Nepal Debates Whether It Needs a King

As violence and protests mount against Nepal's monarchy, the streets of this crowded capital city are resounding with a question: Does this Himalayan kingdom still need a king?

One year after King Gyanendra dismissed Nepal's elected government and seized total power, the monarch of this beautiful but desperately poor country appears increasingly isolated, helpless as protesters against his rule fill the streets of Katmandu and the death toll mounts from a Maoist insurgency.

Protests against the monarch have escalated in recent weeks. On Monday, unfazed by the heavy deployment of soldiers on the streets, hundreds of students burned an effigy of the king and shouted "Gyanendra, you thief, leave the throne!"

The king has not publicly commented on the demonstrations, but analysts say his response has been to resort to heavy-handed methods that many people feared he would employ when he suddenly assumed the throne nearly five years ago.

Last February, Gyanendra took absolute control of Nepal, dismissing the elected interim government that shared power with him and declaring a state of emergency. He put Nepal into virtual lockdown: cutting phone lines, enforcing strict censorship and suspending many civil liberties. Dozens of politicians, student leaders and activists were detained.

Now rising anger against him fuels the debate over what role he should play in this country of 26 million people.

On one side are the Maoist rebels, who want the monarchy abolished. Opposing them are royalists who remain deeply loyal to the king.

In between is a vast middle ground.

"They say you can't have two swords in one scabbard, but in this case Nepal needs both the king and the political parties," says Jogmeher Shrestha, leader of the National Democratic Party and a veteran politician.

Shrestha sees a unifying role for the king amid Nepal's political chaos. "In this land of many ethnic and disparate groups, the king symbolizes national unity, national pride. We need him to keep this country together," he says.

Amar Raj Kaini, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) Party, agrees — but only partly.

"Yes, the king has a role. We need him to resolve the current flux in the political situation, but we also believe there is no alternative to democracy," says Kaini, a former school headmaster who spent three years in prison for his political beliefs.

Gyanendra's unexpected ascent came from tragedy. In 2001 his brother, King Birendra, was gunned down with much of his family in a palace massacre apparently committed by Birendra's son, the crown prince, who also died.

Gyanendra's troubled inheritance was a numbed nation traumatized by the incomprehensible royal murders, an ineffective, squabbling political class and a countryside wracked by a violent Maoist insurgency.

Until he assumed power, Gyanendra had enjoyed a reputation as a successful entrepreneur with interests in tourism, tea and tobacco. He headed Nepal's conservation movement, pushing to create reserves to save the country's rich wildlife resources. Although described as a hardheaded businessman, the 58-year-old monarch is also a poet who has been published under a pseudonym.

The country, though, quickly fell into turmoil after the massacre, as the Maoists stepped up their campaign to create a communist state. Over the past decade, more than 12,000 people have died in the violence.

As the crisis mounted in October 2002, Gyanendra dismissed the elected government, saying it couldn't cope with the militancy, and installed a series of prime ministers. Then, last year, he took absolute rule.

Every day, the debate over the king spills into Katmandu's streets.

"The king's rule is no different from the days of the political parties. If anything, things have worsened. All these days of strikes and streets being closed for protests, no one cares for the common man," says Upendra Dhital, a shopkeeper watching protesters burn tires on the road in front of his Katmandu stationery shop.

His friend Mahesh Shresta nodded his head vigorously.

"Earlier we had put our faith in the king," says Shrestha. "Now the people doubt the king's actions."