April 15, 2006

King no longer sacred in Nepal

By Raju Gopalakrishnan

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - For centuries, the Shah kings of
Nepal have swung from being absolute monarchs to titular
figureheads and back again, usually after horrific violence.

As present King Gyanendra, the 12th of the dynasty, battles
pro-democracy protesters who want him to cede power to a
representative government, many are wondering if he can remain
on the throne at all.

"Gyanendra, thief, leave the country" is the warcry of the
tens of thousands campaigning against his rule, a slogan that
would have been heretical just a few years ago when the Shahs
were worshipped by the Himalayan nation as reincarnations of
the Hindu Lord Vishnu.

"That kind of traditional respect is over," says Yubaraj
Ghimire, editor of the local weekly Samay. "A kind of momentum
is building up."

To be fair to the king, the mystique surrounding the
dynasty was torn apart by a 2001 palace massacre in which then
Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine royals including his parents
and then turned the gun on himself in a drink and drug fueled

"That incident sent a strong message that people we worship
like gods are using drugs and killing their parents," says
Ghimire. "How are they different from any common criminals?
That was a flashpoint."

King Gyanendra was out of the city at that time, and
succeeded his much-respected brother King Birendra, the last
Shah to transition from being a ruler to a titular monarch.

Despite a somewhat unsavory reputation as a hard-nosed
businessman with interests in tobacco and gambling -- he owned
part of what was the country's biggest hotel and casino at the
time -- King Gyanendra's countrymen appeared ready to give him
a chance to restore the prestige of the monarchy.

Instead, within four years, he sacked the government and
assumed full power, saying it had failed to put down a raging
Maoist rebellion. The move reversed his brother's decision to
allow multiparty democracy and a constitutional monarchy in
1990 after a campaign in which up to 300 people were killed.

The resulting public anger against King Gyanendra was
fueled by nagging suspicions many harbored about why he was
away from Kathmandu when Dipendra killed most of the royal
family, and how his son, now Crown Prince Paras, survived the

"It was a missed opportunity," says Ghimire of King
Gyanendra. "He was a royal but he didn't expect to be king, so
he was also a commoner. He could have given a new thrust to the


The prime minister he sacked, Sher Bahadur Deuba, doesn't
have much good to say about him.

"By nature, he is not a democrat," Deuba said of the king
and his promises to hold elections by April next year. "He says
one thing and does something else. I tried very hard but his
plan was not to be just a constitutional monarch."

Deuba said he saw chaos, riots and violence continuing
perhaps for years. At least four people have been killed and
hundreds wounded in the current uprising, and hundreds of
others have been arrested.

He said the only way to end King Gyanendra's rule would
involve the support of the army, which currently gives him full

"I don't want the army to be used as a political weapon
against the king," Deuba said. "But after all they are
accountable to the people."

Many say the army is tired of battling the Maoist rebels in
an insurgency which has killed 13,000 people since 1996.

The Shahs came to power in Nepal in the mid-1700s, and
ruled uninterruptedly until 1846, when a young nobleman
engineered the killing of several hundred people in what came
to be known as the Kot massacre and assumed power for the Rana

But the Ranas ruled only as hereditary prime ministers,
leaving the Shahs as kings in name.

King Gyanendra's grandfather King Tribhuvan overthrew the
Ranas in the early 1950s, and, after a brief flirtation with
democracy, the Shahs reigned until King Birendra bowed to
demands for plurality.

Now, King Gyanendra relies on a government composed of
retired army generals and other appointees to help him run the

"He is strong-willed and he is a realist," said former army
chief Satchit Shamsher Rana, a member of a privy council that
advises the king.

"His brother was somewhat of an idealist. The present king
is more practical."

Rana laughed off the widespread belief that the king was
aloof even by the standards of the secretive Shahs.

"He is very informal and very gregarious," the former
general said. "He wants to hold elections and go back to being
a constitutional monarch."