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Issue 1753


Revolt behind the palace massacre

By Alice Blake

NEPAL IS in crisis, perhaps on the edge of revolution. Last week somebody shot dead King Birendra, his queen and eight other members of the royal family. The new king, Gyanendra, is the old king’s uncle, who survived the massacre. The official story is that King Birendra’s son, an old Etonian, was angry at his parents for blocking his marriage to the woman he loved. So he went to his room, got his automatic, sprayed his family and then mortally wounded himself.

It is possible that this is roughly what happened. Many Nepalis do not believe it. Large crowds have been rioting in many parts of the country, blaming the new king for the murders and demanding an end to the monarchy. The new king has not allowed police inquiries, and the survivors have not been publicly interviewed. The cover-up suggests guilt, but it may also be shame.

All of this happened the day after a general strike, on the edge of a revolutionary situation. We are told the Nepalis regard the king as a god. In fact, from 1951 to 1990, Birendra and his father were brutal dictators, widely hated and feared. In 1990 the Nepali people rose up against them. The activists of the two main parties, Congress and the Communist UML, had been underground, and in and out of prison, for 30 years.

In 1990 they launched a joint campaign of strikes and demonstrations against the government that lasted months. The police killed many, probably hundreds, of demonstrators. Finally the people of Patan, one of the three cities of the Kathmandu valley, surrounded the police station, disarmed the police and sent them naked up the road to Kathmandu.

The dictatorship was broken. People were ecstatic. But Congress and the Communists immediately did a deal with King Birendra. He would become the constitutional monarch of a parliamentary system. He would keep all his wealth, and nobody would be punished for the killings or torture. Congress was elected. Its ministers stole and took bribes flagrantly. The Communists replaced it in new elections and did the same thing.

Yet Nepal remained throughout the 1990s a deeply politicised country, with many strikes and mass demonstrations. The popular movement had been betrayed but not broken. Five years ago a small Maoist organisation launched a guerrilla war in the hills of western Nepal.

Most Nepalis don’t live in the hills. But the guerrillas gained strength because many people in the plains and cities felt respect for them-at least somebody is doing something, they said.

The Maoist activists are often schoolteachers, educated but paid 60p a day. Many of their military experts are former Gurkhas in the British, Indian or Nepali army. They build by driving the police and landlords out of the villages. The Maoists now control large stretches of the hill country, although they do not yet get a large share of the vote nationally, and their areas contain less than 10 percent of the population.

But this has been a growing crisis for the ruling class. The Communists, currently the parliamentary opposition, are very worried their support will bleed away to the left and have been pushing hard for peace talks with the Maoists.

Last month an official inquiry indirectly alleged that prime minister Koroila had taken bribes for arranging contracts at the state airline. The Communist opposition called for his resignation and called three days of very successful general strikes.

There was an equally solid one-day general strike in Kathmandu called by the Maoists. This represented a major escalation of their strength in the urban working class. The next day somebody’s gun went off in the palace. At first it looked as if the designated guilty person, the crown prince, was going to be made king. Large, angry demonstrations greeted the news. It was then announced that the prince had died and his uncle Gyanendra would be king.

Gyanendra has a reputation as a hard right winger who hankers after the old dictatorship and wants to smash the Maoists. Furious demonstrators tried to fight their way into the palace grounds, publicly shouting against Gyanendra and demanding a proper investigation. The police have killed people in Kathmandu and other cities, including children. There have been curfews in Kathmandu from noon onwards, with the police threatening to shoot anybody seen on the streets.

The new king promised a high level inquiry, but the Communists have refused to be part of what many regard as a whitewash. It is hard to see how the monarchy can survive, and impossible to see why it should.

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