May 29, 2008

Article at Reuters

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End of an era as another Himalayan kingdom tumbles

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - For centuries they enjoyed absolute power in their mountain fastnesses, revered by their subjects as incarnations of gods or Buddha, but one by one the monarchies of the Himalayas are falling.

Pressure has come from China to the north and India to the south, and pressure has come from below, from subjects impatient to replace feudalism with democracy, as these once-forbidden kingdoms gradually opened to the outside world.

Sikkim’s Buddhist monarchs, the Chogyals, retreated into history when India annexed their territory in 1975, ostensibly to support a mainly Hindu, ethnic Nepali pro-democracy movement.

Tibet’s “priest-king”, the Dalai Lama, was forced into exile when China invaded his land in the 1950s, ostensibly to end feudalism. Even the centuries-old Afghan monarchy was ousted in a coup in 1973.

On Wednesday, Nepal’s 239-year-old Shah dynasty was the latest to bow out, a Hindu monarchy outmaneuvered by a decade-long Maoist insurgency and displaced by a mass pro-democracy movement.

In the Himalayas, only in Bhutan does a monarchy still play a significant role, and even there it voluntarily surrendered power this year to a new democratically elected parliament, standing aside shrewdly perhaps, before the winds of change blew it aside.

“All the Himalayan states sit in a strategic location, between large and powerful countries,” said Yubaraj Ghimere, a magazine editor and political analyst in Kathmandu. “At the same there has been increasing education and political awareness in the region since the 1940s.”

Those factors have destabilized the monarchies in the mountains, Ghimere said. Forced to open up to the modern world, few have managed to keep their balance.


Where the world once turned its back on the Himalayas, they are now the stage for India and China’s very own cold war, and Himalayan rulers have tended to be forced one way or the other.

They have also been forced into the modern world, wary of suffering the same fate as Tibet, friendless and alone when China invaded in 1950.

Until as recently as 1951, Nepal was still out of bounds for foreigners. Today, there are erotic dance bars in the capital and piles of trash at Everest Base Camp, but also a widespread realization that ordinary people deserve political rights.

To the east, Bhutan still guards its ancient traditions fiercely, clinging to its image as the last Himalayan Shangri-la. But this most isolated of Himalayan kingdoms finally bowed to the inevitable and allowed in television and internet in 1999.

Democracy came nine years later.

The Buddhists of Bhutan seemed distinctly uncomfortable to lose the protective embrace of their kings, while the Dalai Lama is still revered by many of his subjects.

But in Nepal, few seem inclined to mourn the monarchy’s passing. Opinion polls suggested around half of Nepalis supported the idea of a constitional monarchy but hardly anyone wanted to see King Gyanendra or his son Paras on the throne.

The Maoist former rebels emerged as the largest party in the 601-seat special assembly elected in April, while royalist parties won just four seats. The assembly voted overwhelmingly in its first session on Wednesday to establish a republic.

The monarchy only had itself to blame, Nepalis say.

Its mystique was stripped away in 2001 when the crown prince killed the king and eight other members of the royal family. Four years later, King Gyanendra took absolute power, further alienating himself from ordinary Nepalis.

On Wednesday, thousands of Nepalis took to the streets again, marching, dancing and singing to celebrate the end of Gyanendra and “the dawn of the republic”. Yet for a few traditionalists, it was a sad end to a central part of their nation’s history.

“If democracy means peace, all will be well,” said author and Himalayan expert Jonathan Gregson. “But if the Maoists try to create a one-party state, as is their goal, we could be in for more nastiness.”

“Then a lot more people will regret the monarchy’s passing. It was at least part of a system of checks and balances.”