Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bhutan crowns young king to guide young democracy

THIMPHU (Reuters) - With mediaeval tradition and Buddhist spirituality, a 28-year-old with an Oxford education assumed the Raven Crown of Bhutan on Thursday, to guide the world's newest democracy as it emerges into the modern world.

As the chief abbot chanted sacred sutras to grant him wisdom, compassion and vision, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned Bhutan's Fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, by his own father, who imposed democracy and then abdicated two years ago....

Freed from the burden of government his father bore, Wangchuck remains an important symbol of national unity and stability in a country of just 635,000 people undergoing a sometimes traumatic and divisive transition to the modern world.

Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, as well as describing the king as "strikingly handsome," also calls him "the guarantor of democracy."...

Five decades ago, Bhutan was a feudal, mediaeval place with no roads, proper schools or hospitals and scarcely any contact with the outside world. Today education and healthcare are free and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.

For most Bhutanese, credit goes to the outgoing monarch, the 52-year-old Fourth King, who saw that his tiny country, perched precariously between India and China, had to be stronger to survive in a dangerous neighborhood.

He was also the architect of Bhutan's widely admired national philosophy, Gross National Happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as money, that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.

But the Fourth King's rule was not without controversy.

In the late 1980s, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis, mostly Hindus living in the southern lowlands, protested that their language and culture were being crushed by the Buddhist north.

Many were forced into exile, and today 100,000 live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, excluded from this new democracy.

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