Home / Opinions / Corda et Manus – reflection on the meeting with Bhutan prime minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering

Corda et Manus – reflection on the meeting with Bhutan prime minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering

We were barely taught how to bow and greet the Bhutanese high dignities, the MPs and Speaker came in with their bright blue and orange kabneys. The cabinet room is filled with our curiosity and excitement – who is this two-month old prime minister? And what is he going to speak with a group of wildly global Harvard and MIT alumni and students? 

During the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) years, we watched many countries’ presidents and prime ministers (PM) debuting at the HKS Forum. Yet, this meeting built up more expectation as we had glimpsed this acclaimed Gross National Happiness (GNH) Country and exchanged with the locals in the past few days. Moreover, the close up meeting in their cabinet office was a privileged opportunity. We were also prepared to open our hearts to share happiness, questions and connections. 

His walk was swift with a confident and fatherly smile. He is a little shorter yet slightly taller than the India PM Modi whom we saw Kuensel photos from his prior days’ official State visit in India. While the king of Bhutan is much loved in the country, the PM and the party turnovers were high, precisely every five years since the King gave democracy to the country in 2008 during the election. We were eager to hear this PM’s grand plan/ambition. 

‘You can take my seat,’ The first sentence he said after our moderator Vilas made his brief intro and invited the prime minister to come from his head table to the podium to give his remarks. We immediately felt His excellency’s sense of humour. 

We came to Bhutan not just to search for happiness but to understand the country’s happiness policy and each of us has been asking the Bhutanese in the villages or nunneries: Are you happy? What are your happiest moments? How do you measure the GNH (Gross National Happiness) and has it been successful? 

His excellency surprisingly didn’t want to talk about Bhutan’s GNH policy. He believes happiness is a state of mind and actions do more than simply talks on happiness. As an urologist and surgeon who travelled all over the country with his medicine box, his excellency has fulfilled his life’s happiness by giving cures to the locals. When locals travel five hours to get their food, villagers may still say they’re happy in their way of living. If not, Dr. Lotay’s commitment is to remove the obstacles to get the Bhutanese to their health and happiness. Today as the prime minister, he wants to apply the thinking and methodology similar to those removing individual’s tumors onto the country. He plans to scan the system, identify and fix the tumors to bring happiness to the whole country. Health care and Education are the two main areas of focus of his party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) in his five-year term. 

Together along with the Speaker and the MPs, his excellency responded questions on envisioning in 15-20 years what a 15 year old village girl can become. His vision is forward looking to expand higher education capacity and equip the lady with the skills so she can make choices of who she wants to become: a farmer, a doctor or an engineer and sky is the limit. 

An urologist turned PM without formal management training is officially now the head of government. He said he was very keen to learn the questions in our minds despite that he admitted that he didn’t know where Harvard and MIT were located. This may sound superficial but later on we understood that he truly meant to respond to every question in a thoughtful way with the genuine look wanting to help. Our one-hour official meeting extended to 90 mins and 100 mins. His answers mixed with a very good sense of humour that filled with our laughter in the cabinet room. He joined us over lunch in the courtyard but barely ate as he was busy answering our questions. 

His excellency shared how he became a politician and then a party leader thanks to his friend Dr. Tandi Dorji, now the foreign minister, who called upon him based on his good deeds in the community. He used to stand in front of the operating table 15-20 hours a day 7 days a week for almost 20 years. He travelled to all the remote villages to provide health care services for the people of Bhutan. He wholeheartedly wants to affect larger changes beyond removing pains of individual patients. Over the years, he has built his deep trust in the communities throughout the country. When he was asked to be the party leader and when DNT won, he accepted the role of being the prime minister with his heart and hands (corda et manus). 

When he was asked about Bhutan’s participation on China’s One Belt One Road initiative, he cross referenced the relationship with India, the other large bordering nation. He aspires a ‘century’ on the golden jubilee year of India and Bhutan relationship, cleverly refer to a cricket rule. While Bhutan continues to strengthen the existing close tie with India on easy access to trade vs. the inaccessible Himalayas on the China side, he clearly stated that Bhutan doesn’t want to align one side as both are the giants in Asia. 

When it comes to the large scale One Belt One Road initiative, his excellency stated the careful assessment of GNH impact in addition the economic impact for the benefit of Bhutanese. It may come into fruition in the next 5-10 years. His excellency takes a balanced view on foreign policy with the full intention to protect and prosper the nation. Even when asked about Trump and his ways of managing the country, his excellency found the positive side and said light-heartedly that one has to marry a Bhutanese to truly find out the happiness amongst this people. 

His excellency’s openness and willingness to share was eye opening. He is a pure man who keeps his daily routine putting his own god on his right shoulder. “have I done any harm to anyone today?” If unintentionally, he will call the person to apologize and it’s up to the other side to accept. He states genuinely that he has done no harm to anyone in his life. Last time when his excellency cried was during his campaign debate, when he was attacked as a ‘Liar.’ He maintained his resilience to carry on as he has faith in his people. He wants to use this five years in office to fulfill the dreams of Bhutan. 

Being a matriarchal society historically in the public sector women leadership participation seems lacking. His excellency states that the posts are not and will not be selected because of gender quota. The government wants to find the most suitable talent to lead the different sectors. Women have talent and in the coming years they will be cultivated further and to see more senior female leadership positions. 

When we invited him to Cambridge to study at MIT or Harvard, he smiled happily saying that he will be an old man that the universities may not accept him in five years. However, he will visit to learn skills that are needed to serve the people of the country. His intention is only to serve for one-term and wants to light his torch to the brightest possible for the country. Even when he retires from the post, he still thinks for what his people need. He wants to return to the Doctor post which he loves and delivers his values. Even in his very busy schedules, he still maintains his doctor’s practice. Every Thursdays he starts with the hospital and on Saturdays he also teaches. 

Every single word his excellency says shows his deep love of the country. He positions Bhutan of a small country with a big heart. What Bhutan stands out and wants to take a leadership position is on climate change. During the Paris Accord, Bhutan is the only country that absorbs carbon dioxide. His excellency invites other countries to join Bhutan to go carbon neutral /negative. 

Post his India Official state visit, his excellency also visited a remote school camp and didn’t return until 1am on the day when he met with us. Having been inspired by the camp program mixing urban and remote school students, he immediately decided to personally sponsor 2 best rated students to complete all grades (a male and a female) with his head of media. When sitting next to an 11-year-old and asking what she wants, his excellency granted her wish to get more students from her remote high school to participate in such a program (she was the only one) and planned to follow her to get more students from her school. 

The journey to Bhutan has inspired me in many different ways – it wasn’t pure happiness. It is the corda et manus that the Harvard, MIT and Bhutanese friends brought together and the stories we shared across the bonfire, the villagers we talked with at their homes over citrus, crispy rice and butter tea, the hike up the tiger’s nest, and the honest exchanges with nun and lamas. The generosity, sheer joy of welcoming friends of the Bhutanese people. Special thanks to Kinga Tshering, MPA MC ‘17, his wife, Tshering Wangmo, Sacha Ramani, HKS ‘18, and Jen Tatuk, HKS ‘12, and all the interns and volunteers who have tirelessly put the most memorable trip together. I’m very sure that I will visit again to embrace the Happiness.

Contributed by Yiting Shen, MPA ’07

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