Bhutan to crown new king

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The Independent Online

High in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, final preparations are underway for the coronation of a new ruler who will become both the world’s youngest reigning monarch and head of state of its youngest democracy.

Bhutan will enjoy three days of national celebrations following Thursday’s ceremony to crown 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as the Himalayan nation’s new head. And while he will not have the same absolute powers as his predecessors - Bhutan held its first parliamentary elections earlier this year - the new king will retain a crucial influence within Bhutanese society.

“It is the most significant event in the lives of the present generation of Bhutanese citizens,” Jigmi Thinley, the country’s prime minister and a staunch monarchist, told Reuters. “Even though in terms of governance we are now a democracy, there is no elected individual who will enjoy the kind of respect, trust, confidence and reverence our kings enjoy.”

Many believe the young, Oxford-educated king represents the latest step in the modernisation of Bhutan, which has only had television since 1999 and for decades was all but cut off from the outside world. The man who will wear the country’s traditional Raven Crown, has been waiting for this moment since his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced his decision to abdicate two years ago. Since then, palace officials have been waiting for an astrologically suitable day for the 52-year-old former king to place the crown on his son’s head and formally end his own rule.

The last coronation was almost 35 years ago in 1974 when the fourth King, was crowned at the age of 17. At the time, he said in his address: “The future of the nation lies in the hands of the people.”

The ceremony will take place the throne room of the white-walled fortress in the capital, Thimphu, in the presence of officials and politicians from across the region. From India President Pratibha Patil, Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling coalition and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee are all expected to attend. Reports suggest that in a deliberate move to underline the monarchy’s commitment to democracy, other royals were not invited.

Bhutan, with its striking natural scenery and philosophy of gross national happiness which stresses the importance of the 600,000-strong population’s spiritual and mental well-being, usually earns positive headlines. But the tiny country, sandwiched between India and China, faces considerable problems, not least its slow progress to modernity. Unemployment, crime and drug dependency are all rising.

There is also controversy about the way Bhutan treated its Nepali ethnic minority. In the early 1990s, the country stripped those people of their citizenship and forced them into exile, apparently in a bed to ensure a homogenous culture inside the country. Up to 100,000 refugees have been living in camps in Nepal ever since.

Earlier this year, planeloads of refugees began making the journey to the US, which agreed to resettle around 60,000 of them. Those who opted to make the journey said they had little alternative. In March, when the first flights began, refugee Jay Narayan Adhikari, told officials: “We chose to resettle because there was no other outlet. Talks between Nepal and Bhutan have produced no results.” His wife, Sita, added: “Everyone says ‘America, America, America’, but I don’t know much about it. It’s only for the sake of the children that we are ready to go.”

While there was initial public scepticism about the election earlier this year, the poll eventually had a turn-out of around and 80 per cent and saw the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (BPPP) take 44 of the 47 seats in the new parliament. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won the remaining three seats. The BPPP was seen as being slightly more supportive of the monarchy than its rival.