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Himalayan Kingdoms on Opposite Political Paths


Nepal and Bhutan are two tiny landlocked countries lying adjacent to each other high up in the Himalayan Mountains. But while they share a common geography, their politics are vastly different. In Bhutan, the king is taking steps to limit the monarch's role and usher in democracy, while Nepal, where the king controls the government, is gripped by violent calls to abolish the monarchy.

When Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced plans this month to abdicate in favor of his son and hold the country's first elections in 2008, the reaction in the tiny nation was not enthusiastic.

Political observers say the king is popular and people want his 33-year rule to continue. But 50-year-old King Wangchuck has told his countrymen that monarchy is not the best form of government, and the best time to change a system is when there is peace and stability.

The Bhutanese king has been preparing to move his country toward a parliamentary democracy for many years. In March, his government published a draft constitution that paves the way for a two-party democratic system.

The former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, J.S. Jasrotia, says the king is taking the lead in shrinking his own role.

"In his case it is top down. He is working things out and the people are resisting it. They do not want a change of monarchy. Because they find that up to now everything is all right, why do they need to change it? There is no pressure on him and Bhutan does not also have a large middle class, which in most countries throws up all these changes," continued Mr. Jasrotia. "It is the king who is the instrument of change in this case."

Political analysts say it is a wise move from an enlightened king who knows times are changing - even in a country that has fiercely protected its tradition and culture from outside influence for decades.

Bhutan limits the number of visitors to the country; television and the Internet only arrived about six years ago, and most of its people still live in the countryside.

A South Asia political analyst based in New Delhi, Sukh Deo Muni, says the king understands change is inevitable, even in a country as isolated as Bhutan.

"He has assessed all the factors that, in the long run, hereditary and traditional monarchies do not have much of room to maneuver," he said. "So it is better that they adjust with the aspirations of the people and the pressures of time."

Others say the Bhutanese king has taken lessons from Nepal, and wants to shift the country toward democracy before people begin to demand it, as happened in its Himalayan neighbor.

Indeed the contrast with Nepal could not be starker. Nepal's monarchy gave up absolute rule and handed power to political parties in 1990 after massive street protests. But early this year, King Gyanendra seized power, sacked the government and suspended parliament. He said he did so to crush a violent insurgency that erupted in 1996 with the aim of ending the monarchy and establishing a communist republic.

The king's move has not gone down well. Massive pro-democracy protests have taken place in the capital, Kathmandu, in recent months.

Political observers say the Nepalese king's refusal to restore democracy is making him increasingly unpopular.

"That is very clear on the part of the people that they want multi-party democracy, although there were certainly moments of disappointment with the political parties when they were in power for 10 or 12 years," said Yuvraj Ghimre, editor of the Samay magazine in Kathmandu. "But that disappointment does not mean that people want appropriation of powers by the king."

As political turbulence rocks Nepal and the Maoist rebellion rages, economic development has taken a back seat, and living conditions in the impoverished countryside are becoming harsher.

Bhutan too is a poor country, but its literacy and health indicators are gradually improving. And the king has adopted unusual parameters to judge his nation's development, such as "Gross National Happiness."

Kinley Dorji, the editor of Bhutan's only newspaper, Kuensel, says the King is drawing lessons from the rest of the world to ensure that there is balanced development in the country.

"When Bhutan began development - Bhutan was a late-comer to development - the leadership of the country looked around and saw many countries which had [were] so-called developed had lost many important elements like their environment, their culture, their heritag," he said. "So Bhutan said immediately, 'OK development should not mean material development. We should have a higher goal.'"

For King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the goal is to bring about democracy peacefully, in a way that will not disrupt life in his country. In Nepal, however, there are increasing fears that if the king continues to ignore public demands for democracy, there will only be more violence.