- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002


THIMPHU, Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is held in such high esteem by his people that when he offered to give up some of his hereditary powers, members of parliament immediately asked him to reconsider.

But the king, who came to the throne in 1972 at age 16 after the death of his father, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, stuck to his decision that the remote Himalayan country should be run along more democratic lines.

Four years ago, he devolved executive authority to an elected Council of Ministers and further radical political changes followed.

The king has ordered decentralization of powers to village committees that are elected by the people, universal adult suffrage was introduced this year and he has set up a committee to draft the country's first constitution, which is expected to include the introduction of political parties.

"The first draft of the constitution will be ready very soon and it will include the role of the monarch," said Prime Minister Kinzang Dorji.

"It then has to go through consultations with the people and parliament."

The king is the fourth hereditary monarch of the tiny country, which has a population of 699,000. Bordered by India to the south and east and by China in the north, Bhutan's people follow Mahayana Buddhism, which has unique beliefs and practices.

Bhutan was never colonized and fiercely protected its independence and isolation from the world, only allowing foreigners to enter since the 1970s and joining the United Nations in 1971.

Local elections this month will be the first since a universal adult-suffrage law was passed. Previously, each household had one vote.

"It will be the first election when every adult is eligible to cast a vote," Mr. Dorji said.

Of the 150 members of the National Assembly, 105 are elected, 35 are appointed by the king and 10 are representatives of Buddhist groups.

In each of the country's 20 dzong, or districts, the governor, who is appointed by the government, used to be in charge of all local administration.

But this year the king surprised everyone by saying that power would now rest with the village committees.

"People in the local areas will be in charge of decision-making, fiscal devolution. It is a very new initiative," the prime minister said.

"His Majesty has given his powers to the people. No other king has done this. The trust he has put in them is enormous," said Pem Dorji, governor of the Wangdue Phodrange dzong in central Bhutan.

Analyst Karma Ura from the Center for Bhutan Studies said many people in Bhutan could not understand why the king wanted to give up his powers.

"People are happy to be ruled by the king, and feel that he has their best interests at heart. In a Buddhist country, the king is both a teacher and a leader and embodies wisdom and compassion.

"It is true that the leadership has been progressive and the king is pushing people towards new political frontiers."

Mr. Ura added: "Bhutan is a substantive democracy. It may not be multiparty democracy, but the substance of democracy is fulfilled.

"This is partly because we have such a small population, so that at a grass-roots level, people can make themselves heard."

But it remains to be seen whether Bhutan is really on the path to full democracy. The king's word is still law as seen in his proclamations on decentralization and there are people who believe the constitution will be a whitewash.

"The king has set up the committee because of pressure from the international community. It will not lead to real reforms," said Rakesh Chhetri, a Bhutanese academic who now lives in Katmandu, capital of nearby Nepal, and writes on Bhutanese issues.

Mr. Chhetri, a former government civil servant in Bhutan, left the country in the early 1990s with many people of Nepali descent, who said the government had imposed harsh anti-Hindu cultural reforms.

More than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese descent still live in U.N. refugee camps in southeastern Nepal.

The refugees have created a sticking point between the two Himalayan kingdoms Nepal wants them to go back to Bhutan, but Bhutan says most of the refugees left voluntarily and it will only accept back those who were forced out.

"The problem that we have with Nepal is something we wish to resolve together," said Foreign Secretary Ugyen Tshering.

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