On November 11th, whilst much of the world was commemorating Remembrance Day, the Bhutanese were celebrating the birthday of their highly revered fourth King (popularly known as K4). This year marks the commencement of his 60th year in which many events are planned, culminating in an even bigger celebration this time next year. In Thimphu, thousands gathered at the National Stadium for a program of speeches and cultural performances. We dressed up in our Kira and Gho and went along to be part of the celebrations, hoping to finally catch a glimpse of Royalty which had so far evaded us in our 8 months here. School kids marched with banners declaring “Happy Birthday Your Majesty”, there were traditional dances performed and a bunch of balloons were released into the clear blue sky carrying the message “Long Live Our King”. But unfortunately, K4 didn’t grace his own birthday party (or not this one anyway). I was once again bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t seen K4 or K5 for that matter, but little did I know this was going to change.
First though, a bit about why K4 is so loved by the people.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck (K4) was born on November 11th 1955, the only brother among 4 sisters born to the 3rd King of Bhutan. As a young Prince he undertook his secondary education in India and England as well as Bhutan. His ascendance to the throne was unexpectedly premature due to the sudden death of his father. But this new responsibility that was thrust upon him at the age of 17, making him the youngest monarch in the world, was evidently something he had been well prepared for as time would soon tell.
The Bhutan he inherited in 1972 was an idyllic Himalayan Kingdom just emerging from centuries of self-imposed isolation. The list of achievements made during his 34 year reign are quite phenomenal:
- Opened Bhutan to tourism
- Coined Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the guiding philosophy for the country’s development
- Connected far flung regions of Bhutan via road and to the electricity grid
- Established insurance
- Continued to build up the modern system of education constructing schools and colleges throughout the country
- Built up a modern health system of hospitals and health centres throughout the country
- Provided clean safe drinking water
- Established the National Environment Commission and Bhutan Trust Fund for the Environment
- Established the first banks and securities exchange
- Established the first national airline
- Commenced the development of hydropower
- Established Bhutan Broadcasting Service and opened up to foreign media, television and the internet
- Established a postal service
- Established diplomatic relations with other countries and joined international bodies such as UN, IMF, World Bank etc
- United the country with the desire to preserve its unique cultural heritage, values and national identity
But perhaps his most significant achievement and the one he is most known for is how he gradually and systematically prepared the country and its citizens for democracy, through the decentralisation of administrative powers, the strengthening of the judiciary, the writing of a constitution, the establishment of an electoral commission and an anti-corruption commission and ultimately relinquishing control of the government to the people. The final act was his selfless abdication from the throne in 2006, handing his son a democratic constitutional monarchy. That same year he was listed in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. Bhutan’s first democratic parliamentary elections were then held peacefully and successfully in 2008.
“As I hand over my responsibilities to my son, I repose my full faith and belief in the people of Bhutan to look after the future of our nation, for it is the Bhutanese people who are the true custodians of our tradition and culture and the ultimate guardians of the security, sovereignty and continued well-being of our country” (9th December 2006)
Part of the celebrations on the 11th November included the launching of a website specifically for this coming year of celebrations, showing a time line of his achievements, photo gallery of his reign and calendar of events. A special publication looking back over the years of his reign was also published and distributed with the national newspaper.
Aside from his achievements, he is also known for having 4 wives who are all sisters. His wives are all still very active in public life sitting on various charity boards etc. One of them was recently in Australia raising money for girls education in Bhutan.
To date, our only brush with Bhutanese royalty was a delightful meeting and lunch with one of the princesses (K4’s niece and the current King’s cousin). This came about because she studied her final years of high school in Australia 12 years ago where Jordi’s Dad was her Maths teacher.
Today, however, I was out for a bike ride with a friend on the quiet country road that heads north from Thimphu towards Jigme Dorji National Park (named after the 3rd King of Bhutan). And there, riding towards us in the opposite direction on his mountain bike, wearing a smart but simple grey Gho, was K4 also out for a leisurely Saturday morning ride! I greeted him with a “Kuzuzangpo la” and a bow of the head and he replied “hello” in English! If I’d had my wits about me I would have also wished him a belated Happy Birthday, but I was just a little bit start struck! Where else in the world could you meet the highly revered ex-King of the country riding a bike unaccompanied on a quiet country road? Everyone has their stories of their brush with K4 and now I finally have mine!
As a final note, perhaps it is an indication of the humility of the man that despite how much his people love him and go to great lengths to honour his birthday with a great deal of fanfare … as he enters his autumn years with a phenomenal list of achievements behind him, K4 prefers the simple pleasure derived from a solitary bike ride along a quiet country road.