The king of Bhutan has declared that he will step down as ruler in 2008, when the tiny Himalayan nation will hold national elections and become a parliamentary democracy, state media reported yesterday.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said he will be succeeded by his son, the crown prince, according to the government-owned newspaper Kuensel.
"I would like our people to know that the first national election to elect a government under a system of parliamentary democracy will take place in 2008," the king told a crowd gathered in the isolated town of Trashi Yangtse, a three-day drive from the capital, Thimpu.
The king did not immediately make clear what form the new government would take, giving no specifics on how much power would remain in the hands of the palace.
However, the Web site for Bhutan's state television and radio reported that the king "said Bhutan would be a parliamentary democratic country by 2008."
The king has been circulating a draft constitution for months that would end almost 100 years of monarchical rule in the Buddhist nation of 700,000 people tucked in the mountains between India and China.
The draft constitution, which has been in the making since 2001, provides for two houses of parliament -- a 75-member National Assembly and a 25-member National Council.
The king would become head of state under that plan, but parliament would have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.
In his speech, the king said he believed that during his son's future reign "Bhutan will remain strong and glorious and our country will achieve greater prosperity with the sun of peace and happiness shining on our people."
Bhutan has no political parties and few newspapers. The country is so resistant to the outside world that until recently it rarely let in foreigners, and television only came in the past decade. Even now only about 6,000 tourists a year are allowed in -- and only on carefully supervised tours to protect the environment and ancient culture.
The king has shepherded the poor but beautiful country gradually toward modernization, cherry picking what he wants from the modern world, proclaiming that "gross national happiness" is more important than gross national product.
The environment in Bhutan is fiercely protected. It has some of the strictest rules in the world to protect some of the planet's last great remaining forests.