Throne out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

Long live the monarchy! Down with the republic!' chanted the small crowd that gathered in a park near the royal palace in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. Dressed against the Himalayan chill in colourful woollen shawls, the few hundred royalists waved placards in support of the world's last remaining Hindu monarchy - and then quickly disappeared.

Their protest followed an historic vote, passed by Nepal's interim parliament on December 23, to sweep away the 240-year-old monarchy and turn Nepal into a 'federal democratic republican state'. Although the king would not move out of his palace until an elected government was in place next year, that government would not have the power to reinstate him or any other monarch.

Kamal Thapa, co-chairman of the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party, which organised last week's rally, said the vote was a terrible mistake. 'The monarchy is the most revered institution in the country,' he said. 'If the choice had been left to the people, they would have voted to keep the king. Instead it was decided in an undemocratic, dictatorial manner by politicians.'

Most Nepalis and observers have a different view of the vote. By agreeing to scrap the monarchy, the interim government brought the Maoists - communist former rebels who waged a decade-long insurgency in which 13,000 died - back into the political process. And that has paved the way for crucial national elections, the nation's first in nine years, now due to take place by mid-April.

Nepal's interim government was formed by the Maoists and the main parties in 2006, after they orchestrated a popular uprising against the unpopular king, Gyanendra, and signed a peace deal. But last September the Maoists withdrew from the government, demanding that the monarchy be abolished immediately. This sparked a political crisis, delaying elections scheduled for November - the second poll delay within a year.

'Abolishing the monarchy was essential face-saving for the Maoists,' said Kanak Dixit, editor of Himal magazine. 'Many of the politicians who voted to abolish the monarchy had previously supported it. But it got the peace process back on track.'

Ordinary Nepalis, however, seem in no doubt about the king's fate. 'No one thinks the king matters any more,' said 18-year-old Rahil Khan, who worked in a jewellery store metres from the palace gates. 'Everyone I know wants him to go.'

Traditionally, Nepal's kings were considered incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. Even when that belief faded, there was lingering veneration. But in recent years, a self-destructive monarchy squandered even the most basic respect of many of its subjects.

In June 2001, in a drunken rage, crown prince Dipendra shot dead 10 members of the royal family, including his parents, the king and queen, before killing himself. Many believed his uncle Gyanendra, a tough businessman who inherited the throne, had a role in the murders, although no evidence of that was found.

Then, in 2005, as the Maoists stepped up their insurgency, Gyanendra - previously a constitutional monarch with mainly ceremonial powers - dismissed parliament and assumed absolute power. The insurgency grew more violent and, as the economy faltered, Nepal's poor got poorer.

As he suppressed his critics and opponents, he became increasingly disliked. The restoration of parliament in 2006 did not restore his popularity.

Even diehard monarchists struggle to speak highly of him. 'The king is like a father, and you can't drive your father out even if you hate him,' said Buddhi Bahadur Furkuti, a 47-year-old father of five who earns 100 Nepali rupees (HK$12.40) a day sitting on the side of a busy road polishing shoes.

Few expect Nepal's monarchy to survive. But its democratic future is dependent on a lot more than scrapping the king.

In recent months, in the absence of a fully functioning government, violence has flared in many areas. There are acute concerns that it will be difficult to hold elections in the Terai area, in the southern plains, where nearly half Nepal's 29 million people live.

Tensions between the hill people, who dominate Nepal's ruling class, and the people of the plains have led to violent protests in the region, where 130 people have been killed in the past year.

Rhoddy Chalmers, head of the Kathmandu delegation of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said the government would have to show it was serious about listening to the concerns of those in Terai if free and fair elections were to take place there.

Observers are also concerned about some of the political parties' commitment to democracy. Some believe the Nepali Congress party, which led the interim government, is in no hurry to lose the power it now held. And it is widely believed the Maoists pulled out of the political process last year because they feared a drubbing in elections. Few pollsters expected the Maoists to emerge as one of Nepal's bigger parties.

Baburam Bhatturai, the Maoists' deputy leader, swore his party was committed to elections this time around. 'There is no question of us not going for elections,' he said.

But both the Maoists and independent observers are concerned that the plight of the rebels' former fighters is addressed before elections. Since 2006, about 31,000 Maoist soldiers have been held in camps. The Maoists want them to be integrated into Nepal's army. But there are reports Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is opposed to such a move.

Ian Martin, head of the UN mission in Nepal, warned that the issue was of vital importance. 'The democratisation of the army and the integration of the Maoist combatants are crucial issues at the heart of the peace process,' he said.