GAUHATI, India (AP) -Bhutan’s king abdicated Saturday and announced plans to hand power to his Western-educated son, who is expected to usher in a parliamentary democracy for the isolated Himalayan kingdom in coming years.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said a year ago he would abdicate in favor of 26-year-old Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2008 as part of a process of adopting a new constitution which would transform the country from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy.

The king, who assumed the throne in 1972 when he was 17, astounded his subjects with his announcement that the prince would assume the throne a year earlier than scheduled, propelling the prince to lead the Buddhist nation in its political transition.

The prince, who attended boarding school and college in Massachusetts then received a degree from Oxford University, has been traveling the country over the past year, seeking popular views on the political changes that his father has set in motion.

The king’s decree handing power to his eldest son was first discussed Thursday at a special meeting of the Bhutanese Cabinet, members of the royal advisory council and other officials in Thimphu, the country’s capital, the managing director of the state-controlled Bhutan Broadcasting Service, Mingbo Dukpa, told The Associated Press.

It was published Friday in the government-owned newspaper, Keunsel, and word began spreading outside the country nearly a day later.

Keunsel quoted the king as saying that “a very bright future lies ahead for Bhutan with the leadership of a new king and a democratic system of governance,” as enshrined under Bhutan’s soon-to-be adopted constitution.

“The time has now come for me to hand over my responsibilities to Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck,” the king said.

The king gave no reasons for the sudden announcement. A Bhutanese diplomat in New Delhi, Jigme Tenzing, said the king made the move because “he thought the timing was just right.”

For decades, Bhutan’s monarchs tried keep the country deeply isolated. It was not until 1974 that the international media were allowed into the country. Television only came in 1999 and the country only began letting in foreign tourists recently. Even now only about 6,000 tourists a year may visit – and only on carefully supervised tours to protect the environment and ancient Buddhist culture.

There are no political parties and few newspapers. Smoking is forbidden, and mountain-climbing is banned in order to preserve the pristine forests that cover most of the country.

Even the size of the country’s population is unknown – estimates put it anywhere between 700,000 and 2.2 million people.

Despite such restrictions, the king is widely regarded as a benevolent monarch who judges his nation’s development in an unlikely way by calculating the “Gross National Happiness” of his subjects rather than the more conventional “Gross National Product.”

The abdication took many of them by surprise.

“We were all expecting the changes to take place only in 2008 as announced earlier by his majesty,” Kesang, a government media official who uses only one name, said in Thimphu.

The king for months has been circulating among officials and the people a draft constitution that would end almost 100 years of monarchical rule in the nation.

The draft charter, 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 in that plan, but Parliament would have the power to impeach him by a two-thirds vote.

There was no immediate word on when the prince, who attended Cushing Academy and Wheaton College in addition to Oxford, would be formally crowned.

AP-ES-12-16-06 1247EST

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