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Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

Bhutan Crowns New King

November 06, 2008 03:20 PM
by Anne Szustek
Months after Bhutan reluctantly participated in its first democratic election, the country has a new king in 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is expected to continue the Himalayan kingdom’s slow path to modernization.

Younger Bhutanese King Continues Country's Foray into Democracy

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On Nov. 6, amid talismanic chanting from Bhutan's Je Khenpo, or chief abbot, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became the fifth king of the isolated Buddhist kingdom.

His father and former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in 2006 in favor of his now-crowned son. The elder Wangchuck instituted democracy shortly before he stepped down from the crown. Bhutan held its first-ever democratic election on March 24.

The monarchy yet remains a national symbol in this fledgling democracy, as evidenced by the comments from the subjects of the younger King Wangchuck.

"I am so overwhelmed," Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old trader, told Reuters. "This is the most important day in my lifetime."

The 28-year-old Wangchuck, educated at Oxford and having spent much of his youth in the United Kingdom, India and America, is expected to press on with his father's modernizing reforms while staying true to his father’s preference for “gross national happiness” rather than industrial development, keeping with anti-materialist Buddhist tenets central to Bhutanese culture.

"The king will be the force that will ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of democracy in our country," Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, who was elected in Bhutan's inaugural elections, told Reuters.

The younger Wangchuck will also be a guide in Bhutanese democracy, if the country's readiness to vote earlier this year is any indication. Bhutan-based paper Kuensel Online wrote in March, “Most of us lack a basic understanding of national issues and … we have no ideological intentions as we cast our votes.”

Both the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party, headed by former Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by the king’s uncle Sangay Ngedup, are devoutly royalist and insist that the democratic elections were the idea of the king, a point that needs to be made in a country where the monarchy is held dear.

The presence of the king's uncle in the PDP did not stop it from losing 44 of the 47 parliamentary seats up for grabs, however, including Ngedup’s.

“They have given the government to the public now,” one anonymous voter told Reuters in March. 

The kingdom ended its formal isolation by joining the United Nations in 1971 and allowed foreign correspondents and tourists into the country three years later. But modernization and foreign influence is greatly restricted.

Only 6,000 tourists may visit per year—and only then after paying at least $200 a day for a visa. Television was not introduced until 1999 and citizens must wear national dress in public.

Background: Bhutan today

Historical Context: Bhutan, Buddhism and the monarchy

Reactions: ‘Moving into a new era’

Opinion & Analysis: Readiness for democracy

Reference: Bhutan

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