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Bhutan Transitions to New King, Heralding New Democratic Era

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A nation is hailing the ascension of a young and charismatic leader.  It is not the United States, but rather the small Himalayan country of Bhutan.  From the capital, Thimpu, VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports on the sweeping changes culminating with the crowning of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, otherwise known as King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

While the rest of world focuses on the election of a young senator as president of the United States, here in the Himalayas all eyes are on a 28-year-old Western-educated hereditary monarch as he receives the Raven Crown.

The coronation of Jigme Khesar as Bhutan's first constitutional monarch, culminates a two-year transfer of royal power from his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in late 2006.

Bhutan Foreign Secretary Yeshey Dorji says the formal crowning in the Land of the Thunder Dragon had to wait for an auspicious date set by astrologers.  In the meantime, the new king assumed the duties of his father.             

"You need to get some expertise and experience in functioning as a king.  So, before the formal coronation, His Majesty already took over the role of the king and he has been functioning since then," said Dorji.            

A business entrepreneur in the capital, Sonam Tobgay, gives Jigme Khesar preliminary high marks, explaining that Bhutanese will not praise a monarch merely because he was born to rule.
           
"You're not born with leadership qualities.  It's something that you mature and you build over a period of time," said Tobgay. "He's been matured, he's been cultured, groomed to take over this task.  As far as we can see he's done a very good job over the last one year."

Not only did the Fourth King of the century-long Wangchuck Dynasty voluntarily step aside, but in a move perhaps unprecedented in history - coming as it did without internal or external pressure - the monarch commanded that a constitution be drafted and the country shift to a parliament-based democracy.

Bhutanese were initially shocked and then confused by the moves of their revered king, who had ruled peacefully for 34 years.

King Jigme Singye had broken with convention, previously.  He developed the concept of Gross National Happiness, stressing emotional well-being over the traditional economic indicator of Gross National Product.

Communications Minister Nandalal Rai tells VOA News the Fourth King, over the past quarter century, wanted his traditionally isolated kingdom to become more integrated in the international community.            

"Our Fourth King has been trying to train us and make us aware of the situation that has been happening in the world - that the government must be of the people and for the people.  That is the democratic process.  He did, in his wisdom, felt the people must be able to take care of themselves, not a particular person ruling like in the medieval ages," said Rai.

The transition has been stable, so far.  Parliament elections were held, this year, with the winning party sweeping nearly every constituency, defying pollsters who predicted a close race in the contentious campaign.

The changes for the Buddhist nation of 635,000 people, wedged between giant neighbors China and India, have brought other outside influences, as well, not all of them positive.

Modern communications has been good for education and the fledgling business community, but it puts pressure on traditional culture.

Thimpu businessman Tobgay says Bhutanese understand there may be a price to pay for modernity.            

"That is a risk that we have to take.  All these things, the Western culture creeping in and the contamination of our indigenous culture, tradition,   it's a possibility.  With the introduction of TV, with the Internet and the cellular phone, these are things that we cannot avoid. If we avoid this we will become like the dinosaur. If you fail to evolve, you become extinct," said Tobgay.

With the coronation, Bhutan, the world's newest democracy, also becomes the nation with the youngest reigning monarch.  But the Fifth King of the modern dynasty will not stay on the throne beyond early in the year 2045.  That is not a prognostication of the astrologers but rather the mandate of the new constitution, under which the sovereign, at age 65, must retire.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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