AFP - The isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan crowned a new king Thursday, placing a charismatic Oxford-educated bachelor as head of state of the world’s newest democracy. With the rest of the world gripped by the historic US election win for Barack Obama, all eyes in Bhutan were on 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, now the world’s youngest reigning monarch.
In an ancient Buddhist ritual in the white-walled palace overlooking the picturesque Thimphu valley, Wangchuck was handed Bhutan’s Raven Crown by his father. "It’s a wonderful day, there is no cloud in the sky. The gods are here. It will be remembered as an event which unifies the Bhutanese people," Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley told reporters. The country now goes into three days and nights of festivities, and has even shut down its mobile telephone network for the occasion. The deeply revered former king, who is 52, abdicated two years ago as part of his plan to reform and modernise the staunchly traditional and insular nation of just over 600,000 people by ending absolute royal rule. Bhutan, wedged between India and China and never colonised, has witnessed sweeping changes this year — having held its first democratic elections for a new parliament and prime minister in March. Since the former king’s abdication, the century-old Wangchuck dynasty has been waiting for astrologers to give the go-ahead for the coronation.
The palace was packed with hundreds of foreign dignitaries, including Indian President Pratibha Patil, ruling party leader Sonia Gandhi and Bollywood stars. It was also surrounded by lines of jubilant locals dressed in their national costumes. The new king has pledged to maintain his father’s unique philosophy of improving "Gross National Happiness," and not common economic indicators, to ensure well-being in the "Land of the Thunder Dragon." "I am happy, my friends are happy and in general as a nation we are happy," enthused Sonam Phuntsho, a 27-year-old civil servant. "He is reaching out to the people. He is a very smart and decent man," he said of the new king. The royals in Bhutan are deeply revered, although the family clearly wanted to escape the fate of their counterparts in nearby Nepal — which saw the outbreak of a Maoist insurgency in 1996 that culminated in the abolition of the monarchy there this year. "The best time to change a political system is when the country enjoys stability and peace. Why wait for a revolution?" Bhutan’s former king said when he began the democratic reform process in 2005. Continuing to balance Bhutan’s exposure to the forces of globalisation will be the new king’s main challenge — especially as many in the younger generation now have access to satellite television and the Internet. Bhutan had no roads or currency until the 1960s and allowed television only in 1999. The extremely beautiful country also continues to resist the temptation of allowing mass tourism — preferring instead to allow access to only small organised groups of well-heeled visitors. "We are a small and traditionally oriented country. We have to preserve our traditions, and it’s important to control external influence," explained Heroka Zangpo, a 25-year-old public utility worker enjoying the festivities. Still, many people are also confused over why the hugely popular former king decided to step down, and view the transition to democracy with trepidation. There are also potential external threats. Bhutan forced out 100,000 ethnic Nepalese in the early 1990s during a campaign to impose compulsory national dress and ban the Nepalese language. The refugees went on to languish in camps in Nepal, which have seen the emergence of a communist rebel movement determined to wage war against the Wangchuck dynasty.