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Bhutan's new king committed to democracy

By Biswajyoti Das
Reuters
Monday, December 18, 2006; 1:20 AM

GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Bhutan's new king, who ascended the throne after his father abdicated last weekend, said that he was committed to transform his kingdom into a parliamentary democracy.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ruled the remote Buddhist nation for over three decades, announced on Saturday he was handing over the crown to his Oxford-educated 26-year-old son, Crown Prince Jigme Kesar Namgyel, a year earlier than expected.

In his first public statement as monarch late on Sunday, the new king said he was committed to his father's plan to surrender much of the monarchy's power in 2008.

"Our responsibilities will always be, first and foremost, the peace and tranquility of the nation, the sovereignty and security of our country, fulfilling the vision of Gross National Happiness and strengthening the new system of democracy," Jigme Kesar Namgyel said.

His father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who took over the throne at the age of 16 after his father's death, sought to lift the "Gross National Happiness" of Bhutan with policies aimed at preserving its traditional culture and Himalayan environment.

Popular with many of his people, Wangchuck was criticized by human rights groups for introducing policies which discriminated against the country's ethnic Nepali population, tens of thousands of whom now languish in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal.

At the same time Wangchuck has been slowly pulling his isolated mountain state into the modern world, and has drafted a new constitution which would surrender some of his powers to an elected parliament.

The new constitution, which will be adopted later this month, aims to set up a two-party democracy after nearly a century of absolute monarchy.

For the first time in their life Bhutanese will elect representatives to parliament in a vote likely to be held before July 2008.

Thousands of officials are being trained and voters asked to familiarize themselves with election processes as Bhutan prepares for the polls.

Around 400,000 of the country's 700,000 people will be eligible to vote, election officials in the capital Thimphu said.

"To fulfill the aspirations of the Bhutanese, we all must first build a strong and dynamic economy," the new king Jigme Kesar Namgyel said.

"In doing so Bhutanese must remember that as a landlocked nation with a small population, it was vital to work harder," he said. "For our small kingdom excellence must be the only standard."

Bhutanese across the country on Sunday celebrated the 99th National Day of the country.

The country does not have a written constitution and its monarchy dates back to 1907 when the great-grandfather of the new monarch was formally anointed the first king with British support.

The new king is not likely to be formally crowned before 2008, on a date deemed auspicious on the Buddhist calendar, an official said.




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