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.

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.

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.

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.

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