A new king and new challenges in Bhutan
The former king strictly followed Buddhist traditions and its teachings of simplicity and impermanence. He showed the Bhutanese that nothing remains forever and only detachment could set a man – the king in this case – free.
The decision to abdicate was a wise one. At 27, Khesar is one of the world’s youngest kings. Immediately following the announcement, ordinary Bhutanese people were perplexed and concerned about what would happen next in this tiny kingdom of 600,000 people, which had become so accustomed to his father’s past 37 years of rule. In December 2005, the former king pledged to abdicate in 2008. The whole kingdom was therefore shocked when he passed on his throne to his son early last month.
However, when the young king gave his first speech several days later, all doubts disappeared. He assured the Bhutanese that he would stick to his father’s good policies, which have brought stability and wellbeing to the tiny nation. The former king said repeatedly that he wanted the new king to learn from his mistakes.
Fortunately, this change of guard came at a time when Bhutan’s domestic and regional situation is stable and conducive to the country’s transition to parliamentary democracy. For instance, following the purge of radical militants in southwest Bhutan in 2003, overall relations with India, the country’s giant neighbour to the South, have improved and bilateral ties are now stronger than ever. Thimpu has little contact with Beijing.
Since 1995, political uncertainties in nearby Nepal have been worrisome. However, the drastic turn-around there recently, which witnessed the return of democracy and the demise of King Gyanendra’s power, does have a strong resonance in Bhutan. The Nepalese king was stripped of all power, titles and privileges following last April’s popular uprising. By the end of this year, Nepalese citizens will decide if they want to keep the monarchy as a symbol or take the republican route. Recent public opinion polls revealed that some Nepalese still want to preserve the monarchy in some form, but without it having any real power.
In more ways than one, King Khesar is more fortunate than his father, who became king when he was 16 years old and went without the kind of education or training Khesar enjoyed. But Jigme Singye has proved beyond any doubt that through local wisdom and a strong work ethic, he could rule and lead Bhutan as well as coexist with the tide of globalisation. His gross national happiness and sustainable development models have been the topic of research and emulation. Thai developers are interested in these ideas and are trying to adopt them over here.
The new king belongs to a different generation. He has received the best education possible both inside Bhutan and abroad including studies in India and the UK. Extensive and continuous exposure to world leaders over the past few years, including kings and queens, have allowed him access to their wisdom and skills. It remains to be seen how Khesar will tackle diplomatic issues effecting his country. It is hoped that he can resolve the long-standing refugee problem, which has tarnished the kingdom’s image, involving over 106,000 refugees waiting in camps in Nepal. Thimpu has not yet taken them back.
When Khesar represented his father at the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s accession to the throne last June in Bangkok, he displayed personal charm and diplomatic finesse. His self-confidence was also evident in his conduct throughout his stay in Thailand. During the accession ceremony, the Thai people were glued to the TV and immediately fell for his genteel and beautiful wai. Thai media dubbed him “Prince Charming” and the Thai public voted him the most popular visiting royal. Within days, he had been idolised as no luminary has ever been before.
Never before has any member of a royal family from abroad commanded such popularity among Thais. The phenomenon helped to spurn a dozens books about him and his country. Prior to June of last year, Thais hardly knew of Bhutan, let alone the name of the young king. Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of Kuensel, an English-language weekly, said that during numerous taxi rides in Bangkok over the past few months, drivers automatically associated Bhutan with the young king.
Younger royal families have come to the fore elsewhere in Asia as well. In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk, 81, stepped down citing health reasons in October, 2004. His son, Norodom Sihamoni, 54, was elected by the nine-member Throne Council immediately thereafter. At first, concerns were high that the new king would not be able to fill his father’s shoes. However, in the past two years, the new king has gained respect and acceptance from the Cambodian people, who he has come into contact with during his extensive visits to rural provinces. He has also travelled abroad to promote his country’s image.
Bhutan has taken a radical step in switching from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy – the king will now remain in a symbolic role. Doubtless, this great political leap forward will be watched closely by monarchies around the world.
In the years and perhaps decades to come, Khesar has to face many challenges including defining his own niche and coexisting with the emerging democracy in Bhutan. The way he responds to the new constitution, parliament, newly established political parties as well as to the fresh memory of his father will influence the kingdom’s future and the future of the previously untested kingship. In a similar vein, the Bhutanese people must also learn how to live with and adjust to a young king.
If he can promote and consolidate the genuine democracy his father championed and secure the respect of the people, which his father enjoyed, he will leave a great legacy not only within the Himalayan region, but in the world as well.
Kavi Chongkittavorn (The Nation)