Bhutan's Role in Promoting Regional Peace and Prosperity in South Asia

Jigmi Y. Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan, speaks at the Asia Society in New York on September 19, 2011. (Elsa Ruiz)


President Vishaka N. Desai,
Trustees and Members of the Asia Society,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank Lisina Hoch, a close and longstanding friend of Bhutan, for her kind words in introducing me.

It is an honour and pleasure for me to be here this evening with the distinguished members of the Asia Society. This prestigious organization is recognized for its immense contribution to promoting understanding, friendship and cooperation between Asia and the United States of America and, I would like to acknowledge, between the US and my own country, It is this society that has built and continues to build bridges between the many countries and cultures of Asia and the American people beyond those that have traditionally enjoyed relations with this great nation.

President Desai, who is to be admired for her remarkable leadership of the society, has asked me to speak on Bhutan’s role in promoting peace and prosperity in South Asia.  I imagine this has something to do with Bhutan currently holding the chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

In recent times, South Asia has seen some remarkable socio-economic developments among its member states. Sadly, however, 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 poorest. Our ratings against basic socio-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.  Trade among ourselves is not more than 5% of our total trade volume.  Politically too, south Asia is struggling to shake off a volatile past marked by authoritarianism, unneighbourly conduct, ethnic conflict spawning terrorism, and so on. Global warming, on the other hand, has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of our region to natural disasters that devastate mainly the lives of the poor and the agricultural population.

In many ways, each of our countries stands 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. Maldives is experiencing a rejuvenation of people’s democracy. Nepal is grappling to find political stability. A refreshing spirit of cautious 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, we have just begun treading the perilous path of democracy.

How then can I speak of Bhutan’s role in promoting peace and prosperity in such a region? For a small country, it is not with modesty that I declare Bhutan’s ability as being limited by economic and demographic incapacities among others. But one thing my country has done and continues to do is to hold onto its dream — a yearning — for a south Asia that is peaceful, cooperative, prosperous and happy.  Bhutan remains committed to a south Asia where people, ideas, goods and services can flow smoothly across national borders for mutual benefit. The Bhutanese people envision a south Asia where its citzens overcome national prejudices and sensitivities to proudly declare themselves ‘South Asian’. 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, to advance the cause of human wellbeing.

Caressed and nurtured by the Indian Ocean and the great Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountains, south Asia has cradled mankind’s greatest civilizations and gifted to the world three of its great social and ethical systems to guide society — Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. At the same time, no region in the world can claim to be home to a larger Islamic population. Our combined demographic might constitutes a talented and industrious population that accounts for a quarter of the world’s human capital and emerging global market.  No less is our contribution to science, technology, art, culture and trade. And we are well endowed with bounties of nature. Indeed, any contemplation of our future gives cause for optimism and conjures the vision of enormous prosperity - not just for south Asians but for the rest of the world. All that is needed is greater will to cross the psychological hurdles and to break free from the bondage of historical shackles and, I dare say, cultivated fears.

Thankfully, we do have a mechanism, in the form of SAARC, for collaboration and consensus building.  Founded in 1985, SAARC is the means to peace and prosperity for South Asia. It is for this reason that, as a founding member, Bhutan has consistently attached the highest importance to its membership in the Association. Already our financial contribution to SAARC is far higher than to any other multilateral institution. We have not been disappointed.

SAARC is making progress.  The Association has held 16 Summits so far, with Bhutan having had the honour to host the last one in April 2010. Each Summit has contributed to expanding the space for regional and sub-regional collaboration. We are gradually seeing the advantages of cooperation and common stand in the global market place. We are beginning to appreciate that there are challenges and opportunities that can best be met and secured by acting together. This in part, has been impelled by the forces of globalization. Beyond these, the improvement of economic conditions in each of our countries, the national confidence and pride that we have gained individually in recent years and the frequent interaction under the aegis of SAARC are encouraging us to become more open and forward looking. We are re-defining and making clearer the pathways for regional cooperation in almost every aspect of life.  And we in Bhutan are excited by the prospects of an awakening South Asia.

A beginning has been made in the economic area, with the volume of trade under the SAARC Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) having now crossed the modest but psychologically significant US billion Dollar mark.  We have established 11 regional centres of excellence to build and exchange knowledge in agriculture, forestry, meteorology, energy, HIV/AIDS, culture, natural disaster, human resource, etc. A SAARC Development Fund with its Headquarters in Bhutan has been set up to provide predictable and assured funding for SAARC projects.  The will to cooperate in the area of higher education as generated at the Thimphu Summit has resulted in the opening of a South Asian University in New Delhi in August 2010, with students and faculty from all the SAARC countries.  I am excited by the prospect of our youths studying and living together — collaborating to bring into concert the discordant notes to orchestrate a grand South Asian symphony. 

Similarly, we have signed a number of legal instruments to enable cooperation in our efforts to combat the menace of terrorism, narcotics and human trafficking. Also on the anvil are far reaching proposals for cooperation in energy and transport. Of late, democracy and governance have emerged as new areas of cooperation, now that all members of the association are democracies. My own country was host to the first and very successful SAARC conference on media and democracy.

Likewise, there are many less tangible but, perhaps, more meaningful accomplishments. Each interaction among political leaders, officials, jurists, business representatives, academics and youths has helped create and enhance the SAARC identity and the acceptance of a common future as compelled by geography, culture and history. These are manifest in the many agreements and enabling instruments that we have established on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality, mutual respect and commonality of interests. Even if we have failed to act on many of the commitments we have made, the diversity and depth of the legal and regulatory frameworks for cooperation in key areas are impressive. These will serve their well-intended purposes as we make progress on reducing the trust deficit among ourselves.

As the current SAARC Chair, it has been my own and that of the Royal Government’s endeavour to ensure that the momentum and positive environment generated by the Thimphu Summit are not lost and wasted. In this regard, I am glad to inform that I have, over the course of the last 12 months, visited each of the SAARC capitals to further the spirit and agenda of the SAARC. I was able to engage in a frank and extremely fruitful exchange of views with my counterparts and other leaders on many issues.  I returned home each time having sensed a clear and impatient desire among all leaders and people, to see our regional cooperation moving forward.  We now have the task of impressing on the bureaucrats the need to keep pace with the commitment of their leaders.  This is why I have proposed rationalisation and streamlining of both the scope and modalities of cooperation. I believe this will be a major endeavour of the current SAARC Secretary General.

I am encouraged by the tangible progress we are making in our battle against the scourge of terrorism that undermines national and regional efforts to promote a peaceful and stable environment for regional growth and development. All our countries have been victims of terrorism and some of us have been an unwitting breeding ground for cross-border and international terrorism. No cause can be enhanced or served through acts of terror nor can any of it in any degree be deserving of sympathy and support. Yet, it receives nourishment and support from enough quarters to threaten our nations, communities and families alike raising the cost of providing safety to our citizens.  For these reasons, Bhutan hosted the Fourth Meeting of the SAARC Interior/Home Ministers in Thimphu in July of this year. The Meeting provided an opportunity to further our cooperation in law and order matters, and to confer meaningfully in a congenial setting, away from the glare and often unhelpful presence of the media.  We believe that such interactions are essential to reducing bilateral and regional tension and contributing to regional security.

Prosperity must begin with eradication of poverty. For a region that is most vulnerable to natural disasters and high costs of mitigation and adaptation, global warming is undermining the gains it has made to reduce abject poverty and to fulfil the millennium development goals (MDGs). But despite the urgent need for regional collaboration, fighting the impact of climate change and natural disasters has remained a national responsibility. Therefore, it was with much satisfaction that my country successfully persuaded the member states to adopt climate change as the theme for the last Summit that brought out a substantive action oriented declaration. Subsequently, at Bhutan’s initiative, SAARC obtained an Observer status at COP 16 in Mexico last year and was able to present a common position on climate change. While this may seem a modest accomplishment, it conveys a clear message that countries of South Asia are united in meeting their biggest threat. This, in turn, facilitates a more coordinated South Asian strategy as well as a common position on this contentious issue in global negotiations where consensus should have long prevailed. In November this year, my country will be hosting a climate summit for the eastern Himalayan quadrangle comprising Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Bhutan during which we will discuss common issues of water, energy, food and environment.

With full faith in SAARC, Bhutan has hosted a large number of SAARC ministerial proceedings since the Thimphu Summit.  We believe that in hosting these meetings, we are not only fulfilling specific purposes but, even more importantly, providing an opportunity for South Asian leaders to build bridges of understanding, trust and cooperation for furthering peace and prosperity in South Asia. I believe there is no substitute for human contact to accomplish such noble ends.  For example, it was a matter of deep satisfaction, when the prime ministers of India and Pakistan were motivated by the friendly environment of the last summit to resume their stalled bilateral talks at a time when tensions were high on both sides. Both the leaders, in fact, attributed the resumption of their talks to the ‘Thimphu Spirit’. 

We in Bhutan have always believed in the goodness of the South Asian people and their ultimate ability to overcome the differences of the present to realise the future of a secure, confident and thriving community. Every South Asian knows that a discordant family cannot be happy and that fractious and quarrelsome neighbours do not make a prosperous community. We know very well also that where one prospers in a divided neighbourhood, that prosperity is short-lived. In a globalizing world, where diminishing space and time cause collisions and not collusions of the positive kind, dialogue and discourse are indispensable. It is in this regard that, as the Thimphu Summit amply attests, SAARC is vitally useful. And Bhutan, in her own humble way, will continue to contribute to the SAARC process toward the realization of a peaceful and prosperous south Asia.

Thank You,
Tashi  Delek