My Classmate the Fourth King

I was among the eighteen boys privileged to attend school with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Jigme Singye at the Ugyen Wangchuck Academy (UWA) in Paro, over thirty years ago.

I would like to highlight a few of the many qualities that I recall seeing in the young Prince, which, in my opinion, contributed to making him the legendary Fourth Druk Gyalpo we have come to love, admire and revere.

The first was his simplicity. While a one-bedroom cottage had been built near the school for him, he preferred to be in the hostel where the rest of us lived and slept in one of the rooms, which he shared with two roommates. He often joined us for meals at the common dining hall. This penchant for simple living continued after he became King, endearing him to his people and earning the respect of the world.

The young Prince had an uncanny ability to zero in on the essence of complex issues. And so it came to be that a young King with no formal training in academic research, who seldom travelled outside his remote, isolated country would amaze the most accomplished diplomats, journalists and leaders of the world with his incisive views on regional and global issues.

Dasho Jigme possessed the twin characteristics of a natural born leader—that of putting the welfare of others before his own and of leading from the front. He was at his best when he was solving problems and helping others. During a trip to Manas, circa 1973, exhausted and barely able to move after a day of arduous trek in the subtropical jungle terrain, I saw Dasho at the helm of a rubber dinghy, mirthfully ferrying members of the entourage to the other side of a choppy tributary of the river. Late at night, I could see him going from enclosure to enclosure, making sure everybody was comfortably settled before he himself retired for the night.

His physical attributes are perhaps the most obvious and well known. But I bring this up because they had a great bearing on his reign and indeed, on the country’s destiny. As a teenager, his love for sports and outdoor activities was often a bane for his companions, because he pursued them with relentless passion. And he outlasted and outplayed them all. He applied the same zeal and energy to his duties of state when he became King. His peak physical condition enabled him to work harder and longer than any top civil servant from whom he demanded and extracted the best.

Dasho’s strikingly handsome features, analytical powers and abundant charisma easily made him Bhutan’s most effective diplomat. And the nation first saw a hint of his courage, when, at only fifteen years of age, he not only walked out unharmed from a devastating motor accident inside Indian territory that left several of his companions, including his closest aide, dead on the spot, but calmly took charge of the scene.

Years later, his physical prowess and dignity under duress came to play. This time the stakes could not have been higher. Thousands of militants from the neighbouring Indian states established camps inside Bhutanese territory. More than a decade of soft-pedalling, including an offer of money could not persuade them to leave and Bhutan’s sovereignty was at stake. When modern leaders declare war, they do so from the safety and comfort of their plush offices; it is the frontline troops that end up with their boots on the ground and flown back in body bags or with missing body parts, suffering a life-time of the horrors of war. This King physically led his small, untested army into battle against the dreaded ULFA militants whose guerrilla warfare tactics often bested the elite anti-insurgent units of the over million-strong Indian armed forces. His Majesty demonstrated his willingness to go beyond making the ultimate sacrifice for his country by permitting one of his beloved sons to also put his life in harm’s way.

On a lighter note, Dasho’s most endearing quality was his irrepressible sense of humour, which ensured we were always entertained, especially when the joke was on an unsuspecting visitor to the school. These were often carefully staged, replete with actors and imported props. The most famous one, which was used at the expense of a visiting dignitary, was a huge, lifelike phallus, which was strapped to GupWangchen’s hip under his gho. He would be strategically seated on a chair in the front row directly facing the visitor. Every once in a while, he would spread his legs and a selected few, no doubt, those who Dasho felt would be able to stomach the joke, had the privilege of being treated to the magnificent view of apparently Bhutan’s best-endowed man!

Dasho delighted us once or twice a year as he earned a day or two surprise holidays from the strict Principal of the school, Mr Stuart F. Filby, the English Parson who had been handpicked by Her Majesty the Queen to run the Academy with a firm, steady hand.

But Dasho’s charm could draw even Filby to partake in an unthinkable sin of gambling! The two of them—both keen fishermen then—would wager on who would land the bigger or heavier catch, and the last arbiter in case the winner could not be determined visually, would be the weighing scale. While a win by Dasho would earn us a holiday, I don’t recall what Filby wanted if he won—probably classes on Sunday! But if I don’t remember, it is because Dasho never lost. If Mr Filby suspected on a couple of occasions, why his catches, which appeared to be of the same size or even slightly bigger, were invariably outweighed by Dasho’s, he did not make an issue of it. During a reunion several decades later, a couple of the boys felt it was safe to confirm his long-held suspicion that his opponent’s fish has been stuffed with lead pellets just in case it came to the scale!

It would probably shock many people to learn that Dasho was not fond of wearing his gho all the time. On a couple of occasions he came to class in his comfy attire only to be summarily shooed out by Mr Filby. But the moment he became King, he became one of those who wore his gho 24/7. And if there was one thing that was a source of great comfort to me as I watched the young King’s overnight rise to the occasion, it was my conviction after knowing him in school that he would not let personal likes and dislikes interfere with his duties of state.

But what I would regard as one of his greatest qualities as a human being and as a Prince, was his transcendental tolerance to let the other person be. Perhaps tolerance is an understatement. Dasho not only gave space to people who wanted and needed to be left alone, he seemed to regard individual quirks as deserving of respect, which even he, the future King in an absolute monarchy, did not want to transgress. Despite having the power of life and death over each one of us, he seemed completely oblivious of it and I have never seen him using it to get his own way. In fact, what really amazed me was that far from being angry and vindictive with those who occasionally indulged in behaviour that could easily have been misinterpreted as being disrespectful if not disloyal, he went on not only to tolerate but to regard with respect! It was only years later, that I began to appreciate the nobility and magnanimity of this particular aspect of Dasho’s character and to understand how fortunate the people of Bhutan are to have been blessed with a King like him.

Today, as a youthful sixty, His Majesty can look at his legacy with a deep sense of satisfaction. He had always said that it was too risky to leave the responsibility of running a country in the hands of a single person. His entire reign was a step-by-step preparation to hand over power back to the people, which he did almost a decade back. At the same time, he groomed and crowned a great new King for today’s Bhutan—a King who like his father and grandfathers before him, has all the required qualities of heart, speech and mind that the country needs.

Opinion by Thinley Dorji

The writer is a former diplomat and currently a member of a think tank.

The article is an Extract from the soon to be released book, The Bodhisattva King by Tshering Tashi & Thierry Mathou. Editor’s Note: This particular article was chosen for advance publishing by Tshering Tashi.

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