Bhutan gets young king to guide young democracy

THIMPHU (Reuters) - In the Chamber of the Golden Throne, a 28-year-old with an Oxford education will assume the Raven Crown of Bhutan Thursday, to guide the world’s newest democracy as it emerges into the modern world.

An undated portrait of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is seen in Thimphu November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Royal Palace/Handout

In a sense Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck embodies the changes sweeping this conservative, isolated Himalayan kingdom -- a young country, a young democracy, with an eye on the outside world but one foot planted firmly in tradition and the past.

Freed from the burden of government that his father bore, Wangchuck is nevertheless 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.

“His Majesty the King will always play a very important role as a moral force in our country,” said Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, elected in the country’s first elections last March.

“The king will be the force that will ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of democracy in our country.”

Wangchuck, who spent much of his formative years in the United States, Britain and India, will receive the crown from his 52-year-old father, who modernized Bhutan during his 34-year reign, before imposing democracy and then abdicating in 2006.

Inside Thimphu’s enormous white-walled Dzong or fortress, the Je Khenpo or chief abbot will chant sacred sutras empowering the fifth king with virtues like wisdom, compassion and vision.

Three days of national celebration will follow, masked dances and offerings which also mark 100 years of Bhutan’s monarchy.

The citizens of Bhutan have had to wait two years for this day, after astrologers deemed 2007 a “black year,” unsuitable for any major events. Most say it has been worth the wait.

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“I am so overwhelmed,” said 50-year-old trader Norbu Tshering. “This is the most important day in my lifetime.”

THE FOURTH KING’S RULE

Five decades ago, Bhutan was a feudal, medieval 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 Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who saw that his tiny country, perched precariously between India and China, had to be stronger to survive in a dangerous neighborhood.

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.

This week, exiled groups appealed again for Bhutan’s new leaders to repatriate them “with honor and justice,” and unconditionally release around 100 political prisoners.

Their appeals are likely to fall on deaf ears, with Bhutan’s Buddhist elite determined to preserve their ancient culture and prevent the country being swamped by demographic pressures.

Inside the country, though, the new king has already won the hearts and minds of his subjects.

Handsome and charming, he mingles freely with crowds and is enormously popular with the younger generation.

“He is a good blend of a leader who is aware of the global situation and also Buddhist models of leadership,” said Karma Ura, director of the Center for Bhutan Studies.

With drugs use, unemployment and crime all rising, and a more rebellious younger generation emerging, Bhutan’s modernization is not without its growing pains.

But the celebrations will help the country come together as a nation after a sometimes divisive general election, analysts say.

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