Vol. 5 Num 557 Tue. December 20, 2005  

Bhutan stunned by king's decision to abdicate

Citizens of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan have expressed shock at the king's decision to abdicate in favour of his son before democratic elections in 2008.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 50, on Saturday announced that his eldest son, the crown prince, would take over from him in 2008, when the country will hold its first national elections.

The king has ruled the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as Bhutan is known, since ascending the throne in 1972 at the age of 17.

"The entire nation was bewildered when the king made this surprise announcement of stepping down in favour of the crown prince and holding democratic elections," Kinley Dorji, editor of Bhutan's national newspaper Kuensel, told AFP by telephone.

"The people of Bhutan did not really expect this historic and dramatic decision to come so early."

Wangchuck told a crowd of 8,000 yak-herders, monks, farmers and students at the remote village of Trashiyangtse, about 900 kilometres (560 miles) east of Bhutan's capital Thimphu, that he would immediately hand responsibility to the 25-year-old Crown Prince Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.

He said now was the best time to move on.

"The best time to change a political system is when the country enjoys stability and peace," he told the crowd.

"Why wait for a revolution? Why crown an heir only when the nation is in mourning for a late king?"

The crown prince would be enthroned before Bhutan adopts a constitution and elects a prime minister in 2008 under its first parliamentary democracy.

The king will give up absolute power to become a constitutional monarch to the largely Buddhist nation of almost 600,000 people.

People across the country received the king's announcement with shock and disbelief.

"I was shell-shocked and cried when I heard the news of our king deciding to step down," said Tushi Zemba, a hotelier in Samdrup Jongkhar district bordering the northeast Indian state of Assam.

Witnesses said people, unable to come to terms with the news, joined hundreds of Buddhist monks to hold special prayers.

"We have not yet understood what could be the implications when there is a change from monarchy to parliamentary democracy. We are offering prayers for the well being of the country," R. Gyeltshen, a retired government official in Thimphu, said.

The transition began four years ago when the king handed over the powers of daily government to a council of ministers and empowered the national assembly to force a royal abdication if the motion was backed by three-quarters of its membership.

Bhutan earlier this year unveiled a 34-point constitution, which is now being sent to some 530,000 citizens for their views and was expected to be ratified after a referendum.