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Nepal's Monarch Is Teetering

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Nepal may have expected China would come to its aid, but that was May 1989; student protests were growing in Beijing. Soon China was mired in its internal problems and Nepal found itself on its own.

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Before their leaders could capitulate to India, a swelling of national pride gripped the Nepali people. They were tired of Indian domination; too many Indians were immigrating to their land; they had become too dependent on the great industrial power to their south. People poured into the streets calling on Birendra to hold firm against India.

Instead, the king called troops into the streets and confronted demonstrators, mostly students. Rather than realizing his subjects were showing solidarity with him, Birendra saw them as a threat. He accused them of rebellion, of collaborating with foreign powers.

The people did not forgive him for this. For the first time in his 16-year reign, the king was called on to step down.

Over the next eight months, with opposition crushed, relations with India resumed and trade passed across the border. On the surface, at least, the situation in Nepal eased. Jailed dissidents were released. But the fabric that held king and people together was disintegrating.

Meanwhile, Nepalis witnessed the world around them undergo major shifts. In many parts of Asia, they saw others' aspirations being realized and democracy taking hold.

The archaic Nepali system has fewer and fewer precedents to lean on. Even Jordan's monarch, King Hussein, accepted the results of multiparty elections. King Birendra could no longer propose that if the one-party system was good enough for a great country like Russia, it was good enough for Nepal.

Regional changes lie behind sustained popular protest in Nepal today. Nepalis have begun to expect more. And believing they may prevail, they have launched what appears to be a more determined rebellion than past, short-lived efforts at resistance.

Into the fifth week of strikes, citizens are regrouping to face troops in the streets; in the hills, across the mountainous land, army posts are under attack from unarmed farmers. The assaults are not isolated but appear to represent a widespread, well coordinated movement.

Up to this time, the majority of Nepalis wanted to believe they might reach a compromise with their king. Most believe in their ruler's divine right. They have given him ample chance to join with them.

All he has to do is separate himself from the privileged families who effectively hold power with him. If he does this, and aligns himself with his people, calling on them to form a new government in which they are real participants, the monarchy can be saved.

IN this crisis, after weeks of confrontation, Birendra has yet to make a public statement. From the royal palace come only orders for more brutal military action.

Jails and makeshift prisons are packed with students and other protesters. Hospitals, full of wounded dissenters, are reportedly off bounds to the public. Opposition leaders, underground or in exile, have not been approached. Yet they continue to mobilize resistance.

The queen's violent response to the student's rebuke, if true, suggests the royal family is up against the wall, lashing out in desperation. This is surely the final lunge of a dying dragon.

If there is truth in stories now circulating that members of the king's family are fleeing the country, we can expect that before long Birendra, too, will depart. With that, says a UN political observer in New York, the Nepali army will throw its lot in with the united opposition. Elections will follow. And one more new democracy will be added to the emerging fellowship of liberated nations.