Bhutan’s former king the architect of GNH
By KAMATCHY SAPPANI
ANY story of Bhutan is incomplete without the tale of the dynamic and deeply revered 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who voluntarily abdicated in 2006 after more than three decades on the throne as Asia's last absolute monarch.
Born in 1955, Jigme Singye was just 17 and was studying in England when his father died and he inherited the throne.
Even as a teenager, he appeared to be quite clear in his mind that development was better measured by how happy his people were than by how much money they had and he said so in 1972.
Perhaps he had not been terribly impressed by the price the “rich” countries had to pay for progress the smog and pollution that tainted the air they breathed and the water they drank in sharp contrast to the uncrowded pristine land he was born and raised in.
Reports describe him as an athletic man who excelled in sports with the Bhutanese' favourite sport of archery and mountain biking often being mentioned as his particular passions.
He personally ran the country on a day-to-day basis.
Throughout his long reign, he reportedly trekked on foot to far-flung villages to find out how his subjects were faring. He listened to their woes and acted promptly to relieve their problems.
In one of his walkabouts, villagers complained about climbers going to mountains tops, places where their deities live. Jigme Singye immediately banned climbing peaks above 6,000m. As a result, Bhutan today boasts of the most unclimbed mountains in the world.
His environmental policies, rooted in the Buddhist belief that all life is interconnected, ensure the mountains of Bhutan remain forested and wild animals roam free, as hunting is prohibited.
When gold was found in the Black Mountains, he decreed that it would not be mined as mining despoils the land. Recently, Indian geologists reportedly discovered oil in the remote northern mountains close to China. The extent of that find is still being assessed.
Determined to bring about modernisation without sacrificing tradition and culture, he mandated that men wear the traditional gho, the women the kira and all buildings be built according to Bhutanese architecture. Cultural identity was to be a key pillar of Bhutanese happiness.
However, his poor handling of the Bhutanese Nepali (see next page) issue remains a serious scar on an otherwise remarkable rule.
Reducing tax burden
He continued his father's and grandfather's policy of reducing the medieval-style tax burden on his people by getting revenue from selling hydroelectric power to India and cautiously encouraging limited but well-heeled tourism.
He also implemented policies that lifted Bhutan's literacy rate from 10% in 1982 to 60% today. He expanded healthcare that raised life expectancy from 43 years in 1982 to 66 and reduced infant mortality from 163 deaths per thousand to 40.
But Bhutan remained largely quite cutoff from the world, wrapped in a unique bubble, untouched by the many major events that wracked the increasingly interlinked world. Most Bhutanese were cocooned in a medieval economy, ruled by a deeply loved king.
However, just before the dawn of the 21st century, this king decided to bring Bhutan out of its time warp. He delegated the day-to-day running of the country to a council of ministers and began to create the blueprint for the country's future government and policies.
This included his exit.
“Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth, not by merit,” he was often reported as saying.
The decade ahead was to see some dramatic changes in this fairy-tale land, sometimes described as a Shangri-la in travellers' tales.
In 1999, Bhutan became the last place on the planet to get television. The Internet followed and telecommunication infrastructure was expanded, connecting Bhutan to the rest of the world, virtually overnight.
With the self-confidence of a ruler whose country has never been colonised, he decreed that Gross National Happiness would be the litmus test of all development policies, and got his people cracking on the nitty-gritty of it.
He also drafted a constitution that spelled out a constitutional monarchy within a parliamentary democracy and a legal system. Every Bhutanese received a copy and feedback was invited.
Among others, he set the king's retirement at the age of 65, the same age that civil servants retire in Bhutan. Parliament was also given the power to impeach a bad king. Candidates wishing to be members of parliament have to be graduates.
In 2006, he abdicated against the wishes of his people who still venerate him as a visionary who ploughed his country's small resources into schools, hospitals and roads rather than palaces and overseas bank accounts.
His eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck ascended the throne to become Bhutan's first constitutional monarch.
Parliamentary elections were held for the first time in 2008 and a baffled populace, who could not understand why they needed a parliament when they had a good king, dressed up in all their finery and trekked for hours and days to vote because their new king urged them to do so and it was the wish of their former king. Turnout was an astounding 80%.
In May this year, democracy was further entrenched when local government elections were held. Posters everywhere appealed to women to stand as candidates. To qualify for local elections, a candidate just needed to be functionally literate and have the signatures of 15% of the voters.
Once the elder Wangchuck abdicated, he determinedly stayed out of the public arena, letting his son and parliament get on with the business of governing the land.
During his rule, he lived mostly in a modest royal cottage in the outskirts of the capital, Thimphu. He still lives there. His four wives, with a total of 10 children between them, live in homes much bigger than his, locals say.
Meanwhile, he had given away most of the palaces of the earlier kings to the monks to be turned into monastries, which also double as administrative centres.
He continues to be a legend in his own time. The Bhutanese believe that the four sisters he married at different times from 1979 are the direct descendants of the incarnation of Zhabtrung Namgyel who united Bhutan. In the temples of Bhutan, this Zhabtrung is one of the two revered ones who flank the statue of Buddha.
His legendary status was further enhanced in 2003 when he personally led a military campaign against Indian insurgents who were using Bhutan's border to set up training camps and launch sporadic attacks against the Indian army. Many earlier appeals to the insurgents to leave peaceably, even the offer of incentives, were ignored.
Under his direct command, the training camps were destroyed, the insurgents rounded up, and handed over to India. His people, shaken by anxiety over his safety, rejoiced. His ministers began preparing for massive celebrations to honour their triumphant hero.
But the king cancelled the celebrations, reminded everyone that 32 Bhutanese and many insurgents had died and ordered butter lamps to be lit for their souls.
Bhutan went into mourning.
Two years later, the eldest queen ordered the building of 108 chortens (stupas) at Dochula Pass, an important tourist stop, as an atonement for the loss of lives. The former king remains reclusive, with locals saying they have occasionally spotted the gho-clad 56-year-old dashing about on his mountain bike in the outskirts of Thimphu.
They only saw him again last week when he emerged to take part in his son's marriage rituals and dance with the wedding guests.
Karma Tsheteem, secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission believes that having kings who truly care is a key reason for Bhutanese happiness and a privilege the people themselves have earned in their past lives, according to the Bhutanese view of the karmic cycle.
“It is the merit of the Bhutan people,” he says, his face beaming with that special smile of deep pride and love that breaks out on almost every Bhutanese's face when they talk of their kings.
************************************************************************************His Majesty King
Jigme Singye Wangchuck
Born November 11, 1955 in the Dechenchholing palace in Thimphu, Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck became the "Druk Gyalpo" (Dragon King) of Bhutan in 1974 and is the world's youngest reigning monarchs now at 41 years of age. The king is married to four queens, drives a Toyota, loves American Basketball, and rules over the world's last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.
He has been called a King of the people by those that watch Bhutan. Ruling over the national assemblies he encourages the people's participation and has decentralized much of the government while keeping his royal control. His Majesty has never been known to refuse a citizen's request for an audience. Few leaders in this modern world are accessible to their people he.
Son of the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the king is fourth in the line of the Wangchuck dynasty. When his Majesty was crown prince he toured extensively with his father to the remote areas of the hidden kingdom to keep in tune with the people. This is something that he still does to keep a pulse of the nation. As his father started Bhutan's process of modernization the King is also continuing at a cautious pace.
Believed to be the real Shangri-La of legend, Bhutan is a preserve of Himalayan cultural and an ecological paradise. Bhutan or "Druk Yul" (Land of the Thunder Dragon) is one of the world's smallest countries with an area that is about the size of Switzerland. The King along with his cabinet have committed to keep 60% of the country forested forever and hunting is prohibited. Cultural preservation of language, dress and architecture are required by law and satellite dishes are banned. Tourism is controlled by a strict quota to keep out the cultural litter that has infiltrated other Himalayan areas.
Bringing a kingdom into the modern world from years of self imposed isolation is not an easy task. Bringing Bhutan into the modern world while preserving its unique culture and pristine environment is a daunting task even for a monarch. Tucked away between some of the world's most over crowded, impoverished, and ecologically decimated countries in Asia, Bhutan is increasingly being encroached on by the outside. Bhutan is battling for its very existence.
Joining the United Nations early in his reign was a major step in the modernization process started by his father. To keep Bhutan from being overrun by China or swallowed up by India as the country of Sikkim, or filled up with illegal immigrants has not been an easy endeavor. Modernization has been necessary, painful, and slow by design. His Majesty is the figure head that has kept the balance between economics, spiritual, cultural, and traditional values.
He was quoted by "Tashi Delek," Druk Air's in-flight magazine as saying, "It is the system, not the throne, which is important. A monarchy is not the best form government because a King is chosen by birth and not by merit. The people of Bhutan must be able to establish a system which works for them." This is why he works so hard at serving his people. "GNP" as he says, "Gross National Happiness is his yardstick of success." He is the symbol of Bhutan which inspires and leads the people.
My vote for the 13th General Election.
1) The party that get rid of all the Sultans
2) The party that get rid of JAIS and people like Hasan Ali, Ibrahim Ali and Mahathir
3) The party that will listen to the people.
4) The party that will abolish ABU.