The Dragon King

Written by Asma Siddiqui  •  Region  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

As Bhutan anticipates democratic reforms, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck rallies for the people’s cause.

On 17 December 1907, the Wangchuck dynasty, a hereditary monarchy, was established in Bhutan, after ousting the almost three hundred years old Buddhist theocratic rule of His Holiness, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Sir Ugen Wangchuck, governor of the Trongsa district, became the first king of Bhutan with direct support from British India. The second king of Bhutan was Jigme Wangchuck, followed by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated the throne in 2006 in favor of his son. The present King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth monarch in the lineage of the Wangchuck dynasty. He was the world’s youngest head of state until he was surpassed by Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was born on 21 February 1980 and is the eldest son of the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He graduated from Magdalen College, University of Oxford, with a degree in the Foreign Service Program and International Relations. Though Wangchuk became the King of Bhutan on 14 December 2006, he was not formally crowned until 6 November 2008, an auspicious year that marked 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan. The coronation ceremony for the King comprised of an ancient, colorful ritual, attended by thousands of foreign dignitaries, including the President of India, Pratibha Patil. According to CNN reports the Bhutanese people painted street signs, hung festive banners and decorated traffic circles with fresh flowers, to welcome their King.

Wangchuk was crowned the King of Bhutan when his father abdicated in his favor. His father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck had ascended the throne at the age of 20 in the year 1972. He is perhaps best known internationally for his overarching development philosophy of “Gross National Happiness.” Satisfied with Bhutan’s transition into a democracy, he abdicated in December 2006, believing that his son should have hands-on experience as the nation’s leader before presiding over a transformation in the country’s form of government. According to the national newspaper, Kuensel, he announced to his cabinet that as long as he himself continued to be King, “the Crown Prince would not gain the actual experience of dealing with issues and carrying out the responsibilities of the head of state. With parliamentary democracy to be established in 2008, there was much to be done; so it was necessary that he gained this valuable experience.”

On the other hand, the Bhutanese people felt betrayed after being compelled by the regime to demand the establishment of an inclusive and vibrant democracy. Many anticipated that the transition would define the role and responsibility of both king and the people. However, the  peoples’ right to participate in nation building by exercising their voting franchise was not forthcoming in the system of absolute monarchy. As a result of a vehement demand for democracy, the absolute monarchy was compelled to transform into a constitutional monarchy.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has also promoted the transition to democracy. The young king began his reign overseeing the democratization of his country by presiding over the last sessions of the parliament where electoral laws, land reform and other important issues were deliberated. He stated that the responsibility of next generation of Bhutanese was to ensure the success of democracy. He also traveled extensively around the country to encourage participation in the upcoming democratic exercises, speaking mainly to the youth of Bhutan. He stressed upon the need for Bhutan to strive for greater standards in education, business and civil service. His reign has seen the enactment of the Constitution of 2008 as well as the democratic elections of both houses of Parliament and three levels of local government – dzongkhag, gewog and thromde. Many government initiatives were previously undertaken by the new King with a view to strengthen the system in preparation for democratic changes in 2008. The first elected parliament formally adopted the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan on 18 July 2008.

The Crown Prince, popularly known to the people of Bhutan as ‘Dasho Khesar’, accompanied his father on tours throughout the Kingdom to meet and speak to the people. In May, he represented Bhutan at the UN General Assembly and made his first speech to the United Nations where he addressed issues related to the welfare of millions of children around the globe. He also attended Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Anniversary Celebrations in June in Bangkok. The youngest of the visiting royals, the Prince caused a sensation, giving rise to a legion of female fans in Thailand. The Thai press dubbed him “Prince Charming,” publishing his photograph and running stories on him and tourism in Bhutan for several weeks after he had left Thailand.

Following his 2006 visit to Thailand as Crown Prince, the King has been immensely popular in Thailand. The number of Thai tourists visiting Bhutan has increased steadily. In November 2011, the King and Queen Jetsun made a state visit to Japan, becoming the first state guests to the country since the 2011 earthquake. The Royal Visit had a similar effect, with reports that the Japanese were infatuated with the King and country.

With the new King reigning smoothly, the people seem satisfied and happy with both the monarchy and the new system of democracy. As Bhutan enters a new era of globalization, this has been a welcome change in the country. 

Asma Siddiqui is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues.
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