DECEMBER 6, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 22
Unlike his father Hirohito, Akihito, 65, was not groomed to be a god. But Japan's 125th monarch still enjoys trappings not usually accorded mere mortals. Photographers are encouraged to avoid unflattering snapshots of the Emperor and his family. Critical media coverage is taboo, especially speculation about Crown Prince Naruhito's lack of an heir. If Naruhito produces no children, the throne might have to go to his younger brother's eldest girl. That break of a direct line said to stretch back to 660 B.C. may prove even more devastating to the Chrysanthemum Throne than Hirohito's quiet relinquishing of divinity 54 years ago.
The Harvard-educated Nepali royal maintained absolute power for years with the help of tear gas and bullets. But a 1990 pro-democracy movement placed the King in the unfamiliar role of constitutional monarch. Today despite a democratic veneer, the government is riddled with corruption and premiers enjoy tenures nearing the league of Italy's revolving-door politicians. Royalists hope their 54-year-old monarch, considered a living incarnation of the god Vishnu, will be able to tame the nation's rebellious Maoist insurgency. But most folks aren't hurrying to give the King his old powers back.
SULTAN HASSANAL BOLKIAH
One of the world's richest men also rules one of the tiniest kingdoms on earth. The Sultan of Brunei's lavish tastes are legendary: a 1,700-room palace, gold-plated escalators, 200 Argentine ponies. With a deep well of oil bubbling beneath the Islamic enclave, the Sultan, 53, can afford to be extravagant. His citizens pay no taxes and receive free schooling and medical care. Still, even the mighty Sultan is not immune to the vagaries of political and economic fortune. A fall in world oil prices and brother Jefri's financial missteps caused the Sultan to drop from richest man in the world to a mere No. 3.
KING JIGME SINGYE WANGCHUCK
For a remote hermit kingdom, Bhutan has a remarkably outward-looking ruler. Earlier this year, the King continued the drive toward modernization: he hooked up the mountainous realm to the Internet and started Bhutan television. The 44-year-old ruler has also promoted democracy without any revolutionary prompting. Reforms include the devolution of day-to-day governance to an elected Council and giving the legislature the right to dethrone him with a no-confidence vote. Few in the "land of the thunder dragon," however, are looking to rid the Buddhist kingdom of its monarch.
KING NORODOM SIHANOUK
Cambodia's maverick monarch, now 77, has seen it all: he was appointed a semi-divine king, abdicated to take a less politically sensitive title as prince, placed under palace arrest by the Khmer Rouge and returned from exile to assume his kingly role once more. And that's not even counting his second career as movie director. Sihanouk's trademark versatility may have extended his own reign, but those tipped as candidates to succeed him--sons Norodom Ranariddh and Norodom Sihamoni--may need heavenly blessing in addition to political prowess just to keep the monarchy alive in rough-and-tumble Cambodia.
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