His Majesty the Fourth King’s 34 year golden reign saw many important and far reaching changes. However, the sheer nature and scope of the changes required not only good leadership but also a strong personality and sheer will to make things happen.
One person who saw, up close, how a very young King took on the heavy mantle of leadership was the former Chief Justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye was able make his observations as he first served as the Ziminangma (master of the household) to His Late Majesty the Third King in the crucial period of transition from 1971 to 1972 followed immediately by another important stint serving His Majesty the Fourth King’s court as Soelpon (Chamberlain).
This was followed by other important’ appointments like a High Court Judge, second RCSC Secretary, first Auditor General and High Court Chief Justice under His Majesty the Fourth King.
“His Majesty was a born leader and he was awesome even from an early age,” said Lyonpo Sonam.
Lyonpo remembered that even as a young boy he through his sheer personality became a natural leader among his friends.
“I remember my father (Babu Tashi) going to see the young crown prince in Dechencholing around 1958. My father was impressed and said that the crown prince was a very unique person,” said Lyonpo.
His Majesty the Third King’s court was formulated on the old system where except for the King nobody, including the crown prince, was given special treatment.
Lyonpo said, “My first sight of the great man was in 1971 when I had started my career at His Majesty the Third King’s court and even though he was a very young man he commanded natural respect from the older members of the court.”
“I personally noticed that His Late Majesty also had due respect towards his son and there was also a great deal of affection from His Late Majesty for his son,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo said that the crown prince used to visit his father quite frequently.
One thing that struck Lyonpo was that the crown prince though being barely around 14 to 15 years of age spent time mainly with the older members of the court who had served from His Majesty the First King and also many from His Majesty the Second King’s time. This was a trait His Majesty would continue to have, preferring to be mainly in the company of older men instead of teenagers his age.
At a young age the crown prince was picking up a lot of traditional knowledge including learning about Driglam Namzha and the traditional ways from the various old Dashos in the court.
Lyonpo saw the crown prince then transition to the role of Trongsa Penlop after his installation.
As the crown prince His Majesty could come in and meet his father as his son and crown prince and also sit on the benches but after becoming the Trongsa Penlop he had become a part of the court staff.
Lyonpo said there was no change at all in His Majesty even after being given the position and he behaved like the other court staff sitting on the floor only going inside to serve His Majesty when called for.
Close relationship with His Majesty the Third King
Lyonpo also noticed that the crown prince spent long hours being briefed by His Late Majesty on various important matters of the state in the Tashichhodzong.
The young crown prince was also a very devoted son. Once while travelling between Trongsa and Thimphu His Late Majesty’s health was not very good and occasional stops had to be made. Even though the crown prince’s car was three cars back, each time a stop was made he jumped out of his car and rushed to His Late Majesty’s side to help him.
In mid 1972 when His Late Majesty ’s health deteriorated and he had to go for treatment to Kenya he almost prophetically insisted that the crown prince should accompany him.
His Majesty the Third King passed away on 21st July 1972 in Nairobi in Kenya. His Majesty the Fourth King was only a tender 16 at this time. Lyonpo said the change was first visibly apparent to him when the private residence of His Late Majesty or the Royal Cottage at Lingkhana which was out of bounds saw many labourers and staff walking in to prepare for the funeral.
Dignity and poise
One anxiety at the time was that a Regency Act was in place which had the provision of a Regent until the crown prince attained the age of 21.
Lyonpo said that after returning from Kenya the crown prince addressed the National Assembly and the cabinet where he said he was not yet 21 and there was a Regency Act in place. He then left the National Assembly to attend to his other duties. “This showed that His Majesty even from then was very conscious of the rule of law,” said Lyonpo.
Later the National Assembly and the cabinet collectively repealed the Regency Act and the cabinet informed His Majesty of the National Assembly’s decision and requested His Majesty the take over the Golden Throne. It was only then that His Majesty accepted to do so.
One of first major duties for a young King who had just lost his father was to not only lead the state funeral but also receive the various foreign dignitaries who came for the funeral.
Lyonpo said that at such difficult times normally ordinary people do not have time for other things but His Majesty had time and ears for everyone. This trait was to be continually shown in the coming years as even the worst situations and crises failed to rattle His Majesty.
Dealing with foreign leaders
Lyonpo said even though several foreign leaders and diplomats came for the funeral from India and other places His Majesty who was just 16 received all of them and dealt with them in a resolute and dignified manner including the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Another major event was the official coronation of His Majesty the Fourth King in 1974.
“What struck me about the Coronation speech was His Majesty asking the people to cooperate with the government. This was a big break from the past as the past trend had been to assume that it was only the government’s job or that only the government knew the way,” said Lyonpo.
Another important part was the talk about aiming for self sufficiency. “At the time it had not even occurred to anyone as we were economically very backward,” said Lyonpo.
The third aspect which struck Lyonpo was on how His Majesty at a very young age dealt with the many foreign leaders and diplomats and their reaction to His Majesty.
“His Majesty had such a quality of leadership in him and he conducted himself so well that even the much older President of India V.V Giri and also the older President of Bangladesh treated him with respect,” said Lyonpo.
One particular trait that Lyonpo notice about His Majesty was that no matter who the leader was coming to greet him, His Majesty always looked directly into their eyes.
“We were very proud that His Majesty conducted himself in a very dignified way for arrogance is not the Bhutanese character but dignity is our national character,” said Lyonpo.
His Majesty also demonstrated his mettle in his first state visit to Delhi in 1974. His Majesty, then a very young Monarch, had meetings with India’s External Affairs minister and Home Minister both of whom were regarded to be very tough.
“The ministers and their delegations normally walked in with a casual body language that showed they were just going to meet a very young King. However, once inside His Majesty, to their shock would dominate the discussions. After the meetings got over their body language and tone of voice changed to that of respect and admiration,” said Lyonpo.
It was not only so with Indian Ministers. His Majesty was playing golf with the Indian President when His Majesty suddenly looked back at the President’s ADC. The ADC stumbled back and nearly fell. “Later this ADC named Chandola told us ‘Your King has such a powerful look and personality’,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo stated that even the physically towering Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who liberated Bangladesh and was its first Prime Minister was very respectful to His Majesty. “Bhutan at the time was a small country and not well known in the world. The only thing that Bhutan had was our leader in His Majesty,” said Lyonpo.
“His Majesty was also a winner in sports and he would always win. Once His Majesty played polo for the first time with some of the best people from India led by General So in and lost the first few rounds.
But His Majesty kept trying and late beat the General and his team hollow,” chuckled Lyonpo.
Coming into his own
His Majesty also did not come into a vacuum in terms of governance within Bhutan. There were very powerful personalities like His Majesty’s uncle HRH Namgyel Wangchuck heading the Trade Ministry, His Majesty’s sister HRH Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck heading the Development Ministry and His Majesty’s sister HRH Sonam Chodron in the Finance Ministry. Though they were influential and popular in their own right they all supported His Majesty.
“In terms of running the government His Majesty said that we should do things without rocking the boat. His Majesty did not like to disturb the order of things but His Majesty always got his way,” Lyonpo said.
Lyonpo said that in terms of leadership His Majesty was a very strong leader and did not fear anybody.
His Majesty in the following years carried out a series of important reforms in measures in the fields of health, education, rural infrastructure, electricity, economy, environment, culture, foreign relations etc.
Decentralization and fighting Corruption
One of the most important changes was in the field of good governance as His Majesty started the process of decentralization and democratization in 1981 through the Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu.
“His Majesty said that it is the people who should decide,” said Lyonpo.
One side effect of development and decentralization was the emergence of corruption. His Majesty posted Lyonpo as the first Auditor General to check corruption in 1985.
“His Majesty at the time said that we have to stop corruption right in the beginning for it will be uncontrollable later,” said Lyonpo.
In 1986 Lyonpo was also given additional charge of the Royal Civil Service Commission by His Majesty to carry out administrative reforms and strengthen the civil service.
One particularly important aspect of His Majesty’s rule was the strong emphasis of protecting the environment.
“Smoke in the forests always disturbed him, the sight of trees being cut and transported down to Phuntsholing always disturbed him and when trucks generated exhaust smoke on the roads it disturbed him,” said Lyonpo.
The 1990’s problem
One of the toughest challenges faced by His Majesty was the 1990’s southern problem when some antinationals rebelled against the state.
Lyonpo said that despite the actions of the anti-nationals His Majesty forgave and pardoned thousands of wrong doers.
Lyonpo clarified that His Majesty was never ethno-centric and from a young age had friends and companions from all ethnic groups in Bhutan. In fact many of His Majesty’s close friends in the Ugyen Wangchuk Academy were southern Bhutanese. His Majesty also appointed southern Bhutanese to senior posts in the government. Lyonpo said that His Majesty in-fact encouraged integration and even money was given to couples marrying across ethnic lines.
“His Majesty’s main priority was the security, sovereignty and unity, right from the beginning and His Majesty was prepared to protect his nation,” said Lyonpo.
A major initiative of His Majesty the Fourth King was the drafting of a Constitution and introduction of democracy.
Lyonpo said that His Majesty’s announcement on 4th September 2001 for the need to draft a Constitution and embrace democracy came as a huge shock.
Lyonpo said that except for giving some broad eight point guidelines His Majesty let the drafting committee draft the Constitution.