June 11, 2008

Article at Reuters

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The decline and fall of Nepal's last king

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

Now Nepal’s former King Gyanendra is vilified, has lost his crown and is being forced out of his palace.

A specially elected assembly voted overwhelmingly to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy two weeks ago, leaving Gyanendra to go down in history as the last king of Nepal.

Gyanendra will now move to an old royal hunting lodge just outside the capital until he has a chance to find a permanent home.

Addressing a first-ever press conference at the Narayanhiti royal palace in Kathmandu on Wednesday, Gyanendra vowed not to leave the country but stay in Nepal and work for the people.

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.

CHILD KING

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 more 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.”

OVER-AMBITIOUS?

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 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.

But royalists who have met him said he has taken it all calmly, and he looked composed and even smiled during his address to the press.

Some royalists 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 liked 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.

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