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
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
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 at bay.
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
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 government.
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
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 women's organization."
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 the democracy.
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.