November 05, 2008

Article at Reuters

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Bhutan's charming king emerges from father's shadow

THIMPHU (Reuters) - He was first feted as “Prince Charming” and has now been acclaimed the “People’s King.” Bhutan’s 28-year-old Oxford-educated monarch has already won hearts at home and abroad.

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

On Thursday, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck takes on a more solemn responsibility, when he is formally crowned -- by his own father -- as the tiny Himalayan nation’s fifth king.

Already he is showing signs that he can emerge from his father’s shadow and become a powerful symbol of stability, unity and at the same time of youthful vigor, in a country still grappling with its gradual move into the modern world.

His father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, will be a hard act to follow. The 52-year-old is a formidable man, who ran this deeply traditional land for three decades, opening it to the outside world, imposing democracy and then abdicating.

The father still commands love, respect, awe and even fear in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

The son, in his largely ceremonial new role and relieved of the burden of governance after the introduction of parliamentary democracy, is an altogether different person, gentler, more approachable.

“He’s got his own style, he is very natural with the people,” said Kinley Dorji, managing director of state-owned newspaper Kuensel. “He has that charisma.”

The new king displayed his charisma in bucketloads on Saturday, spending the whole day mingling with crowds as he made his way back to the capital Thimphu, often on foot, after another sacred coronation ritual in the central town of Punakha.

Babies were kissed, old friends hugged and everyone apparently awestruck. As he walked into Thimphu, a crowd of thousands fell silent.

“I am not saying he is perfect, we will have to see,” said one witness who preferred not to be named. “But in terms of PR he has got these extraordinary qualities.”

Visiting Thailand in 2006, the young prince got the sort of reception usually reserved for pop stars, huge crowds and even screaming girls turning out for a glimpse of the man they nicknamed “Prince Charming.”


Bhutan’s prime minister and royal family friend, Jigmi Thinley, says the young king is very compassionate, gentle and kind, a man who loves children and was always liked in the royal household -- not your average spoilt crown prince.

“He is not at all into the kingly pursuits,” Thinley told Reuters in an interview. “He never liked to hunt even as a child -- and hunting is something a king must do -- and I have never seen him in a fast car.”

As a prince, Wangchuck famously adopted a young village boy who had congenital eye problems, sending him for treatment abroad that saved his sight.

He took over as king two years ago -- the coronation has had to wait for an astrologically auspicious date -- and has already expanded a royal welfare system that helps the rural poor.

His formal role under the new constitution is very limited, but Bhutan’s new monarch will continue to provide moral leadership. And already there are signs the new king has an independent mind to go with his looks.

His father famously set out the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as gross national product, that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.

The new king says each generation has to interpret GNH in its own way and is subtly turning the idea on its head -- a vibrant economy, he says, is the very foundation on which national happiness can be built.

Unemployment is rising sharply among the young, and social problems such as drugs use and crime are mounting. Bhutan’s weakness, says the young Wangchuck, is its economy -- in a world that demands economic excellence.

“Now if we can build a strong economy, we will have the unshakable foundations for a vibrant democracy,” he said. “This will be the means through which we will achieve Gross National Happiness and fulfil the aspirations of our people.”

Those aspirations are rising all the time as materialism makes inroads into mainly Buddhist Bhutan, and the young king knows his country has many challenges ahead. He is already reaching out to the younger generation to face those challenges together.

“I enjoy talking to you not just because it is my duty,” he told a group of graduates last month, “but because we will be starting our lives together and ending our careers together.”

“When we retire 20 or 30 years later, let us pass the country proudly into younger hands.”