The Great Reformer

Great leaders are not born but are made over time, as history has often shown. In December, 2005 when His Majesty The Fourth King announced His Majesty’s abdication it sent a shockwave throughout Bhutan as people wondered what the future held after decades of strong and dynamic leadership of His Majesty The Fourth King. What was even more unsettling was the plan to introduce Parliamentary Democracy.

It was also the moment when it was clear that within a year the heavy responsibilities of Kingship and the even heavier responsibility of living up to His Majesty The Fourth King’s achievements would fall on the young shoulders of the then Trongsa Penlop and Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.


Early years 

However, His Majesty The Fourth King was confident he was not taking a gamble as His Majesty had himself groomed the Trongsa Penlop from an early age in the strict and demanding ways of the Wangchuck Court, making the young Prince serve there as well as taking His Royal Highness on often arduous tours to the most remote areas of Bhutan.

From a young age, one quality that particularly stood out and distinguished the Crown Prince was a strong sense of duty to his Father The King, his country and his people. A study of the early speeches of the young Prince and anecdotes about him showed that this sense of duty and responsibility weighed heavily on his mind and in many ways continues to define His Majesty to this day.

The long hours spent with and in observing His Majesty The Fourth King gave the crown prince an up close experience of state craft, his duties as the crown prince gave him a deeper insight into governance and the system, while the long treks through the most remote areas gave the prince a good insight and understanding of his country and people.

A glimpse into this early world of the crown prince was offered by His Majesty The King himself in the December 23, 2009 Madhavrao Scindia memorial lecture in New Delhi. His Majesty said, “As a young person, I thought a great deal about the future awaiting me. I thought about the question of how good Kings and great leaders come about – what factors bring them into being. We see that world history speaks of leaders with great foresight and vision – leaders for troubled times – leaders for young nations and ancient empires. Leaders in different fields. All kinds of leaders – religious, economic, political. After many years of observing my father, working with government, touring the country, living in the villages and meeting the people , I learned that you don’t just become a leader for a prescribed and planned situation – you have to offer leadership whatever the circumstances.”

On 9th December 2006 His Majesty The Fourth King in his last speech to the cabinet and other senior members of the government expressed his full faith in the crown prince before handing over the reigns of the Golden Throne.


A vision

His Majesty The King after being enthroned had a little over a year, but in that short period His Majesty working day and night brought about a series of reforms that laid strong foundations for Bhutan.

Though security and sovereignty formed the core of His Majesty’s focus there were also other key priority areas like the Economy, Democracy, GNH and the youth. In a sense all these reforms emerged out of the great sense of duty and vision that His Majesty had for the nation.

In the same Madhavrao lecture His Majesty said, “So my guiding principle has been born and nurtured on the simple instinct that in order to do the job I have been given as best as I can – first and foremost, I must strive to be a good human being. So while the wider vision is crucial to me – it is more important for me as a King whose aspirations are lodged within those of my country and people – to be able to crystallize that vision – to fulfill the ultimate aspirations of the people – in the form of simple daily acts carried out from moment to moment.

I take each day as it comes. If someone in a village has something to tell me, I stop and listen. If an old man’s house must be rebuilt after a natural disaster, I try and stay there to see it through. It may take an extra few minutes or months but it must be done. Not only is it the duty of a good human being, but each moment, each action is to me, a building block that will one day take shape in the wider vision. Besides, it’s all very well to have a vision that stretches to the top of the peaks, but unless you are walking a little up the hill every day, you will never get there.”


The reforms

In a roughly 15 month period from December 2006 to March 2008 His Majesty carried out far reaching reforms that continue to benefit the nation today.

In the words of a senior civil servant some of them walked into audiences with His Majesty in the early days thinking that they knew a lot given their decades in the civil service. However, each time the same people came out realizing not only did His Majesty have more detailed knowledge and insight but they in fact had a lot of catching up to do.

According to another person associated with His Majesty, His Majesty worked with no adherence to work hours as the day started early sometimes at 7.30 am and went late into the night. It was not just the hours but the sheer intensity of effort and dedication put in by His Majesty.

To the surprise of many, one of the first reforms of His Majesty started from within the Royal Family. One of the first things to go was a large number of BHT vehicle plates. As a result it started becoming a rarity to see BHT vehicles. Another major reform was the issuance of smaller and well defined list of Royal Family members. There were many other important systemic reforms carried out within the Royal Family that has further strengthened the institution as a whole.

One of the major areas of reform was land reform and land Kidu. His Majesty commanded during the 87th National Assembly Session that His Majesty would personally be engaged in resolving land issues once and for all.

His Majesty helped strengthened the National Land Commission which was formed after the 2007 Land Act. In a short period of time around 12,000 backlog cases pending for years were eventually resolved. Land administration became more transparent and efficient and new technologies were introduced (see separate story on page 1).  His Majesty also started granting land Kidu extensively, especially to the most needy section and this played a major role in poverty alleviation.

Economy was a major area of concerns as highlighted in many of His Majesty’s speeches through the years. His Majesty’s Charter setting up Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) in 2007 took a group of mainly average performing corporate companies with a bureaucratic mindset and transformed them into corporate power houses. The revenue and profit figures increased dramatically along with more accountability and better corporate governance from 2006-2016 (see separate story on page 9).

His Majesty’s Kasho in 2007 led to the nationalization of sand and stones drastically bringing down prices and improving supply.

Some pertinent concerns in His Majesty’s speeches has been on the capacity to implement developmental activities and ensure good coordination while at the same time keeping the larger national policy of GNH in mind.

This lead to the creation of the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC)  in January 2008 out of the erstwhile Planning Commission which had even been dissolved at one stage.

GNHC ensured that all policies and programs were in line with the GNH philosophy down to the ground level, it improved coordination among agencies and most importantly it improved the capacity of the government to plan and therefore implement developmental activities. This was especially important with bigger five year plans coming up in subsequent years

As an example, up to 2006 a total of 4,544 kilometers of roads were built, but after the GNHC came in the total roads built till date are 11,177 km of roads. The coordinating, planning and implementing abilities of GNHC allowed for huge similar achievements in healthcare, education, drinking water etc. Along with Land Kidu granted by His Majesty to the poorest sections GNHC also worked to reduce poverty rates through targeted interventions.

There were also important interventions in those and in the following years for education through the Royal Education Council (see story on page 26), Gyalpoi Tozey and other scholarships for the youth (see story on page 27), Royal Academy in Paro and RIGSS (see story on page 22).

These reforms were not carried out in isolation as His Majesty travelled the land meeting people in all parts of the country. His Majesty met the people directly to not only avoid intermediaries in between but also better understand the people and their needs.

His Majesty also carried out important reforms in the armed forces that further strengthened the nation’s safety and security. The armed forces also saw several welfare reforms by His Majesty The King (see pg 23 story).

His Majesty also launched the concept of pro-active Kidu whereby people instead of having to approach His Majesty only would see Kidu coming to them. Apart from His Majesty’s Secretariat in Thimphu, Kidu officers and other government officials looked out for Kidu cases which were referred to His Majesty for support.

His Majesty carried out several reforms and helped several sections of society, the writing of which would be enough to fill a book.


Transition to Democracy and the first democratic elections

However, of all His Majesty’s reforms the biggest and most important project was the successful transition to democracy. This was while the Constitution laid down specific and important roles for His Majesty, it also saw governance being handled by the elected government.

Before the 2008 elections His Majesty was one of the strongest proponents of people taking part in not only the mock elections but also the 2008 General Elections helping push turnout to unprecedented levels.

His Majesty in the 87th session of Parliament on June 2007 said, “Many important historic undertakings that will have a lasting impact on our country are here before us.  Hence, every citizen from all walks of life, who feel that they have the requirements and experience, and understands the dreams and aspirations of our people, should come forward and participate in the new political process and serve the country.  In addition, all our collective efforts should be channeled to strengthen this process.  Hence, every Bhutanese citizen above the age of 18, who are eligible to cast their vote, should exercise the franchise and also ensure that they don’t shy away from this momentous responsibility.”

His Majesty did not see democracy just as the presence of political parties and the Parliament but also on the need to promote and strengthen democratic culture.

His Majesty in October 2007 during the National Graduate Orientation program said, “Now, if we want our democratic system to work, if we want a democracy that will fulfill the aspirations of our people, then we must take the next step– we must adopt the ideals and principles of democracy. We must build a democratic culture.”

The Election Commission of Bhutan as testified to by the former Chief Election Commissioner also received strong support from His Majesty prior to the 2008 polls.

The acrimonious nature of Bhutan’s 2008 elections saw supporters from a political party petitioning His Majesty against the results as emotions ran high. It was His Majesty’s counsel and advice which settled the political dust as both sides got onto take part in a new era for Bhutan.

In the first session of the democratic Parliament on 10th May 2008, His Majesty stressed on the importance of democracy and pledged to ensure the success of Democracy and also called on the Parliamentarians to do the same.

His Majesty said, “The highest achievement of one hundred years of Monarchy has been the constant nurturing of Democracy.”

His Majesty said, “As King, henceforth, it is my sacred duty to ensure the success of our new democracy so that it will serve to fulfill the aspirations of our people always.”

His Majesty reminded the first government that as democracy’s first government, they have the responsibility of setting the right examples, laying strong foundations and promoting the best practices of democracy.

While His Majesty remained committed, the same could not be said of some politicians and their supporters who did not hesitate to use their newfound power to pursue individual pursuits for more power and wealth.

Controversies soon followed with oversight agencies, the media and eventually the Judiciary getting involved. In many ways people saw the stark contrast between a King who lived for others and some politicians who lived only for themselves and those around them.

It was only the presence of His Majesty and the institution of Monarchy that matters did not get further out of hand or that Bhutan did not head down a slippery slope like some of its neighbours.

During this phase His Majesty continued to show steadfast support for the important institutions like the Constitutional bodies and also the media.

His Majesty leading by example in an age of selfish political pursuits issued a Royal Kasho restricting the landholding of Royal Family members to 25 acres each.

The first elected government in its various programs and pursuits ignored the basics of the economy. From being handed a stable and thriving economy in 2008 there were already serious issue by 2012 with the unprecedented Rupee crisis and credit crunch.

During the 2012 National Day address His Majesty said, “The recent Rupee shortage is a serious problem. I feel it is a reminder that, as a nation, we must exercise our traditional sense of caution and work even harder as we address the challenges of the time. For, no matter what challenges lie ahead, it is only the Bhutanese citizen who can protect and safeguard Bhutan.”


The second elections and evolution of Bhutanese democracy

The 2013 elections saw a tough and acrimonious fight like in the 2008 polls but the 2013 polls and its aftermath was unprecedented in the amount of hubris, bitterness and party fanaticism.

On 29th July 2013 while conferring Dakyen to the Prime Minister, Cabinet and MPs His Majesty said, “Democracy has been interpreted in many different ways by various people. Some people think that because they have offered their power or money to support a political party, they are entitled to special favours, even if it may not be legal, if their party wins and forms the government. Likewise, those people who publicly supported the party who didn’t win may be afraid or even ashamed. This is not the kind of democracy we want in Bhutan. These are the bad examples we see elsewhere, and must take care to avoid if we want to hand over a proud democracy to our future generations.”

His Majesty said, “Now that People’s Democratic Party has received this opportunity to form the government, you must ensure that this is not the case in Bhutan. You must show, from the very beginning, that this is the not kind of democracy we will have. ”

In the opening third session of Parliament on 16th May 2014 His Majesty said, “As we move forward, we must take lessons from the experiences of other democracies that are much older than us, some of which have succeeded, while others have failed. One of the challenges that democracies around the world face is that every government has a limited term. This leads them to neglect long-term goals and vision required to successfully lead nations. They are more concerned with gaining political dividend and take short-term approaches to development.

For many, electoral success can become an obsession, to the extent that their loyalties lie first to themselves and their party instead of the country and people. Similarly, the fear of losing can drive people to compromise on their moral rectitude. This is how democracy can be divisive, and at its most dangerous when divided by ethnicity, religion and region.”

His Majesty in these important speeches with powerful messages was reminding political parties and MPs to avoid any kind of corruption and focus on serving the nation and the people well.

In summary 10 years of His Majesty’s reign has seen unprecedented changes and Bhutan going from strength to strength. In all of this His Majesty The King has demonstrated not only good leadership but also a strong sense of duty and service to others and the nation with a high level of integrity. His Majesty in doing so has not only set a high standard for our political leaders but also inspired an entire nation and ensured a successful transition to democracy.

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