Nepal's King Finds Road to Republic Costly

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Nepal's 240-year-old Hindu monarchy will be abolished if a new assembly agrees to continue a path toward making the nation a republic. Now the king and his family face a mounting pile of personal debt.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Nepal has also been torn by civil war, but as part of the effort to get beyond that, the world's last Hindu monarchy is on the verge of becoming extinct. The Himalayan kingdom is on the path of becoming a republic. The country's interim government has decided to abolish the 240-year-old monarchy, but the decision has to be confirmed by a new assembly. Elections are due next month.

NPR's Philip Reeves has just been to Nepal's capital, Katmandu.

PHILIP REEVES: When King Gyanendra of Nepal gazes out at his kingdom from his pink-tinted palace in Katmandu, he surely no longer enjoys the view. His grubby, tumble-down capital has changed.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Hindu wedding parties still parade through the streets, just as they've always done. The ancient pagodas and shrines and seething narrow alleys are still there against a breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas. But his subjects are different. They no longer revere him, the king, as a living god, the incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu.

(Soundbite of horns honking)

REEVES: In fact, these days, the atheist hammer and sickle emblazoned on the bright red flags of his Maoist enemies is visible just beyond his palace walls. The Maoists want to throw him out and abolish the monarchy. It's not hard to find Nepalis who agree with them.

Mr. J.B. ROWELL(ph) (Auto Parts Dealer): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The king should go, says J.B. Rowell, an auto parts dealer. We all hate him.

Spurned by the public, King Gyanendra has become a brooding, isolated figure. His portrait, adorned with a crown of peacock feathers, has been removed from Nepal's bank notes. And now he's in dispute with the government after refusing to pay the equivalent of more than $800,000 for overdue electricity bills.

Electricity's a sensitive subject among Nepal's 29 million people, residents of one of the world's poorest countries.

It's a rainy night in the city's Thamel district - a warren of bars, boutiques and massage parlors. The shopkeepers, wrapped in wooly hats and padded jackets against the cold, hawk their wares by candlelight. Much of the country has no electricity supply, and even here in the capital there are power outages every day lasting six or seven hours. And people have trouble using generators because of a severe gas shortage.

The final chapter of King Gyanendra's downfall began three years ago. That was when he seized absolute power, promising to end the insurgency by Maoists, who by then controlled much of the countryside. Fourteen months later, this happened...

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: The public took to the streets for day after day for what was sometimes violent protests demanding democracy. The king eventually capitulated and handed over the reins of government to a coalition of political parties. The Maoists agreed to stop fighting and joined an interim government still in place.

But the decline of Nepal's monarchy began before that. It began in 2001, when the crown prince went on a drunken rampage and shot dead the monarch at the time, Gyanendra's brother, Birendra, along with much of the rest of the royal family, including himself.

Journalist Kunda Dixit says this changed Nepal forever.

Mr. KUNDA DIXIT (Journalist): I think the massacre was a seminal event in completely demolishing the respect and the honor and the worship that ordinary people have for the monarchy.

REEVES: After the massacre, Gyanendra, a businessman with a reputation for ruthlessness, took the throne. Dicted said he made a useless monarch.

Mr. DIXIT: It wouldn't surprise me one bit that he hasn't paid not just his electricity, but his water and other bills as well. And that's why he's so not liked. You know, I mean, he hasn't shown statesmanship, magnanimity and the generosity of spirit that you need to be a modern day monarch.

REEVES: Nepal's Maoists have been pressing hard for the abolition of the monarchy, threatening to return to war if they don't get their way.

Hisila Yami is one of their leaders. After years underground, she's now a government minister.

Ms. HISILA YAMI (Government Minister, Nepal): We want to make it over. He has been looting the whole country.

Mr. KAMAL THAPA (Former Minister of Gynendra): If you asked original people, the man on the street, they still (unintelligible) monarchy from the bottom of their heart.

REEVES: King Gyanendra still has a few friends. That's Kamal Thapa, one of his former ministers who now heads a political party. Thapa's running for a seat in the new assembly due to be elected next month to write a new constitution. He hopes the assembly will decide to keep the king.

Nepal has scores of competing ethnic groups. Separatists have been causing havoc in the South. The country's still recovering from the wounds of the brutal civil war of the Maoists, which saw terrible atrocities by both sides and cost thousands of lives.

The king's supporters say the monarchy is essential for holding the nation together. As for the king's unpaid electricity bills, Kamal Thapa has this explanation...

Mr. THAPA: Basically this is a planned hit campaign against the institution of monarchy and king in particular.

REEVES: The aim of that campaign, says Thapa, is to ensure that the lights go out in the palace of Nepal's king forever.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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