Shangri-La, changing

December 27, 2005

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan celebrated its 58th National Day last week in quite a stir over the unexpected announcement by its enlightened ruler, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, that he would abdicate in favor of his son in 2008. At that time, the Buddhist kingdom's first parliamentary elections will be held, and the king will become subject to the parliament's approval.

This is only the latest big change to come suddenly from on high for the Bhutanese, who until fairly recently were so isolated from the rest of the world by their mountains and sealed borders that their land was viewed abroad as a latter-day Shangri-La, the very last untouched place.

Many of these changes have met with ambivalence. Foreign tourists can now enter Bhutan but only on tours and in limited numbers. Cable TV and the Internet came only in 1999, immediately prompting a running national debate over adverse influences. While pushing for modernization of schools, roads and telecommunications, the Buddhist king likes to talk more of gross national happiness than gross national product.

Giving up an almost 100-year-old absolute monarchy for a two-party constitutional monarchy is no small matter, particularly when it's being pushed by the king himself, not political activists in the streets. That contrasts sharply with the region's other remaining monarchy, Nepal, where the king - facing Maoist guerrillas and an angry democracy movement - essentially seized power in February by disbanding the parliament.

King Wangchuck's rule has hardly been entirely benign, having earned human rights criticism for the treatment of its large Nepalese minority. But the 50-year-old king has wisely chosen political change over political turmoil, opting for greater democracy before it becomes the battle cry from Bhutan's streets - and in the process, he's more likely to sustain his monarchy in some form. His measured approach to inducing progressive changes without instability ought to provide some lessons for besieged Nepal and other places where traditional cultures and the modern world collide.

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