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Nepal's Crown Hangs in the Balance


A special session of Nepal's parliament this week is considering a proposal by the country's former rebels to declare the state a republic. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kathmandu that the outcome of the debate is seen as key to the country's future path.

On mobile telephones across Nepal one of the most popular ring tones is the new national anthem.

The lyrics are a radical break from the past - they make no mention of the king. The previous anthem, adopted in 1899, was a melodic praise of the monarchy, now in disrepute.

The king, 60-year-old Gyanendra, has been stripped of power and most royal assets nationalized.

In 2005, he seized control of the government, but massive street protests last year forced him to give up power.

An interim government has governed since then, and has signed a peace agreement with the country's Maoist rebels. But elections for a body to write a new constitution, which will decide the monarchy's fate, have twice been postponed.

The Maoists are pressuring the government and lawmakers to immediately declare Nepal a republic, ending a monarchy that has lasted for more than 250 years.

Suresh Chalise, an adviser to the prime minister, says lawmakers should wait for the elections, which he predicts will take place next April or May.

"And that will take the decision on the fate of the monarchy. So this has been the clear and loud stance of the leadership of the present government," Chalise said.

Arjun Narasingha - an executive member of Nepali Congress, the largest political party - says the Maoists should be patient since King Gyanendra already has been neutralized.

"He's not only inactive, he's powerless. And, virtually speaking, he has no entity in Nepalese politics," Narasingha said.

The Maoists do not buy that line of thought. Senior Maoist leader C.P. Gajurel says as long as the monarchy exists it is a threat to Nepal.

"Everywhere in the history monarchy had tried its comeback again. And (in Nepal) it has its own class. A section of the army is still loyal to the monarchy, which it was trained for (to protect) the last 250 years," Gajurel said.

There are worries that the deadlock will spark violence - from the Maoists, the army or disenfranchised minorities in the south.

The head of the United Nations Mission in Nepal, Ian Martin, is calling on all parties to avoid violence. He says it is important to remember how far Nepal has come in just two years.

"It is quite extraordinary what has been achieved, certainly as someone who came here in May 2005 when an armed conflict was still raging and no one saw an end to it," Martin said. "And the king's government at that time was seemingly putting the clock backward on democratic rights."

For centuries, Nepal was a feudal state. It held its first election in 1959, a step toward modernizing the government.

Gyanendra came to power in 2001 after his brother King Birendra was assassinated by his own son.

King Gyanendra, who had been a prominent businessman, was not content to be a silent monarch, as was his brother, who had agreed to democratic reforms. His autocratic style of rule put the new king in conflict with the politicians running the government, whom he considered too weak and divided to end the Maoist insurgency and improve the economy.

One of Nepal's most influential civic voices, Himalmedia publisher Kanak Mani Dixit, says King Gyanendra has no one to blame but himself for destroying the Shah dynasty.

"The kingship is now a humiliated scarecrow of the institution that helped bring Nepal together as a nation-state 260 years ago," Dixit said. "And it is all the doings of one man, one foolhardy man that brings this entire edifice of Nepali kingship crashing to the ground."

It is a far cry from the era when the Nepalese king was revered as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The Maoists threaten nationwide "agitations" if their demands are not met. That is no idle threat - there are thousands of Maoist soldiers idling in U.N-supervised camps.

The Maoists say there is no room for even a symbolic monarchy because the Himalayan state is not a developed capitalist society and remains too close to its feudalistic past.

Senior member Gajurel says the Maoists will not negotiate on the monarchy.

"A country without a king - it is necessary," Gajurel said. "It is an essential condition for our development, for all development of our country - political development, cultural development, economic development. You have to remove that monarchy, once and for all."

King Gyanendra, for his part, keeps silent behind the palace walls.

In a magazine interview several years ago, he said the people of Nepal wanted their monarch to be seen and heard. But all indications are that - except for a dwindling number of loyalists among the privileged class and the army - most in Nepal do not want their king to be seen nor heard.

Analysts say that either by legislation or force, the king is likely to be ousted and exiled. That would close a two-and-half century era that saw Nepal pass from feudal rule to a nation-state, but one that has yet to achieve prosperity, rule of law or stable democracy.

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