Nepal's Untold Story
A king is murdered, but the
real massacre may still be ahead
by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Toward Freedom magazine,
August / September 2001
The world abruptly woke up to revelations
about Nepal's internal problems on June 1, 2001, the day it was
told that the kingdom's crown prince had killed his parents and
other royals, then turned the gun on himself: According to official
reports, it was all the result of a dispute over the prince's
choice of a wife. The news sparked a nationwide trauma, and brought
the world press to the streets of Kathmandu.
The massacre s grisly details-though none
of forensic significance - were dutifully reported to the world.
The archaic funerary rites were also widely broadcast. But none
of the bulletins offered real insights about the country: the
poverty, the failing democracy, the army's role in Nepal's politics,
or the insurgent Maoist movement that controls over a quarter
of the countryside and has the support of as much as half the
nation's 23 million population, and possibly more.
Since then, an occasional Nepalese commentator
has forecast privately, "The truth will come out in a few
months. Watch," they say. While the international press accepts
the more acceptable conclusion-"We may never know what happened
in the palace"-we would do better to listen to that guarded
warning. Those off-the-record comments actually mean "keep
your eye on the changing power relations between the king, his
army, the government, and the Maoists."
Several months after the massacre, while
the new king maintains a low public profile, a new political dynamic
has emerged. First, confrontations between the Maoists and police
have reached a new level, and, for the first time, the army is
assuming an active role in trying to suppress the peasant movement.
During the past five years, as the largely
rural rebellion grew, only the prime minister and police have
been involved in trying to thwart Maoist actions. While the Maoists
undermined the power and efforts of both, the army remained completely
out of the picture.
Although the king became a constitutional
monarch when democracy was restored in 1990, he retained his post
as commander-in-chief of the army. In that role, he kept the army
CLEARING A PATH?
Nepal's army is an even more secret institution
than the palace. But most citizens are all too familiar with its
record of selective, brutal, and swift responses to any display
of public dissent or hint of revolt. After the palace killings,
when no one in the country dared to question the "official"
explanation of the crime, and the free press suddenly censored
itself, one Nepali observer commented, "If that is what 'they'
can do to the royal family, imagine what they will do to us."
Public suspicions of foul play, never
publicly voiced by commentators or government officials, were
probably the motive behind days of street riots following the
massacre. Six unarmed street protesters were killed outright by
the police. Yet, no Western reporters, academics, or diplomats
who know the country well have stepped forward to suggest foul
play. Instead, they've essentially joined the apparent cover-up.
One circumspect Nepali commentator, speaking
about the massacre on international radio, did get the message
out to those really listening. "This massacre is a tragedy
for our country," he said. "It is difficult to get all
the facts, but there is no reason to believe in rumors of a conspiracy.
The military spokesman himself has given us all the facts. The
military itself have given us the reports." For most outsiders
the message may have been too subtle. But, in effect, he was revealing
that the military is in control of the situation.
Although Nepal currently has a parliament
and prime minister, both have been weakened by corruption and
lack of public confidence resulting from widespread mismanagement,
including their handling of the Maoist movement. Just days before
the massacre, there were calls for Prime Minister Giriji Prasad
Koirala to step down. Barely a week before that, the Maoists called
a general strike in Kathmandu. The capital came to a complete
stop, revealing that the Maoists could intimidate the entire population.
The strike also demonstrated that this wasn't simply a rural movement
in the hills, but had penetrated the capital itself. In July,
Koirala was finally forced to resign.
Ravi Adikhari, a Nepali journalist based
in New York, reports that King Birendra, who was killed on June
1, to some extent sympathized with the Maoists and enjoyed an
intimate relationship with its deputy leader, Balram Battarai.
"The king played a subdued role since his abdication of absolute
power, and although he was military commander in chief, he was
unwilling to bring the army against the Maoists." Adikhari
and other daring commentators suggest that the "generals"
were doubtless alarmed by the growing sphere of influence of the
rebels, and were anxious to wipe them out. Their readiness to
act was also influenced by the apparent helplessness of the elected
Facing increasing threats from the insurgents
and resistance from King Birendra, they could have decided to
take matters into their own hands. That meant removing whatever
obstacles lay in their path.
Li Onesto, a US journalist writing about
Nepal in the Summer 2()01 issue of Z Magazine, named "the
growing strength of Nepal's Maoist insurgency" as the significant
context of the royal massacre. She characterizes the situation
as "a crisis within Nepal's ruling class over how to deal
with the insurgency." King Birendra, she notes, "was
the focus of a sharp debate over whether or not to mobilize the
army against the Maoists."
In 1999, Onesto spent several months moving
through the guerrilla zones in Nepal's mountainous regions, a
visit arranged by the Communist (Maoist) Party of Nepal. She is
one of the few outsiders who have witnessed the benefits brought
by the Maoist movement, and she heard testimonials directly from
their members. "Peasants talked about landowners and corrupt
officials who steal their small plots of land," she reports,
"and money lenders who charge exorbitant interest"-then
take over the fields of their debtors. She also describes how
farmers, who once couldn't feed themselves, have become self-sustaining
after being reorganized by the Maoist campaigners. Onesto notes
that "about a third of the people's army squads are women,
and in the guerrilla zones, just about every village has a revolutionary
From women and men, she gathered testimonials
about widespread rape, torture, and other abuse sustained by peasants
at the hands of landowners, police, and other officials. Peasants
were driven "to pick up arms and fight the government,"
she writes, because of the injustices they suffered and the government's
failure to curb abuse.
It s hard to believe that the Nepalese
army, which enjoys a reputation as a rather benign force, would
be behind the massacre of an entire family (and probably the servants
as well), then frame the crown prince for the cowardly act. Certainly
no Nepalese wants to believe this. But they know their army leaders
better than others, and, unable to speak publicly, they're simply
waiting for the proof of what they widely suspect. Any alteration
in policy toward the rebels, or signs of the army inserting itself
more centrally into national policy, may give them the evidence
they need to confirm their worst fears.
FROM POVERTY TO WAR
For some, signs are emerging that a longdreaded
war has already begun. King Gyanendra lost no time in instituting
a public security act that bans meetings and restricts speech.
Before the massacre, the efforts of the Maoists were given almost
no international media attention. Now, the international press
reports that they killed 40 police officers in a July offensive-more
than they managed in any single action over five years. Furthermore,
they have reportedly abducted 71 policemen, holding them as shields
or for ransom.
Meanwhile, the army is reported to have
attacked some Maoist strongholds with helicopter gunships, which
sustained some hits in response. Nonetheless, it claims to have
succeeded in killing more than 100 rebels. In addition, several
bombs have exploded in the capital, the first time any such action
has been reported. No one was hurt, but the blasts were attributed
to the Maoists.
Even if parliament wanted to restrain
the military, the government is in such disarray and its leadership
so weak that it is virtually immobilized. This puts the king in
a stronger position to decide on military action.
According to reports from Kathmandu, the
Maoists have gone on a verbal offensive against the new king,
a tactic they didn't employ against his deceased predecessor.
They also called another one-day strike in Kathmandu, completely
shutting down the city. It s an unmistakable message to residents
and the government that the Maoists control the capital.
Reports about Nepal, both before and following
the massacre, have routinely described it as one of the poorest
countries in the world. During the recent media blitz, that adjective
popped up in virtually every report from Kathmandu. Yet, no investigation
has been launched to discover the roots of the situation. Poverty
isn't an inherent characteristic of third world countries; it
results from war, natural catastrophe, misrule, or mismanagement.
Nepal has experienced neither wars nor natural catastrophes. Since
the cause of its continued poverty is pretty self evident, it's
only natural that, in the absence of honest government, alternatives
Nepalis fought for and won their democracy
in a costly 1990 revolution. They secured a multi-party system,
an elected government, and a free press. But the government didn't
institute any of the needed judicial and economic reforms. Moreover,
the king's estates remained intact, members of the royal family
were immune from criticism, and the army stayed outside and above
Barbara Nimri Aziz, a regular contributor
to TF and a frequent commentator on Arab issues, was based in
Nepal from 1970-88 as an anthropologist. Her new book, Heir to
a Silent Song, Two Rebel Women of Nepal, is the history of two
rural women who campaigned for women's rights and against corruption
in the early part of the 20th century. Published in Nepal, it
can be ordered at barnesandnoble.com or from the author.