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Bhutan's star-crossed King delays democracy plans

Royal astrologers in Bhutan believe the stars will not be favourably placed until 2008 for the country to abandon royal rule.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 12:37 IST

The people of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan will have to wait for their first chance to vote after astrologers convinced their absolute monarch the stars were stacked against democracy.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been slowly pulling his isolated mountain state into the modern world and declared his desire to relinquish some of his powers.

A new draft constitution has been drawn up and was to have been put to the people in a referendum last year.

Elections were to follow for the remote country's first parliament.

But royal astrologers believe the stars will not be favourably placed until 2008 for the country, wedged between India and China, to take the plunge and abandon royal rule.

To do so would bring serious problems, a palace official said.

"The king took their advice very seriously. That's the reason why he has decided to hold the first democratic elections in the kingdom in 2008," the official said, requesting not to be named.

A referendum on the new constitution will now be put to the country's 700,000 people early in 2008, and if it is passed elections will be held before the end of that year.

The draft keeps the king as the head of state, but parliament -- consisting of two houses, a 75-member National Assembly and a 25-member National Council -- would have the power to impeach him with a two-thirds majority vote.

The draft gives no indication of what powers would remain with the monarch, the fourth ruler of a hereditary dynasty that first took the throne in 1907.

In 2001, Wangchuck, who became king in 1972 at the age of 16 after the death of his father, initiated the drafting of a new constitution, a document he made public in March last year.

In December he announced he would also hand over the throne to his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2008.

Frustrated refugees

More than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali-origin living in refugee camps in eastern Nepal on the border with India have rejected the draft constitution and their leaders have vowed to defend their rights, by force if necessary.

"Youths in refugee camps will take up arms out of frustration," said Tek Nath Rizal, a refugee leader.

In the early 1990s, the king stripped hundreds of ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and threw them out of the country after they complained of racial discrimination and campaigned for democracy.

Tens of thousands joined them in exile and have been languishing in primitive refugee camps in teak forests infested with Maoist guerrillas near Nepal's border with India.

The refugees say they were ignored when officials prepared the draft constitution, and are campaigning for their right to return to the country and vote in elections, as well as constitutional protection for their customs and religion.

"Since our demand was not accepted by the Bhutanese government, we are forced to take this step," Balram Poudel, another refugee leader, told the agency.

Whether the king will pay them as much attention as he has paid his astrologers remains to be seen, with talks over their fate stalled since 2003.

Bhutan has remained untouched by most modern influences, with a limited number of foreign visitors allowed each year. Television arrived in 1999 and the Internet a year later.

First Published: Feb 03, 2006 12:37 IST