The two landlocked Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan lie almost side by side, each of them sandwiched by giant neighbors China and India. But if they share a common geography, they have wildly differing political histories. Nepal has been rocked by violent protests, a large rebel movement and increasingly angry calls to abolish the monarchy over the past two decades. When change has come there, it is usually only after the streets of the capital filled with angry marchers.
In Bhutan, though, change has quietly come from above, as the king has taken the lead to shrink the role of his generations-old monarchy, and usher in a parliamentary democracy. On Sunday, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, Bhutan's ruler for the last 33 years, astounded his subjects by declaring that he would step down as ruler in 2008, abdicate the throne in favor of his son and hold the country's first-ever general elections.
If the announcement came suddenly, for Bhutan watchers the King's decisions were no surprise. Since the early 1980s, Wangchuk has been introducing steps to shepherd in democracy, cutting at the roots of the monarchy his family has held since being installed by the British in 1907.
By all accounts, though, the king hopes that by curtailing his family's power he'll help his country move ahead.
"It's a move the king has taken without any pressure from below ... the natural culmination of a process he has started himself," says K.S. Jasrotia, a former Indian ambassador to Bhutan. "This is the best time for change. Bhutan has peace and stability. The King wants to bring the crown prince and democratic change while he is still around," said Kinley Dorji, editor of Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper.
The draft constitution, a copy of which was sent to every Bhutanese citizen seeking their opinions, proposes a two-tiered election system. The two parties which win the largest number of votes in a primary election will be eligible to participate in the 2008 general election.
"The idea is to prevent a plethora of opposition parties all haggling and negotiating and disrupting governance," said Dorji.
Observers say the king's efforts are aimed at shifting the country toward democracy before people begin to rise up and demand it, and potentially create the sort of problems seen in Nepal.
Opposition to the monarchy there has escalated since the Nepalese king declared a state of emergency in February and seized absolute power. Since then, political parties have been in ferment amid calls from Maoist rebels for scrapping the monarchy altogether. For decades, Bhutan's monarchs tried to hold off change by keeping the country deeply isolated. It was not until 1974 that the international media were allowed into the country. Television only came in 1999 and foreign visitors are still restricted to 6,000 each year, and must be escorted by government-designated guides.
Despite such restrictions, the king is widely regarded as a benevolent monarch who judges his nation's development in an unlikely way.
"The King has adopted "Gross National Happiness" as the measure of Bhutan's development," said Dorji, adding that development should not be calculated in materialist terms. Environmental conservation, preserving the kingdom's rich spiritual and cultural heritage and good governance are given precedence in policy making, reports the AP. I.L.