From the CIAO Atlas Map of Asia 

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CIAO DATE: 07/01

Nepal — Royal Murders

Caspar Fithin

In Perspective©
The Oxford Analytica Weekly Column
June 7, 2001

Oxford Analytica

The new King of Nepal, Gyanendra Shah, promised an inquiry into the massacre that killed almost the entire royal family on June 1. Given the former king's legacy as adored head of state and symbol of stability, his violent death has created extreme political uncertainty. It has occurred at a time of general political unrest in the form of strikes and demonstrations in the towns and an increasingly violent Maoist insurrection in the countryside. In the short term, violent demonstrations over the unsatisfactory nature of official explanations of how the royal family died will continue. They may do so even after the findings of the independent inquiry into the deaths are announced. A return to calm depends largely on King Gyanendra's ability to govern in the same manner as his murdered brother.

Kathmandu remains tense after rioters earlier this week attempted to storm the main royal palace demanding an explanation for the massacre of eight members of the royal family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, on June 1. Official sources initially attributed the murders to a suicide attack by the King and Queen's 31-year-old Eton-educated son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who, apparently enraged after having his marriage plans rejected, shot his parents and then gravely wounded himself. Despite this allegation, Dipendra was crowned king -- only to die of his wounds on June 4. Later that day, the throne passed to Birendra's younger brother, Gyanendra, who was not in the palace when the shootings occurred.

One of Gyanendra's first statements as monarch was to describe the royal deaths as "an accident" -- an explanation that was greeted with disbelief, anger and violence by the capital's population. The new king has since called for an independent inquiry into the killings under the aegis of Supreme Court Chief Justice Keshav Prasad Upadhaya. However, among the population, conspiracy theories are rife and many Nepalis question Gyanendra's right to rule.

Birendra's legacy. The bodies of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, along with those of their son, Prince Nilanjan, daughter Princess Shruti and four other members of the extended family, were cremated at Pashupati temple in Kathmandu on June 2. In a country where many people revered Birendra as a living incarnation of Vishnu, his violent death has been cataclysmic. The dead king represented an element of continuity and stability, having removed, albeit reluctantly, the 'panchayat' non-party council system of government in 1990 which gave him considerable power, and restored parliamentary democracy. For many, King Birendra's moral authority and adaptability will make him irreplaceable.

Diminished democracy. While Nepalis had hoped that the advent of democracy would bring an improvement in economic conditions, widespread rural poverty and deep-seated socio-economic inequalities along caste, ethnic and regional lines have persisted and worsened since 1990. There have been ten different governments in the decade of parliamentary rule and politicians have resorted to corruption and the manipulation of constitutional loopholes to remain in power. The Nepali Congress Party (NCP) government of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has embodied such an approach. Politics for its own sake has created an atmosphere of chronic factionalism and public disaffection with democracy, while the lack of political stability has distracted policy-makers from deteriorating economic conditions -- particularly in the countryside.

Most recently, the parliamentary process has been paralysed for months by the communist-dominated opposition's refusal to cooperate with the government. A three-day nationwide strike was conducted in late May, calling for Koirala's resignation over allegations of corruption in the process of negotiating the lease of a jet for Nepal's national airline. Given the circumstances of Gyanendra's arrival on the throne, the new monarch will find it difficult to recreate the broader political certainties that were provided by Birendra's oversight of a fractious parliamentary polity.

Maoist insurgency. The removal of the monarchy is a declared aim of the Maoist insurgents who have been waging a 'people's war' since 1996 and now control several districts of the country. Some 1,600 people have lost their lives in this conflict to date, and in early April the violence gathered momentum when the guerrillas killed nearly 100 police and government officials in four separate attacks on rural police stations in the hills.

In the past few weeks, three left-wing students' unions submitted extensive demands to the government, which included a 50% reduction in private school fees; a ban on the singing of the national anthem; a ban on compulsory Sanskrit; and increased investment in education. In mid-May, students belonging to the All-Nepal Independent Students' Union (Revolutionary), which is aligned with the Maoists, attacked privately owned schools, especially those with known Indian affiliations. Private schools in Maoist-dominated areas have already been shut down.

If the urban unrest precipitated by the uncertainty surrounding the royal family's death develops into sustained popular protest against the government and the new monarch, the scope for the Maoists to act as agents provocateurs will increase. Indeed, yesterday local media carried a statement from Prachanda, the Maoist leader, claiming the killings involved "national and international reactionaries". The police will find their resources stretched if they are required to contain urban disturbances as well as rural insurgency.

Rumour surfeit. Since neither the explanation that Dipendra murdered the royal family, nor that the deaths were the result of an 'exploding weapon' is widely believed, conspiracy theories have gained ground -- with potentially far-reaching effects:

India relations. A theory with potentially serious ramifications is based on the premise that India engineered the murders in order to provide a context in which Nepal's cantankerous democratic system can again be replaced by a panchayat-style system as was the case in 1960. Both the Nepali right and left (including the Maoists) use the country's widespread anti-Indian sentiment as a political weapon. Consequently, it is often argued that a more autocratic system would serve India's strategic and economic aims more faithfully, much as that of Bhutan is believed to do. Ironically, Delhi encouraged the 1990 abolition of the panchayat system and a return to democracy because it believed the NCP, modelled on its own Congress Party, would be more compliant. Events proved otherwise.

Given such rumours, popular anti-Indian feeling, which was already significant before the royal killings, is likely to intensify in future. Schools and businesses with Indian connections have already been attacked. Furthermore, the embattled government is likely to continue its de facto policy of using India as a scapegoat for its own shortcomings.

Difficult prospects. The weekend murders have undoubtedly damaged the institution of monarchy. King Gyanendra himself is widely viewed as being more conservative than his dead brother, although, perhaps predictably, he has pledged his commitment to the present political system. Of greater concern to many Nepalis is the implications for the succession: Gyanendra's son, Paras, is widely disliked as a playboy who is alleged to have been involved in two fatal hit-and-run car accidents. Street demonstrators have already focused on this issue.

The committee charged with investigating the royal deaths is expected to announce its findings on June 14. The outcome will prove a severe test of the organisation's credibility. Many Nepalis are likely to reject the findings, whatever they are. Nevertheless, as long as King Gyanendra does not use the current unrest as a pretext to change the country's political system, he is likely to improve his at present slender legitimacy in the public mind.