Nepal's Monarch Is Teetering
`A STUDENT is raped by police after demonstrations at a provincial university; she is brought to a hospital in the capital where the country's queen, hearing about the incident, visits her. A rare sign of royal compassion in this obscure feudal nation. When she receives her bedside visitor, however, the girl spits at the queen, and shouts contempt for the regime this royal personage represents. Whereupon an order is issued for the girl's execution.'' This is a report recently received from Nepal. While details of the student's execution are not yet confirmed, the story points up the gravity of the present situation in Nepal. Confrontations between the people and the monarchy have reached a point of no return. The level of brutality in this mountain nation of 17 million, where Americans spend pleasant holidays trekking through Himalayan wilderness, has finally been exposed.Skip to next paragraph
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This is not the first time that Nepalis have revolted to pursue justice. From the 1950s, Nepal's people have repeatedly called for a democratic government. Opposition began with the establishment of this monarchy itself, in 1951, when the present king's grandfather, Tribhuvan, overthrew an earlier dynasty. After him, King Mahenda ruled the landlocked country with an iron fist; and his son Birendra, the present monarch, does the same.
At any sign of protest, universities were shut down, rebels routed and jailed, and leaders forced into exile. The status quo was always restored, with the king and his handpicked cabinet continuing to rule what they called a ``constitutional monarchy.''
THE closest Nepal came to winning democracy was in 1979. Popular protests at the time resulted in the young King Birendra agreeing to hold a referendum on the party system. If the people wished, he said, a multiparty plan would be adopted. But in the ensuing referendum election of 1980, it met defeat. Although people widely believed the election was rigged, they appeared to accept the result. They returned to their fields and herds to silently watch corruption accelerate.
Police brutality against protesters was kept from world view. After every crisis, most jailed dissenters were released. This avoided international comment and relieved internal pressure.
The system was supported on the outside by India. Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi backed King Mahendra and his son Birendra. The monarchs, for their part, ensured stability. Tight censorship, a ban on opposition parties, and sanction of the kings' divine status by the Hindu priesthood kept things under control.
Until now, opposition has never been directed personally at King Birendra or his wife, Queen Aiswarya. Even opposition leaders have consistently advocated a system that would blend democracy and the kingship.
The student's rebuke of the queen at her hospital bedside illustrates a new development: People's patience with their monarch has ended. For years they wanted to believe their king was not responsible for police brutality. Now Nepal is finally declaring that Birendra is culpable.
The present challenge facing the Himalayan king has its seed in last spring's economic crisis. When Nepal began over a year ago to strengthen ties with China to the north, it angered its huge southern neighbor. India retaliated with a crippling economic blockage. Nepal had become increasingly dependent for fuel and luxuries on trade routes through India. The northern, mountain routes to Nepal across Tibet from Pakistan or China were fraught with hazards.