Heritage

How Bhutan's Modern Monarchy Came To Be

Including the history of the country's famous "Gross National Happiness."
IMAGE John Claude White/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; Royal Family of Bhutan/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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For many, the small mountainous country of Bhutan remains a strange mystery. As if the country was encapsulated in a bubble, it was only in 1999 that the government allowed its people access to the Internet and television. For the most part of its history, the country’s government was run by an absolute monarchy, which meant their Buddhist kings ruled entirely.

A little over a decade ago, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck relinquished the absolute monarchy that his forefathers installed in favor of a constitutional monarchy that is headed by a prime minister. He then abdicated in 2006 and had his son take the throne. It was in 2008 that the country held its first general elections for the national assembly.

Let’s take a look back at the monarchy’s most notable milestones that led it to where it is today:


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His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the first hereditary monarch of the country

In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck of Tongsa was elected by a party of abbots, councilors, lamas, and laymen as the hereditary king of Bhutan. He was chosen on account of him being the strongest penlop or governor. His rules lasted until his death on August 21, 1926. When Ugyen Wangchuck passed away, his eldest son, Jigme Wangchuck, took the throne.

The third king builds a modern Bhutan

The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, was known as the Father of Modern Bhutan or the “reformist monarch.” Under his rule, Bhutan’s isolation from the rest of the world ended, as he recognized the need to establish international relations. He engaged foreign countries in the development of Bhutan, and in 1971, the country became a member of the United Nations.

He also ended feudalism, abolished serfdom, and drafted Bhutan’s first economic development plan, which the country is still following up until today.

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Paving Bhutan’s first step towards democracy, a National Assembly was established, which had the power to remove the King or his successors with a majority of votes.

The country establishes Gross National Happiness

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His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne when he was just 16 years old. He continued his father’s modernization and socio-economic reforms, as well as sustained international relations which cemented the nation’s independent and sovereign status.

During his term, Gross National Happiness (GNH) was conceived, which was based on the fundamental belief that the purpose of development is to create conditions that will allow the country’s citizens to pursue happiness. Happiness was deemed to be the world’s greatest wealth. The GNH Index is a regular analysis of the nation’s well-being by measuring each person’s accomplishments through 33 indicators.

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The end of absolute monarchy

In 2006, after intensive research and consultations with the judicial districts and the public, Jigme Singye Wangchuk renounced absolute monarchy and launched the Constitution of Bhutan to provide the legal framework for a democratic political system. It was the first time in world history that a monarch voluntarily gave up his powers for his commitment to political reforms and his nation. In March 2008, two years after the end of his reign, the constitution was enacted and Bhutan successfully conducted its first parliamentary election.

The new royal family

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In 2008, the year that marked the 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned as king. Reigning at present, he oversees the implementation of the Constitution of Bhutan, bringing to his people the democracy that his father has wished for.  In 2011, he wed 21-year-old student Jetsun Pema, who then became the youngest queen in modern history. They welcomed their son, Crown Prince Jigme Namgyal Wangchuck in February 2016.

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The reigning king’s first milestone project was the National Cadastral Resurvey, which focuses on improving the lives of people living in remote parts of Bhutan. He also launched the Kidu Foundation, which addresses critical issues in areas of education, rule of law, democracy and media, sustainable economic development, and preservation of the country’s environmental and cultural heritage.

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About The Author
Pau Fong
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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Features Editor
Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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