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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bhutan from Monarchy to Democracy

Bhutan's Flag
I wrote this blog entry for my family and friends to explain in a simple way in which Bhutan eventually went from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy.  I’m not a politician, historian, journalist nor do I have any desire to be, so I apologize if I’m not politically correct in any places or my Bhutanese history is wishy-washy.  I purposely left out some historical/political events to keep it simple.  I chose to write from the viewpoint of what I would call loyal Bhutanese citizens.  I hope no one is offended, as I am aware that there are different views about how Bhutan’s democracy came about.

Writing stems from the color of a lens a writer chooses to see the world.  

Long long ago, there was one of the most beautiful, remotest countries in the world known as the land of the thunder dragon, The Kingdom of Bhutan.  It was covered with the most precious natural resources among forestry, pristine rivers and shimmering waterfalls along the Himalayan Mountains.  In comparison to other countries, it was tiny and remote due to its staggering mountains and thick forestry that acted like a barrier to the surrounding, growing world.  This made it the world’s best-kept secret of what some called the last paradise on earth or Shangri-la.  Only the people of neighboring countries who bordered it truly knew of its beauty as well as a few blessed travelers who stumbled upon it and whispered their unbelievable sights to others.

Not only was the country like a hidden sanctuary, but also it was magical with tales of the second Buddha transforming it into a Buddhist country in the 7th century.  The Guru weaved all around Bhutan subduing evil sprits, building numerous sacred temples and even leaving imprints of his body in caves as well as scattering hidden treasures.  His message of compassion and love would forever leave imprints in the hearts of generations to come and set up a rich, colorful culture based on Buddhism. 

While the rest of the world transitioned into modernization, the deep folds of the Himalayas tucked away its country into a blissful, innocent cocoon.  To the simple villagers, there were no such things as plastic, garbage or pollution; everything came from nature including the woven cloth that wrapped their bodies and the mudstone homes they lived in.  

First King
Second King
So it seemed as though the world’s quietest, secluded country was destined for peace because when there was a long period of civil wars and rebellion outbursts, as there were little unity among the people, one man united the people under one rule and religion.  In 1907, he was anonymously appointed as the first hereditary Dragon King of Bhutan; he was given control in return for stabilizing and harmonizing the country.  His crown was not of gold or jewels, but was of a raven’s head symbolizing a guardian deity. 

Fourth King
Third King
He led the country into peace and secured the country’s sovereignty while his son followed in his path as the second King, then his grandson as the third King.  Finally, in the early 1960s, the third King slowly awakened the sleepy country into a new era of modernization.  Gradually the country had new roads, hospitals, more schools, etc.  His hard work would be the catalyst of what was to come of Bhutan’s rapid development. 

When this father of modernization suddenly passed away, his young, handsome son became the fourth King in 1972 at the age of only 17.  A teenager would rule the country and eventually marry four gorgeous sisters.  This is where the fairy tale really heightens!

The Fourth King and his beautiful Queens
Like the Dragon Kings before him, the Bhutanese citizens loved the young fourth King dearly and they fully trusted him to rule the country with integrity and peace.  The teenage King grew into a man who some called enlighten, selfless, visionary… because he continued his forefathers’ vision of modernization in a drastic way, eventually creating a utopian philosophy that new-age scholars would flock to study.  His break through philosophy occurred one day after countless occurrences of being asked about the Gross National Product (GNP) of Bhutan and he bluntly remarked that he was more concerned with the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of his country.  From that day forward, the GNH philosophy took a life of its own as it promoted the welfare of happiness and spiritualism to be in balance with economic gains; the foundation for preserving Bhutan’s culture, conserving their natural environment, creating sustainable development and establishing good governance (the four pillars of GNH).

Unbelievably, there was more than a coined philosophy hidden inside the vision of the quiet, simple fourth King.  He had a lurking grand plan that would shock his people as well as the outside world.  Finally, one winter day in 2005, at the age of 50, he announced what will forever be in Bhutan’s history books: he would step down from his throne in favor of his son and he planned to transition the country into a parliamentary democracy.  Whereby his son, the new fifth King, would act as the head of state (can be impeached by a majority two-third vote by the lower house/must retire at age 65 to be succeeded by next in line), but the people would elect members of a lower house and upper house and he would hand over democracy to the elected representatives and a prime minister.  The people would participate in the future development of the country! 

However, when the people heard the news they gasped, “But why, we love you as our King? Why don’t you want to rule over our country?”  Even the outside world questioned why someone would give up his power.  His answer was thoughtful and kind:  The time had never been better for the Bhutanese people to become a democratic country simply for the benefit of the country’s future.  He knew that there was no guarantee that every King who would succeed him could benefit the well being of the people/country because the title of a King is hereditary and not through ones good deeds or qualifications.  Thus, after 100 years of a monastic ruling, the Kingdom of Bhutan was gently nudged into democracy.

So Bhutan did not struggle for democracy due to bloodshed wars where innocent people were murdered and mothers cried over their sons’ dead bodies; there were no leaders who greedily clung to power refusing to give it up nor were there any military reigns blowing up protesters.  Instead the fourth King of Bhutan made the decision on his own to willing hand over his throne and advocate democracy as one of his greatest gifts to further develop the country into a modern political system.  But the story doesn’t end there.

To ensure the people that democracy was the best for the country, together the royal father and his son traveled around the country to even some of the remotest corners to talk to villagers of all ages about democracy and to share with them the country’s first constitution.  Indeed, the people only admired their King even more and immediately accepted the new democracy; they peacefully held their first parliamentary elections in 2008 and are successfully preparing for their second elections in 2013. 

Crowning of the Fifth King
The King and Queen
Shortly after the first election, the fourth King’s son was crowned as the fifth King and similar to his father, he is guiding the democratization and promoting GNH alongside prosperity.  With the good and bad of modernization creeping into the last Shangri-la, the fifth King faces new challenges that his forefathers had never seen, such as an increase in crime among the youth.  So with a transition into the peak of modernization, His Majesty wisely places special interest in the youth and education as he tours schools and personally speaks to teachers as well as school children.  His Majesty is also known as The People’s King because when he tours it’s easy to see him warm heartily among the people: talking, listening, laughing, smiling, hugging… He is a sensation in Bhutan as well as his beautiful Queen. 

From the outside looking in, it seems as though Bhutan breezed into democracy over night, but there were years of planning and systemizing.  Nevertheless, it happened in a way that I like to look at as a sweet fairytale in comparison to other countries where some people give up their lives for others to have a say in government or how other Himalayan Buddhist countries didn’t have a chance for democracy as they were trampled on by their larger neighbors. 
So how the story of Bhutan continues awaits in the future, but if I could stretch my Bhutanese fairytale far into the distance, I would imagine:  while the rest of the world struggled with military advances, dictatorship, corruption and obsession with GNP, Bhutan focused on free higher-education and free healthcare for the pure benefit of its people.  Bhutan showed the world that an investment in the future generation only generated a better future-more advancement in all fields. The government was made up of the best intended while the citizens were fully involved.  I’ll end my little fairytale with imagining that the entire world learned something from this tiny country, as it was a microcosm for how other large countries transitioned into democracy peacefully or incorporated GNH. 


  1. Sabrina, a really good post. If your family and friends care to read about Bhutan through this article, I have no doubt how clearly they will have known the aspects of Bhutan's history you have covered here. I am amazed by the immense knowledge and depth of understanding you have about Bhutan. I hope the fairytale vision you have mentioned as the continuation of the history of Bhutan happens for real and Bhutan lives up to the image it has created in the minds of you and the like people elsewhere. Liked reading the post. Keep writing.I can see a book on Bhutan by you in the near future. A book on Bhutan by another foreigner! :)

    1. Thanks Langa, I did give any details just a quick skim. Although Bhutan is geographically small it's extremely rich in history and I feel like there is so much that I don't know. As for the book, I'll send you one of the first copies lol. I'm not sure why, but I think that authors might need lawyers so hurry up and finish your law degree lol.

    2. Haha. Fine. I will hurry up then. lol

  2. Very interesting post I will have to read it over once more.To grasp all this information about the history of Bhutan and the Kings.You have learned so much since you have been there.You are not only writing about Bhutan you are living the life walking in the shoes of a true Bhutanese person .How she lives ,eats, ..........keep us informed about the election in you much mom

    1. Yes and I encourage everyone to do their own research. I left out lots of interesting things.