Archive for Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bhutan becomes democracy, at king’s urging

March 25, 2008


— Long known as a quirky holdout from modernity, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan ended a century of absolute monarchy Monday by electing a staunch royalist as its first prime minister.

So it goes in Bhutan, possibly the first country in history where a king had to convince his people that democracy was a good idea.

Known by its people as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan's snowcapped peaks and mountainside monasteries have long intrigued Westerners in search of a Buddhist nirvana. But the kingdom is, in many ways, a strikingly conformist place where the outside word is viewed warily and self-promotion and confrontation are frowned upon.

Just a few months ago, criticism of high officials was unimaginable to many here. Now they're wondering what will become of their Precious Ruler as he gives up much of his power to politicians.

"There was much resistance when His Majesty told us that we must decide our future if Bhutan was to prosper," said Karma Dorji, a 55-year-old civil servant waiting to vote in Thimphu, the capital.

That order came in late 2006, and Bhutan was already prospering. Its average annual of income of $1,400 was twice neighboring India's, and nearly all its people had access to schools and hospitals, a rare achievement in this corner of the world.

Such success contrasts sharply with South Asian countries like Nepal or Bangladesh, which often seem like case studies in democracy gone wrong - a fact that left many here dreading the change.

But "we have come to see that this is an opportunity he has given us because he is farsighted and wise," Dorji said. Still, he added, "We prefer our king."

So does the new prime minister, Jigmi Kinley, who twice served as premier under royal rule. Kinley's Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party was considered the more royalist of the two very royalist political parties in Monday's elections.

Kinley was celebrating his landslide - his party took 44 of the 47 parliament seats - in remote eastern Bhutan on Monday. The party's spokesman, Palden Tshering, called the win a "victory for His Majesty."

Kinley is likely to be named prime minister soon. The king, 28-year-old Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, will remain head of state and likely retain much influence.

Bhutan's monarchy, which only opened the country to the outside world in the early 1960s, has made a point of preserving Bhutanese culture in ways that seem heavy-handed to outsiders - and a few Bhutanese - such as a mandated dress code and not allowing television or the Internet in until 1999.

The country has made tremendous gains since the 1960s, when there were no paved roads, no electricity and no hospitals. Almost no foreigners were let in.

Now the country is likely to soon join the World Trade Organization and it welcomes about 20,000 tourists a year, albeit on heavily supervised, expensive trips.


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