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Kerry holds historic talks with Bhutanese PM

12 january 2015, 11:10
0
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. ©AFP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. ©AFP

 Top US diplomat John Kerry Sunday became the first American secretary of state to meet with a Bhutanese prime minister amid signs the remote Himalayan country is taking baby-steps towards opening up to the outside world, AFP reports.

On the sidelines of a major investment conference in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Kerry met with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan, a country known for pursuing its citizens' "happiness" rather than economic growth.

Asked why he was meeting now with the premier, Kerry said Bhutan has made "a transition to democracy and we are trying to work with them on their economy and support their thrust of how they want to balance their economy".

"It's very forward, very progressive, very, very interesting government in the midst of the region," Kerry said, adding the US wanted to encourage the nation "to keep going down that path".

Wedged between China and India, the sparsely-populated "Land of the Thunder Dragon" only got its first television sets in 1999, at a time when less than a quarter of households had electricity.

Thanks to a massive investment in hydropower in the following decade-and-a-half, nearly every household is now hooked up to the electricity grid.

But the radical change in lifestyle coincided with an equally dramatic transformation of the political system, with the monarchy ceding absolute power and allowing democratic elections in 2008.

The Bhutanese however remain staunchly loyal to their king, and US officials said the government in Thimphu wanted to set up more people-to-people exchanges between the US and Bhutan.

Tobgay is himself a graduate of the University of Pittsburg and told Kerry he was "honoured to meet" him when they shook hands.

Tobgay was wearing the traditional wrap-around one-piece robe of Bhutan, called a Gho, which falls to the knees.

Bhutan, which has an abundance of rivers swollen with snow melt from the Himalayas, is also keen to expand its energy program based on hydroelectric power.

Three hydropower projects have been built in India-Bhutan joint ventures and another three are under construction, with plans for more.

A US official said hydroelectric sales to Indian made up 19 percent of Bhutan's gross domestic product.

The country of about 750,000 people had no roads or currency until the 1960s and continues to resist mass tourism. It is the only nation in the world whose government pursues "Gross National Happiness" for its people instead of economic growth.


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