November 06, 2008

Article at Reuters

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Bhutan crowns young king to guide young democracy

THIMPHU (Reuters) - With mediaeval tradition and Buddhist spirituality, a 28-year-old with an Oxford education assumed the Raven Crown of Bhutan on Thursday, to guide the world’s newest democracy as it emerges into the modern world.

Bhutan's fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck adjusts his crown during his coronation ceremony inside Tashichodzong Palace in Thimphu November 6, 2008. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

As the chief abbot chanted sacred sutras to grant him wisdom, compassion and vision, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned Bhutan’s Fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, by his own father, who imposed democracy and then abdicated two years ago.

Dressed in a red and gold gho -- the knee-length gown all Bhutanese men wear -- he then sat cross-legged on the ornate Golden Throne, looking solemn but allowing himself one fleeting smile, as offerings were made to the new king and the gods.

The red and black silk crown, embroidered with images of white skulls and topped with a blue raven’s head, represents Bhutan’s supreme warrior deity and a monarchy that united this country 100 years ago and remains enormously popular.

This charming young king, who also studied in the United States and India, embodies the changes sweeping the conservative Himalayan kingdom -- a young country, a young democracy, with an eye on the outside world but one foot firmly planted in its past.

“I need nothing,” he told a crowd of thousands come to pay their respects in the afternoon.

“What is important to me are the hopes and aspirations of the people and a long, healthy life for my father Jigme Singye Wangchuck.”

“On this special occasion, just pray and wish that the sunshine of happiness will always shine on our country.”

Freed from the burden of government his father bore, Wangchuck remains an important symbol of national unity and stability in a country of just 635,000 people undergoing a sometimes traumatic and divisive transition to the modern world.

Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, as well as describing the king as “strikingly handsome”, also calls him “the guarantor of democracy”.

The long ceremony took place in and beside the massive white-walled dzong -- fortress, monastery and seat of government -- in the capital Thimphu.

At dawn, three vividly painted tapestries were unveiled inside the dzong, each four-storeys high, depicting Buddha and the gurus who brought his religion to Bhutan.

As the morning sun rose higher in the clear blue sky, the king arrived, led by a procession of red-robed monks, courtiers carrying colourful banners, immaculately dressed officials and soldiers in round helmets carrying swords and black shields.

Monks stood on the roofs blowing on their long horns, clashing cymbals and beating drums at significant moments.

The watching crowd included close ally India’s ceremonial President Pratibha Patil, its most powerful politician Sonia Gandhi, and her two children Priyanka and Rahul. The Gandhis have long been close family friends of the Bhutanese royals.

Barefoot dancers pranced and twirled in ancient costumes, banging small drums, performing “The Dance of the Heroes” before the ceremony began in the Supreme Chamber of the Golden Throne.

Then, in the afternoon, the new king personally and patiently doled out commemorative coins to around 20,000 people, often pausing to smile and say a few words, or stroke a child. A young boy was picked up, a young girl even got a kiss.

“This is a once in a lifetime experience,” said 28-year-old Pema Thinley, a nomadic yak herder from the icy north who spent three days reaching the capital to see the king.

“The fourth king was good, and we pray this one can be even better.”

Five decades ago, Bhutan was a feudal, mediaeval place with no roads, proper schools or hospitals and scarcely any contact with the outside world. Today education and healthcare are free and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.

For most Bhutanese, credit goes to the outgoing monarch, the 52-year-old Fourth King, who saw that his tiny country, perched precariously between India and China, had to be stronger to survive in a dangerous neighbourhood.

He was also the architect of Bhutan’s widely admired national philosophy, Gross National Happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as money, that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.

But the Fourth King’s rule was not without controversy.

In the late 1980s, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis, mostly Hindus living in the southern lowlands, protested that their language and culture were being crushed by the Buddhist north.

Many were forced into exile, and today 100,000 live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, excluded from this new democracy.

Inside the country, though, the new king, with swept-back black hair and sideburns, has already won the hearts and minds of his subjects, especially the young.