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He Takes His Job--and Basketball--Seriously : Royalty: Bhutan's Jigme Singye Wangchuck heads the last surviving Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.


THIMPHU, Bhutan — When this nation's monarch next holds court, he may be wearing sneakers.

Husband to four beautiful women (all sisters), a knowledgeable fan of the National Basketball Assn. and occupant of a hillside log cabin, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, head of the last surviving Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, is no ordinary absolute ruler.

"For power to be in the hands of one individual, as well as the future of our country, is not safe," stresses this unusual sovereign, who is determined to get his 600,000 subjects to take a more active role in forging his nation's destiny.

The fourth member of Bhutan's line of Wangchuck kings, Jigme Singye will turn 40 on Nov. 11. Like the Meiji Emperor of Japan in the 19th Century, he is trying to lead a poor, backward country into the mainstream of modern life but also to safeguard its culture and folkways.

In an era where bluebloods are better known for high-rolling lifestyles or scandalous romantic indiscretions, this earnest, pleasant-mannered man who reigns over a landlocked kingdom slightly larger than Switzerland seems like an anachronism.

The king, in a one-on-one meeting, proved that he can be alternately charming, camera-shy, funny, candid and dead serious. But it is the seriousness that, without a doubt, constitutes the bedrock of the royal personality.

Being king, he confided to an American journalist granted a recent audience, "is like taking an examination that never ends. Except you don't have the right to fail."

At 5 feet, 9 inches, Bhutan's ruler may be the world's only king who is an avid basketball player and fan. To be precise, he is a shooting guard with a penchant for trying the three-point shot. For years, he played with students and members of Bhutan's small army.

"Previously, I liked the Boston Celtics," the king says. "In the past two years, though, it's been the Houston Rockets. Not because they won the NBA championships. But because they had no bench. No bench. And five starting players who weren't as good as many of the other teams in the league. And yet they beat superior teams to win the championship."

Jigme Singye Wangchuck receives his guests in the throne room of the dzong (white stone fortress) that serves as the seat of Bhutan's government in Thimphu, the capital. His glittering gold throne stands to one side. "It's made of wood," he is careful to point out.

For some people in this verdant, mountainous land between China and India where shamanistic traditions of Tantric Buddhism run deep, the king is a god. Asked his reaction, Bhutan's ruler smiles as he replies, "I am not a deity."

He is, however, convinced that monarchy provides the style of governance best suited to his small, underdeveloped country, which remained isolated from the rest of the world until the early 1960s.

"If you look at Africa, Latin America and unfortunately our own region, South Asia, you see the Western political system and parliamentary democracy have not been all that successful there," he says.

In what one might call the kingly version of "management by walking around," Bhutan's sovereign frequently crisscrosses his realm in a dark blue Toyota Land Cruiser, stopping to hear the complaints and petitions of his subjects. On some days, 200 Bhutanese may line up outside the Thimphu dzong, hoping for royal intervention to redress some wrong or another.

The head that wears the crown of Bhutan, which is topped with a raven's head, has always done so self-consciously. On June 21, 1972, after the death of his father while on safari in Kenya, Jigme Singye Wangchuck acceded to the throne. He was 16. The teen-aged monarch entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's youngest head of state." As his father's sole son, he had been educated by private tutors at home and in India and England in anticipation of the day when he would be king. But still he felt that he was not ready.

"The responsibility came very suddenly," he recalls. "It was a very difficult time for me."


A saffron yellow kabne, or scarf, which Jigme Singye Wangchuck drapes over his left shoulder, and a silver sword that hangs from his right hip are his badges of office. After 23 years of wearing them, the king admits to still feeling the burden of his duties. "I face issue after issue, crisis after crisis," he says. "Before you can resolve one, three others crop up. It's never-ending pressure."

Religion, all-too-brief time with his family and even books don't offer much solace, the king says. He eschews fiction as a tempting waste of time and says the last book that really influenced him was the autobiography of Lee Kuan Yew, the veteran politician who made Singapore into a enormously prosperous (if somewhat authoritarian) Asian economic power.

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