One unique point about Bhutan’s rulers is their efforts to encourage the nation’s idyllic image, which largely stems from its remote alpine setting. Their efforts include, for instance, the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” a metric used to gauge a country’s well-being put forward by Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972. The concept boosted Bhutan’s image as an otherworldly kingdom, a country that was less concerned with wealth than with human well-being.
This “Shangri-La’ image was reinforced by Bhutan’s remoteness. Not only is it hard to access geographically, but successive rulers pursued policies that kept backpackers and mass tourists at bay. Steps were taken to guard the local culture from outside influences, including the restriction of communication. Bhutan opened up to radio broadcasting only in 1973, but held off television and Internet until 1999.
Bhutan’s democratic transition and the monarchy’s role in it have added to its positive image in the eyes of the world.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Unlike other South Asian countries where autocratic leaders have been loathe to relinquish power and need to be forced out of office through prolonged mass protests, Bhutan’s monarchy gradually loosened its hold on power. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated voluntarily in 2006 in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel.
The contrast with Nepal is stark. Decades of political activism and mass protests calling for multiparty democracy preceded Nepal’s transformation in 1990 from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and then to a democracy. It took more mass protests and a decade-long Maoist insurgency to strip the monarchy of most powers in 2006.
Bhutan’s democracy, by contrast, was initiated by the monarchy. It was a “gift of the king to his people,” a Bhutanese official told The Diplomat. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official pointed out that “not only did Bhutan begin its journey to democratization from the palace, but also the monarchy has played a lead role in mobilizing people to vote and strengthen democracy.”
What is more, “the new Constitution places restrictions on the monarchy,” he observed. It is mandatory for future kings to step down at the age of 65. The king can also be removed by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.
However, not everyone is impressed with the palace’s role in democratizing Bhutan or in Bhutan’s democracy itself. “It wasn’t enlightened leadership, altruism or benevolence but the need to secure the survival of the monarchy that prompted the royals to agree to share power with politicians,” a Bhutanese dissident based in Nepal observed, adding that the fate of Nepal’s monarchy shook the Bhutanese royal family.
Bhutan’s royals feared that reluctance to reform would set off demands for an end to monarchy, perhaps even triggering an armed uprising. “It was to pre-empt such demands that they decided to democratize,” the dissident added.