will the young generation who may be rebelling against it now, and wanting all the benefits of the consumer society, be converted, as they get older to the benefits of Bhutan. I think that’s the main issue. What strikes me is the westernisation, the consumerism, but alongside that, this continuing debate. And it’s fantastic to have a country, which is debating this. I’ve lived in India for many years and there, things are just allowed to happen. There’s no planning, as one has seen with all sorts of things, it all just happens. But here, you’re trying to plan, here you are really thinking of the future, there is a debate, I sense everyone’s involved.
Your impressions of the fourth Druk Gyalpo in 1987?
A very quiet, thoughtful man. I walked into the room in the palace, and it was quite dark, big windows, and I couldn’t see him, I couldn’t see where he was, and I turned around and there he was standing in a window, and I said, “Oh, there you are”, which I guess is not the way to address His Majesty when you first meet him. Then I sat down with him and he was informal, discursive, interested and concerned. I need to go back to my notebook, now I’ve realised how important that interview is in the history of Bhutan.