May 28, 2008

Article at Reuters

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NEWSMAKER: The decline and fall of Nepal's last king

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Not long ago he was revered as a Hindu god, waited upon by thousands of royal palace retainers. His face crowned banknotes and the national anthem hailed him.

Now Nepal’s King Gyanendra is vilified, has lost his crown and will now have to pay his own tax and electricity bills.

A special assembly convened on Wednesday and the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy was at the top of its agenda.

The ruling, as expected, was made with little protest, bringing to an end the 239-year-old Shah dynasty and leaving Gyanendra to go down in history as the last king of Nepal.

The 60-year-old businessman-turned-monarch has only himself to blame, many Nepalis say, after an ill-judged power grab in 2005 when he dismissed the government, jailed politicians and declared a state of emergency.

Gyanendra was apparently fed up with Nepal’s corrupt and squabbling politicians and decided only he could rescue the country from a deadly Maoist insurgency.

The attempt backfired, and he was forced to back down the following year after weeks of street protests that ultimately sealed his and the monarchy’s fate.

“He believed that he had the best intention,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly. “But it was his autocratic streak that did him in.”


As a three-year-old boy Gyanendra was thrust on the throne in 1950 when his grandfather briefly fled to India, in the midst of a power struggle with the country’s hereditary prime ministers, the Ranas.

When King Tribhuvan returned a few months later, Gyanendra retreated once more into the background, building a fortune in tea, tobacco and hotels and getting involved in environmental conservation.

Then, nearly seven years ago, his popular brother King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family were shot and killed by the crown prince, who then turned his gun on himself.

Gyanendra was back on the throne, and like many of his predecessors, he was brought up to believe he knew better than his subjects what was best for Nepal.

The massacre had broken the mystique of a monarchy once revered as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, while Gyanendra’s seizure of power unleashed the wrath of the people.

“I think he is getting what he deserved,” said 48-year-old laborer Suntali Khatri, breast-feeding her two-year-old daughter next to a building site. “He could not ask for more.”

Maoist rebels, whose main demand had been the abolition of the “feudal monarchy”, have gone on to become Nepal’s largest party after a 2006 peace deal and elections in April.

They say Gyanendra can stay in the country as a commoner and businessman, provided he respects the assembly’s decision.

The king himself has been reported as saying he had no intention of leaving Nepal.

Instead he is likely to drive from the pink pagoda-roofed Narayanhity Palace to his own, luxurious and well-guarded private residence in Kathmandu.


Gyanendra went to school in Darjeeling, a hill station in eastern India, and graduated from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Mohan Prasad Lohani, who taught him English in university, said he was an irregular student -- more interested in politics than studies. “He had his own notion of how things should change. He was very ambitious,” he said.

That ambition could have been his downfall, analysts say. And it has been a dramatic fall from grace.

In the past two years, the government has seized thousands of acres of royal lands, nationalized more than a dozen of his palaces and sacked his priest in a purge of palace employees.

Virtually confined to his palace, the king has had his annual allowance cut, been hit with tax demands and requests for unpaid electricity bills. He has seen his face replaced by an image of Mount Everest on the country’s banknotes and praise of him purged from the national anthem.

Yet royalists who have met him say he has taken it all calmly.

They argue that the hasty abolition of the monarchy could backfire and leave the country without the anchor it needs in times of change. But royalist parties won just four seats in the 601-member assembly in April.

While many Nepalis like the idea of a constitutional monarchy, few like the idea of being ruled by Gyanendra or his unpopular son Paras, who has a reputation as a playboy and a reckless driver.

“I think this is the end of the road for the monarchy,” Dixit said.

“Most Nepalis think it just not worth the trouble to keep any more.”