Nepal's Embattled King a Study in Aloofness

Nepalis wave flags and chant slogans during a peaceful march in Katmandu. Protests continued despite King Gyanendra's call Friday for dialogue and fresh elections.
Nepalis wave flags and chant slogans during a peaceful march in Katmandu. Protests continued despite King Gyanendra's call Friday for dialogue and fresh elections. (By Paula Bronstein -- Getty Images)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 15, 2006

KATMANDU, Nepal, April 14 -- The latest ruler to wear the plumed, bejeweled crown of Nepal is a dour former businessman who favors Christian Dior sunglasses and military uniforms, listens to Indian love songs and consults astrologers about auspicious times to travel, according to Nepali journalists, diplomats and government officials.

For much of the past week, he was conspicuously missing in action.

As sometimes-violent protests against his rule rocked the capital, King Gyanendra was 125 miles to the west, at the royal family's lakeside retreat in the resort town of Pokhara. There he greeted supplicants in a ceremonial tent and boarded a French-made Puma helicopter for forays around the countryside. He did not return to Katmandu until Thursday.

With tear gas wafting and protesters chanting, "The king is a thief," the capital was a distinctly hostile place for Gyanendra, 58. But his near-total silence during the unrest and his prolonged absence reinforced an image of aloofness that has undermined his standing in this impoverished Himalayan kingdom of 28 million people.

The king leads one of the world's oldest and most exotic royal houses, a secretive Hindu dynasty that claims to be divinely ordained -- its leaders were long revered as living gods. Today it is in a precarious state, under pressure from demonstrators, Maoist insurgents and the general openness of the Internet age.

In 1990, Nepal became a constitutional monarchy, with an elected parliament and prime minister. But Gyanendra put that system on hold when he assumed powers of direct rule on Feb. 1, 2005, defending the move as necessary to defeat the Maoists.

One of the most striking aspects of the recent unrest, analysts say, is that some protesters have gone beyond demands for the restoration of democracy and are openly pushing for an end to the monarchy and the creation of a republic.

"This movement has taken on an anti-monarchy dimension," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the Nepali newsmagazine Samaya. "That's a new component of the whole thing."

The protests launched nine days ago by an alliance of Nepal's seven main political parties, in loose cooperation with the Maoist rebels, have triggered a security crackdown. They have claimed four lives and drawn charges of excessive force from the United Nations and other international groups.

On Friday, a statement from the king was read on national television, timed to coincide with the traditional Nepalese new year. "It is our wish that in order to re-energize multiparty democracy there should not be any delay in reactivating all representative bodies through elections," the message said in part. "May the efforts at ensuring sustainable peace and meaningful democracy in the interests of the nation and the people bear fruit during the new year."

Again, Gyanendra struck many Nepalese as out of touch. His statement met none of the demonstrators' core demands, beginning with the restoration of parliament. Political leaders pledged Friday to continue the demonstrations.

In a news conference on Friday afternoon, Shrish Shumsher Rana, the information minister, repeated the charge that the protests had been infiltrated by Maoists and warned of possible new curbs on the press. "I'm going to face a lot of flak for some actions that I may perhaps have to take on so-called journalists, who are, basically, political activists," he said.

Despite the deep anger toward Gyanendra, analysts say most Nepalis are not yet ready to throw in the towel on the monarchy, which many see as a unifying force. A poll last month by the Nepali Times, an English-language weekly that is often critical of the king, found that 71 percent of Nepalis surveyed favor keeping the monarchy in some form, although 60 percent opposed the king's power grab.

The Shah dynasty, to which Gyanendra belongs, dates to 1769, when a regional ruler named Prithvi Narayan Shah led an army down from the hills and conquered the ancient city of Katmandu. Nepalis traditionally worshiped their rulers as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu; the reigning monarch's seat in the capital is a salmon-colored palace set on 18 acres and surrounded by fir trees.

Educated at English-language schools in India and Nepal, Gyanendra spent most of his adult life tending to his business interests, including tea plantations, tobacco companies and a five-star Katmandu hotel, and running a nature conservation trust named for his late father, King Mahendra.

He ascended the throne in bizarre circumstances in 2001: His predecessor and elder brother King Birendra and nine other members of the royal family were shot dead in the palace, apparently by Birendra's deranged and intoxicated son, who then committed suicide.

But the new king never won the hearts of Nepalis. That was in part because of his son, Paras, the crown prince, who allegedly killed a popular singer in a hit-and-run accident but was never charged.

Gyanendra has steadily consolidated his power. He sacked a succession of cabinets and last year appointed himself chairman of a "council of ministers," surrounding himself with royalists and ex-generals.

An observant Hindu, Gyanendra makes frequent religious pilgrimages, once enraging animal rights activists by offering animal sacrifices at a temple in India, according to Nepali press accounts. He is said to regularly consult astrologers, including one who advised him on the length of his recent stay in Pokhara.

During his helicopter trips to remote villages from Pokhara, "people get on their knees and touch his feet, and he thinks that translates into support for him and the monarchy, which is partly true," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times and a longtime royal-watcher. "He uses this to say, 'I'm the savior.' "

Back in Katmandu, however, the king's long sojourn in western Nepal built resentment, especially when the streets were erupting in anger this month. "I don't like him because he has handled the situation badly, people are dying here, and he's having fun in Pokhara," said Ravi Bhatta, 18, a high school student who was attending a political rally in the capital on Thursday.

Rana, the information minister, dismissed reports that astrologers had influenced the king's stay in Pokhara as "whimsical."

"The king was never idle" in the resort town, he said, and used the opportunity to touch base with his regional constituents.

At the same time, Rana acknowledged that the king seeks guidance from astrologers. "I do, too," he said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company