Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck | Monarch with a mission 

Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck | Monarch with a mission 

Bhutan’s fifth King is aiming for his country’s ‘transformation’ through a new educational curriculum, governance reforms and connectivity and infrastructure projects 

On a cold but sunny day last December, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth King of the current line of Dragon Kings, stepped up onto the stage at Thimphu’s Changlimithang stadium to address the nation, the first such public address since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We fought an unknown and unpredictable enemy. I can now safely say that we have won the war,” the 42-year-old King said in Dzongkha. Deviating to English, the King then delivered a strong message on drugs and alcohol addiction, addressing Bhutan’s youth in particular. “This is a challenge we have to face. This is a reality we have to face. Failure is not an option. We have to address this,” he said, looking straight at the audience.

It was this challenge, of a social ill borne of the lack of economic opportunities, as more Bhutanese youth move from villages to urban centres, increasing youth unemployment numbers (20.9%), and a large migration of young Bhutanese to other countries, that brought the Bhutanese King to India last week. In meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and interactions with Indian CEOs and others around the world, he is seeking new global investment to power his plans for Bhutan’s “transformation”. Among the plans, powering his ‘Desuung’ programme (Guardians of Peace) for youth volunteers, a new educational curriculum called the Bhutan Baccalaureate, a slew of governance and bureaucratic reforms, bolstering Bhutan’s environmental agenda with a new Tourism policy that imposes $200 a day sustainable development fee (₹1,200 for Indians), and plans for a new connectivity and digital technology hub along Bhutan’s southern borders with India in a town called Gelephu, where its second international airport is coming up.

Another initiative, launched by the Bhutanese King a decade ago, is the Desuung Project (Guardians of Peace) that is building a network of young Bhutanese volunteers to work on community projects and help during natural disasters, and has trained about 35,000 volunteers so far. During the pandemic, where Bhutan saw about 62,000 COVID cases, but restricted casualties to 21 deaths, he didn’t just mobilise the Desuups (as the volunteers are called), he travelled to locations around the country himself to see the COVID task-force at work, spending close to 14 months as he trekked, rode by horse or drove to each affected district in the country.

Unusual tasks

Clearly, the tasks King Jigme Khesar sets himself are unusual for a monarch in any part of the world, where royalty is normally associated with a life of comfort and protocol, pressing the flesh and posing for photographs. What drives the fifth King, say most analysts in Bhutan, is the desire to fill the shoes the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, famous for the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), left for him when he abdicated from the throne in 2006. The abdication was met with public sorrow, and for a while the population balked at the next step the former King took, to turn Bhutan into a functional democracy and constitutional monarchy. Such reforms are normally wrought by revolutions, as in the case of neighbouring Nepal, not by the incumbent monarch, then just 51, himself.

In 2011, the new Bhutanese King met and married his Queen, Jetsun Pema, a distant relative and nearly a decade his junior, and pictures of the royal couple, and their two sons aged 6 and 3, always dressed in traditional attire, make the covers of international glossy magazines often.

While much about the royal family speaks of tradition and reverence for history, the Bhutanese King was educated in the ways of the modern world — after high school in Bhutan, he went to the U.S. to complete his schooling and then went to college at Oxford University in the U.K. For about a year in 2005, as Crown Prince of Bhutan, he took courses at the National Defence College in Delhi, learning lessons in statecraft and warfare — a period that was significant, as it preceded his father’s decision to step down and hand over power to him.

As King, Jigme Khesar has had to use the lessons he may have learnt very quickly. During his reign, Bhutan has gone from having diplomatic ties with just 21 countries, to 54 today. Bhutan still does not maintain full diplomatic ties with any permanent member of the UNSC, but there is constant pressure to change that. The 2017 military standoff between India and China at Doklam was a big challenge for the Bhutanese government, and while there were no public statements, both the fourth and fifth Kings of Bhutan are understood to have been involved in deftly handling the tricky relations with both neighbours.

Boundary talks with China that began in 1984 have made considerable progress, which could have repercussions for India in Doklam, and will possibly need more nimble diplomatic footwork by Bhutan of the kind seen last week. Above all, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s task will be in ensuring a strong GDP and a strong GNH, so that as his country opens its doors wider, its people aren’t buffeted by both internal and external winds.

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