Bhutan's Prime Minister: South Asia at 'Critical Threshold'

Lyonchhen Jigme Y. Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan

NEW YORK, September 19, 2011 — The vast and troubled region of South Asia can enjoy the future with peace and prosperity by overcoming “psychological hurdles, historical shackles and cultivated fears,” the Prime Minister of Bhutan said tonight.

In an address to Asia Society in New York, Lyonchhen Jigme Y. Thinley said his people dreamed and yearned for “a South Asia that is peaceful and prosperous and happy.”

“We aspire for a South Asia that is able to use its vast collective assets to play a central role, as it must, in the globalized world and advance the cause of human wellbeing,” he said.

The prime minister said the region had achieved remarkable social and economic development in recent years, but massive problems remain.

“Sadly … the inequitable nature of our growth has not been able to remove our region from the ignominy of being home to half the world’s poor,” he said. “Our ratings against basic social-economic indicators are among the lowest.  Not surprisingly we are among the least integrated regions in the world with cross-border trade and movement of people hindered by restrictive laws and extremely poor connectivity.”

Despite big markets, huge human capital and other resources, trade among the eight countries that make up the region remained at only around 5 percent of its overall trade output. And, there were other deep-seated problems.

“South Asia is struggling to shake off a volatile past marked by authoritarianism, unneighborly conduct, and ethnic conflict spawning terrorism, and so on,” he said. “Global warming has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of our region to natural disasters that devastate mainly the lives of the poor in the agricultural population.”

He said each of the region’s nations now stood at “a critical threshold.” 

“Afghanistan and Pakistan are in the midst of a frustrating and protracted war against terrorism with consequences well beyond their borders," he said.

“Maldives is experiencing a rejuvenation of people’s democracy. Nepal is grappling to find political stability. A refreshing spirit of optimism prevails in Bangladesh. For India, economic growth continues on a high trajectory even as large sections of its huge population suffer the pains of exclusion. And, in Sri Lanka there is calm after prolonged strife.

“As for my country, Bhutan, we have just begun treading the perilous path of democracy.”

He said the region’s past had produced great civilizations and religions. He was optimistic it could build a better shared future. He suggested the best way to achieve this dream was through the collaborative and consensus-building work of the eight-nation South Asian Association Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which is currently being chaired by his country.

“SAARC is the means to peace and prosperity in South Asia,” he said.

“All that is needed is greater will to cross the psychological hurdles and to break free of the bondage of historical shackles and, I dare say, cultivated fears.”

Reported by Geoff Spencer