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Bhutan: The New King

December 1, 2008
November 29, 2008

Behold the world's youngest ruler, whose primary challenge at 28 is
to continue the democratic seeds planted by his father.

His grandfather opened Bhutan to the world; his father preserved its
independence. Now, at 28, the man who last week took on the title of
Fearless Lightning Lion has the task of making the tiny, landlocked
Himalayan kingdom a fully democratic 21st century Asian state.

rince Jigme Khesar Wangchuck is the fifth of the Wangchuck dynasty to
ascend to the throne in the fort-like castle, or dzong, that runs
along the Thimphu river.

The 28-year-old scion of the Wangchuck dynasty, has been performing
all the kingly functions since last year. The Bhutanese refer to him
in conversations as 'the Fifth King'.

With the first three kings not having survived to 50, he will
probably feel a sense of urgency to fulfil his mission.
"Much of it is thanks to the old king's common sense approach to
foreign policy."

His father, King Jigme Singhye Wangchuck, was thrust to kingship at
age 17, when the third king died of a heart attack.

Almost immediately, an assassination plot was uncovered, said to have
been masterminded by the third king's Tibetan mistress.

Young, friendless and under threat, King Jigme Singhye was known for
a reckless streak, tearing around the mountains in his high-powered
motorbike, going rock climbing and spending days in a log cabin up
near the peaks.

Besides, India, Bhutan's most important neighbour, was an uncertain
factor. King Jigme Singhye grew up calling Indira Gandhi 'auntie'—so
close were ties with India's ruling family—but even so, insecurities
rose after India annexed the Himalayan state of Sikkim in 1975. "We
had close ties with the Chogyal and we were slightly related too," he
once told this writer. "At the time, we felt bad for the Chogyal."

The new king is luckier, having grown up in more secure environs.
King Jigme Singhye—at 53, still fit enough to play basketball with
the troops—is always available to give a senior's counsel.

Ties with India are close to the point of being tight. Last year, New
Delhi freed Thimphu from treaty obligations to consult India on
foreign policy. Much of it is thanks to the old king's common sense
approach to foreign policy.

Unlike Nepal, which has been reluctant to share its vast
hydro-electric resources with energy-short India, Bhutan has been far
more forthcoming.

The result has been a windfall that has given the landlocked state
the highest per capita income in South Asia, thanks to the sale of
power to India.

At US$1,840 last year, Bhutan's per capita income is double that of
giant neighbour India and four times that of Nepal, whose hereditary
monarchy was abolished this year.

In taking his tiny state into the 21st century and managing the
demands of the democratic politics introduced by his father, King
Jigme Khesar's education will no doubt also be a boon.

His father was educated at North Point School in Darjeeling, India,
and for two years at Heatherdown Preparatory School in England. At
age 13, he was brought back to be raised in Bhutanese traditions and
taught Dzongkha, the local language.

The new king, while steeped in Bhutan's culture, is very much a
modern man. In his early years, King Jigme Khesar was bunched with
Bhutanese children, learning Dzongkha, Buddhism and local dances.
Later, he was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, in the United
States, Wheaton College in Massachusetts and eventually, Oxford
University's Magdalen College. He did a stint at New Delhi's National
Defence College, connecting with India's elite, and seeking out
dignitaries visiting New Delhi.

People say the new man is very much the father's son, inheriting some
of his austere aloofness. "Even at 20, when you went before him, you
got the feeling of being in the presence of someone much older," says
a senior government official. "There is so much of the father in
him." (By RAVI VELLOOR In Thimphu/ The Statesman/ AsiaNews)
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