The new king’s coronation represents a rapid but controlled political and economic transformation taking place in the remarkable Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Over the past two years, Bhutan has peacefully turned itself from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one with parliamentary democracy. In 2006, when the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck – at 51, a few years younger than Britain’s Prince Charles – announced his abdication, it was greeted with surprise by the overwhelmingly royalist Bhutanese people.
The fourth king had been monarch for over three decades. Initial popular anxiety at his abdication was accentuated by the impending democratization he promised. Both kings and the state worked tirelessly to reassure people and prepare for the parliamentary elections in 2007-08, which culminated successfully on March 24 this year, as the Bhutanese embraced the system of democracy.
The new king addressed the first elected National Assembly of Bhutan on Dec. 22, 2006, and showed his passion for developing Bhutan. Since then he has been active in transforming the country in ways that will benefit the people. He has stressed “one nation, one goal,” as opposed to the “one nation, one people” slogan of an earlier era, in a forward-looking and inclusive vision that includes all areas of the country and seeks to heal the ruptures of the past.
Bhutan has set a new standard for international friendships, especially in its historic and close relationship with India. This is especially notable given the asymmetry in size and population of the two nations. The renegotiated India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty signed on Feb. 8, 2007, cemented the sovereignty of Bhutan and its status as an equal political actor in the relationship.
India is Bhutan’s most important trading and development partner, as evidenced by the hydropower projects and investments underway. Indian President Pratibha Patil was a conspicuous presence at the coronation celebrations.
At National Day celebrations on Dec. 17 last year, the king made a rousing speech to the country as it stood on the threshold of a new democratic era. After the cultural events, he walked among the crowds, sat and talked with the Bhutanese people who had travelled from far and wide to Thimphu for the celebrations.
It was heartening to see the access that Bhutanese people have to their monarch. In other places, people rarely have a chance for such spontaneous interaction with their leaders. The king greeted me in a friendly manner and wished me a pleasant visit in the kingdom, with a warmth rare among political rulers.
Since coming to power, the new king has shown foresight and maturity. Last year he undertook several significant steps toward improved governance. He initiated the new proactive “kidu,” or social welfare system, whereby state officials are responsible for locating people in need rather than the people having to travel to the capital Thimphu to appeal for help through an audience with the king. His logic is that the poorest sections of society cannot afford to travel to the capital to seek help, and so must be found and assisted by the state instead.
Irrespective of vested interests, he nationalized the sandstone and timber industries to make construction costs affordable and increase peoples’ chances to own homes. He issued a Royal Charter leading to the formation of Druk Holdings and Investments, an umbrella organization of companies across various sectors that aim for excellence and help safeguard the national wealth. The intent is to improve corporate governance and provide greater accountability and commercial discipline.
Because of his age and dynamism, people see the young king as an inspiring role model. He meets thousands of students, including those who are top in their class, and hundreds of graduates going abroad. His public speeches stress competitiveness, a strong economy, and a vibrant democracy, like the convocation address he gave in April last year at Sherubtse College, a premier academic institution, and his address to the school’s graduates in October 2007. On that occasion he told students: “My goals for Bhutan are very simple. We will build a vibrant democracy founded on a strong economy.” This, he said, would achieve gross national happiness and fulfill the aspirations of the people.
“Why am I always talking about the economy?” he asked. “I’m a realist. The success of a nation depends on the strength and competitiveness of the economy. This might change in the future. To succeed in a highly globalised world, we need a strong economy. I am focused on and excited by the challenges of creating a strong economy. To do that we’ll have to work harder than ever before.”
The fifth king has refuted the view of Bhutan as a small, struggling, landlocked Himalayan nation sandwiched between two large giants, India and China. Rather, he has emphasized that his is a dynamic, unique country that has the advantage of being close to rising powers in the contemporary world. This view of Bhutan’s geopolitical location goes against the conventional wisdom of imagining small states as lacking political agency.
The new king and the new democratic government led by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley give confidence that Bhutan can maintain its sovereignty and autonomy in international affairs. In his service to the country so far, the king has exhibited a hands-on, grassroots-based approach that focuses on professionalism and not mere seniority.
His dynamism and refreshing passion make him an exception in Asia, where self-serving, jaded elderly leaders rule many countries.
(Dr. Nitasha Kaul is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London, the United Kingdom. An expert on Bhutan, she has visited the country numerous times, given frequent interviews and is currently working on a book about democracy and identity in Bhutan. ©Copyright Nitasha Kaul.)