Power of Nepal's King May Not Be So Absolute

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal, Feb. 7 -- Barely a year after seizing absolute power, King Gyanendra is a monarch under siege -- shunned by former allies, struggling to contain a raging Maoist insurgency and confronting a new alliance between the rebels and mainstream political parties that dismiss as farce his plans for restoring democracy.

The parties are boycotting municipal elections scheduled for Wednesday, a step that in combination with Maoist threats has ensured that more than half of the 4,000-plus local seats will not even be contested. The Maoists are also enforcing a week-long general strike that has paralyzed normal life in cities and towns throughout the country.

So tenuous is the king's position that some Nepalese journalists and analysts have begun to speculate about the odds of a military coup, or perhaps a hurried departure by the royal family in the dead of night, spelling the end of the troubled Hindu dynasty that has presided over this impoverished Himalayan kingdom since 1768.

While few predict an outright victory by the Maoists, whose popular support has waned since they launched what they called a "people's war" a decade ago, the rebels roam freely throughout the countryside and have escalated their attacks on government targets since ending a four-month unilateral cease-fire last month.

To prevent protests against Wednesday's elections, the government has rounded up hundreds of political organizers, student leaders, human rights activists and professional association leaders under a draconian law that permits detention for up to 90 days without trial.

"The king, he speaks in favor of constitutional monarchy and democracy, but in practice, he's behaving like an autocrat of the 18th century," said Bishnu Manandhar, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (United), one of the country's largest parties, speaking from behind the iron gate of the makeshift detention facility where he was being held with more than 100 others this week.

Gyanendra, 58, has defended his handling of the country's political turmoil, asserting last week in a televised speech that the "cloud of pessimism" was dissipating and that "the process of reactivating multiparty democracy has now begun." He promised to hold parliamentary elections next year.

The king's taped address came just hours after a Maoist force estimated at several thousand overran a government outpost in western Nepal, killing 19 security personnel, seizing weapons and taking dozens of hostages. In separate attacks Monday, Maoists killed seven security personnel, two of them near Katmandu, and shot a taxi driver who had defied their strike order on the outskirts of the capital, authorities said.

On Tuesday, most shops and businesses in Katmandu remained closed in observance of the strike, and traffic was much lighter than usual, with drivers who chose to defy the ban taping over their license plates so they could not be identified. Soldiers manned fortified positions outside government buildings and patrolled on foot or in pickup trucks.

In another, potentially more positive development Tuesday, the leader of the Maoists, who goes by the name Prachanda, said in an interview published in the Katmandu Post that the rebels would be willing to talk with the government if it agreed to the rebels' demand for an elected national assembly that would write a new constitution.

Nepal is a source of growing concern in foreign capitals, including Washington, where officials fear the potential emergence of a failed state in a strategically sensitive region between China and India. Gyanendra ascended to the throne in 2001 following the assassination of his elder brother, King Birendra, in a bizarre palace massacre carried out by Birendra's deranged son and heir apparent, who then killed himself.

Political instability has worsened under Gyanendra, an aloof, unsmiling figure who often appears in military uniform and is said to have grown wealthy from business interests in tourism, tea and tobacco. He suspended elected government in 2002 and assumed direct rule last year, defending the move as necessary to defeat the Maoists and restore full democracy.

In response, the United States and India have suspended arms transfers to Nepal while urging Gyanendra to reconcile with the main political parties. But they remain at loggerheads over the parties' insistence that Gyanendra reinstate the parliament that was dissolved in 2002. Last fall, the parties formed a loose alliance with the Maoists after the rebels agreed to stop killing politicians and party workers.

U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty said in an interview this week that parties may come to regret what he termed the "clammy embrace of a violence-endorsing totalitarian movement." But analysts here say the deal speaks to the deep frustration among political and civil society leaders, who have begun to talk openly of doing away with the monarchy or perhaps reducing it to a purely ceremonial role.

"The last year was our year of knowing the king, and we don't like what we see," said Kanak Dixit, a prominent journalist. "This is an institution that is pretty much made or broken by who is sitting in the throne, and the king has pretty much ruined it."

One burning question among journalists, diplomats and analysts in Nepal is whether the disaffection has spread to the officer corps in the Royal Nepal Army. Dixit said thoughtful officers are "very worried about the lack of political engagement by the king."

Late last year, Gyanendra traveled to several African countries, prompting speculation that he might have been scouting a potential refuge -- or perhaps secreting money abroad -- in case he needs to make a hasty departure.

In an interview Tuesday, Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey dismissed such speculation as "nonsense." He said the king traveled to Burundi to visit Nepalese peacekeeping troops and to South Africa as part of an important diplomatic mission that could not be publicly described.

The king, he asserted, is open to discussions with political parties as a way out of the current crisis. "There is no difference on multiparty democracy," he said. "The only difference is on methodology."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company