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Bhutan Emerges As The World’s Newest Democracy

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has emerged from 100 years of absolute monarchy to become the world's newest democracy, and doing so without a revolution or civil war. In this week's International Press Club we look at Bhutan's historic transition

Bhutan, with a population of almost 700,000, is a tiny, land-locked kingdom in the Himalayas. Huddled between powerful neighbors India and China, Bhutan for centuries has remained relatively hidden from the modern world, making it one of the least developed countries in the world. It started to open up to the outside world in the 1960s. A road to India was built in 1961. An airport came in the 1980s and television was introduced just nine years ago.

For more than 100 years, Bhutan has been ruled by the Wangchuk hereditary monarchy. Between 1972 and 2006, the 4thKing in that line, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, continued his predecessor's policy of slow modernization.

But as Bhutan's Ambassador to the United Nations, Daw Penjo tells us, the 4th King Wangchuk also introduced some political reforms toward establishing a democratic society: "After accession to the throne in 1972, His Majesty the 4thKing has worked relentlessly to empower the people through a steady process of democratization. His Majesty introduced a number of important initiatives toward this objective."

In 2005, King Wangchuk announced to a stunned nation that the first general elections would be held in 2008, and that he would abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son, the crown prince.

Today, the new young king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is trying to build on his father's efforts to transform the country. Earlier this year, the country held mock elections to introduce people to the idea of voting. In March, Bhutan became a two-party parliamentary democracy, and voters participated in the first direct election of a 47-seat National Assembly.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies in New Delhi. He is also a member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of India. He says Bhutan's experiment with democracy is an ideal example for others to follow. "Well, Bhutan made a very conscious decision to go from a hereditary monarchy to a modern democracy. Bhutan has made that successful transition to being the world's newest democracy. That is a big achievement. That decision was not imposed on Bhutan. That was the choice that Bhutan made for itself, and the person who made that decision was the much loved 4thKing of Bhutan who thought that the way to safeguard Bhutan's sovereignty, given the way Bhutan is sandwiched between China and India, is to give the people of Bhutan a say in the governance of this little country."

Tiny Bhutan's giant neighbor to the south is India. And as the world's largest democracy, India has played an important role in Bhutan's development and its transition to a parliamentary democracy. Brahma Chellaney says the two nations share a unique relationship. "Bhutan and India have a very free problem-free relationship, says Mr. Chellaney. "It is also an old historic relationship. Bhutanese and Indians are closely linked together, ethnically, culturally, and in fact they are also old Buddhist links between the two countries. The Indians always refrained from interfering in the affairs of Bhutan."

Bhutan's Ambassador to the UN Daw Penjo says India always supported the democratic aspirations of Bhutanese people: "We enjoy excellent relations with India in all spheres. In fact, it can be seen by the most recent visit by the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. The visit took place immediately after our parliamentary elections. He also addressed the first joint session of Bhutanese parliament. As our closest friend and neighbor, India has supported and encouraged this democratic process. Bhutan's newly elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley's first official visit will be to India later this month."

In a response to accusations in 1987 by a journalist from Britain's"Financial Times" newspaper that the pace of development in Bhutan was slow, King Wangchuck told him that "Gross National Happinessis more important than Gross National Product." The statement signaled his commitment to building an economy that is appropriate for Bhutan's culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values.

Bhutanese Ambassador to the U.N. Daw Penjo says the belief has served as a unifying vision. "GNH, Gross National Happiness, is the development philosophy of Bhutan. This philosophy puts people at the center of development. GNH, Gross National Happiness, is more important than GNP, Gross National Product. It basically states that a balance has to be found between economic development and cultural and spiritual well-being, sustainable and equitable economic development, conservation of environment, preservation of culture and good governance. This is important to maintain national identity as a small country between big neighbors in South Asia."

The people of Washington were introduced to the rich culture of Bhutan recently when a Buddhist temple was constructed on the Washington Mall as part of the Smithonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival. Amid fluttering prayer flags, Bhutanese dancers, archers, and weavers showed their skills. A Photograph of a Bhutanese man setting up his tent graced the front page of The Washington Post.

Bhutanese UN Ambassador Daw Penjo was happy with the event: "We are deeply touched that Smithsonian Institute has chosen to honor Bhutan by inviting us to participate in the 42ndAnnual Folklife Festival in the Mall at Washington DC. described by many as US Front Yard. It is good for Bhutan to share with our friends in the United States the living culture and traditions of Bhutan."

Several analysts note what's happening in Bhutan may be something new among the world's political experiments. By keeping its cultural identity intact, while advancing economically at its own pace, Bhutan has shown itself to be a unique model for aspiring democracies.

This program was written by Subhash Vohra and voiced by Terry Wing