King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has indicated his interest in abdicating and handing over the crown to his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. We laud this expression of interest by a sitting monarch to hand over power, without going into a paroxysm of praise as sections of the international media have done nor cynically challenging every word of the king’s statement as Kathmandu and Lhotshampa refugee commentators have done.
The fact is that King Jigme is an astute diplomat, who knows how to implement a policy he has set. To the king goes much of the credit for national advance in cultural preservation, environmental measures, Druk Yul’s controlled entry into the modern world, smart diplomacy especially with India, and an ability to bring in high-end tourism to cash in on the attractive Drukpa-Kagyu culture of north and west Bhutan. The monarch’s ability to turn astute Western and Indian diplomats into praiseful supplicants makes him unique among the leaders of Southasia – and he impresses by the simple acts of coming down to the palace portal to greet visiting diplomats.
The initiative of King Jigme to convert the traditional feudal monarchy into a modern-day, constitution-abiding nation state must also be welcomed. The draft constitution, however, has many elements that are questionable and must be challenged, including the king’s prerogative to appoint Supreme Court justices, and the government’s ability to create statelessness in its citizenry.
While it is easy to be cynical about the intent of the king in abiding by the constitution, or of abdicating in letter and spirit in favour of his son, the fact is that he has made a public commitment on which he will be judged. Bear in mind also that King Jigme functions within the confines of a conservative clergy and the interests of the dominant Ngalong community of the northwest, and it is not possible for the outsider to say exactly how much King Jigme is his own player. The suspicion is that he is.
Unfortunately, even as Bhutan tries to achieve high levels of ‘per capita happiness’, as the king famously wants, there has been a blot on the record during his reign which will dog the royal legacy. The king it was who led the charge against the Lhotshampa subjects of the south of Bhutan, and it was under King Jigme’s watch that his subjects were hounded out of the country. Fortunately, the refugee agency UNHCR discovered them encamped by the Mai River in southeast Nepal and the international community has been providing them support since the last 16 years.
King Jigme and his advisors had miscalculated, thinking that the Lhotshampa Nepali-speakers would disappear into the Southasian fastness as did earlier Nepali exiles from India’s Northeast and Burma. That has not happened, and the Bhutanese refugees — of all ethnicities and castes, and an unpoliticised peasantry at the outset — stand mute testimony to the rule of a monarch who was very smart in all he did, including depopulation.
When it is written in the history books which country it was that depopulated the highest proportion of its citizens in modern times, the answer will be Druk Yul. And when it is said, under whose watch did it happen, the answer will have to be King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. In retirement, perhaps he can mull over this legacy and decide whether there is still the time to undo grievous wrongs.