KATMANDU, Nepal – A visibly uncomfortable king of Nepal promised Friday to bring democracy back to this Himalayan nation, trying to end a bloody political crisis that has engulfed the country. His efforts, though, met only with an opposition pledge of more demonstrations.
With well over 100,000 protesters filling the streets and a top envoy warning the government could be nearing collapse, King Gyanendra's promises showed little sign of mollifying the political opposition — or a public desperate for change 14 months after he seized power.
The king, though, insisted in his speech he was acting on behalf of the nation his family has ruled since the 18th century.
His dynasty, he said, has an "unflinching commitment toward constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy," and he called on the seven main opposition political parties to quickly name a prime minister.
"Executive power ... shall, from this day, be returned to the people," he said in the announcement broadcast on state television and radio.
Gyanendra, never an electric public speaker, looked particularly uncomfortable during Friday's speech, frozen rigidly in front of a cloth backdrop and staring directly into the camera as he spoke.
His glumness is unsurprising. In a country where kings were revered as godlike just a few years ago, Gyanendra is deeply unpopular, isolated in a collection of palaces and has lost control of much of the rural areas to a Maoist insurgency that has left nearly 13,000 people dead as it tries to create a communist Nepal.
Observers fear the country could, at its worst, descend into chaos, creating a power vacuum into which the Maoists, with their long history of violence, could step in.
In addition, many demonstrators are increasingly demanding that he give up all his power — something the king is clearly loathe to do.
Late Friday, the U.S. State Department urged the king to follow up his promise to restore democracy to the country of 27 million people, a place once famed for its spectacular mountain ranges and hippies in search of Eastern spirituality — but now known for its chaotic, bloody politics.
"The people of Nepal deserve a democratic government that can return stability and peace to their country," spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
Opposition leaders saw little in the speech to resolve the crisis, which began when the king seized power in February 2005, saying he needed to crush the Maoist insurgency.
"This is incomplete," said Minendra Risal of Nepali Congress Democratic party, one of the seven opposition parties that have joined with the Maoists to protest the king's seizure of power.
The king, he noted, fell short of a key opposition demand — the return of parliament and creation of a special assembly to write a constitution. The constitutional assembly "is the aspiration of the people."
Most opposition leaders want a constitution that would make the king a ceremonial figure or eliminate the monarchy entirely.
But they saw other problems too: Under the new plan, the king would retain an undefined political role in a constitutional monarchy and appare badly as the insurgency worsened and the economy faltered.
"It's not enough for us. We are demanding a new constitution with a presidential system — a republic," Prakash Thapa, a teacher, said Friday after the king's speech. "This country does not need Gyanendra, the thief."