King of Nepal

3 February 2005

The Stupid King of Nepal

By Gwynne Dyer

Most countries got rid of their kings in the end, and the rest took away most of their powers, because inbred young men whose main talents (if any) lie in manly outdoor pursuits like jousting, polo or falconry tend to be particularly bad at running countries. King Gyanendra of Nepal isn’t young any more, but otherwise he fits the profile perfectly.

Gyanendra never expected to be king at all., He inherited the job in 2001 when almost all the entire Nepalese royal family, including his brother King Birendra, was massacred by Crown Prince Dipendra, who was high on drink, drugs and the allura of automatic weapons at the time. Gyanendra has been trying to take back his late brother’s surrender of absolute power in 1990 ever since, and on February 1 he made his move.

He had already fired four prime ministers in three years, but now he has shut the whole democratic system down. He put all the senior politicians under house arrest and jailed hundreds of other prominent people, he suspended freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press (there are now army officers in every newspaper office and radio studio), and he took direct personal control of Nepal on the pretext that only he could save it from the Maoists.

Bad luck for the 27 million Nepalese, but this “royal coup” has implications that reach well beyond Nepal’s borders, for the Maoists are real. They are a ruthless guerilla army that already controls fifteen or twenty of Nepal’s 75 districts and has a powerful presence in most of the others, and they talk much like the Khmer Rouge fanatics who carried out the Cambodian genocide. They have little trouble in selling their ideas to wretchedly poor Nepalese peasants trying to scratch a living from the overcrowded lower slopes of the Himalayas.

They were winning already, but now they are going to start winning a lot faster. Gyanendra’s government has lost its legitimacy, he is not personally popular, and he has never displayed any notable political or military talent. His coup is a Godsend for the Maoists, and they will exploit it vigorously. This has serious implications for the two rising great powers of our time, India and China.

The Maoists of Nepal know that they will not really be marching into Kathmandu in triumph any time soon, because India will intervene militarily, if necessary, to stop them. It would do so because it has its own Maoist problem: groups of Maoist rebels have established strong ideological bases right across the “tribal belt” of India, where poverty-stricken and despised ethnic minorities are oppressed both by feudal landlords and by upper-caste Hindus generally.

It’s the same sort of catastrophic social and economic environment that spawned Sendero Luminoso in highland Peru, the Khmer Rouge in north-eastern Cambodia, and the current crop of Maoists in Nepal. No Indians whatever were killed last year by Islamist terrorists except in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, but over five hundred Indians were killed by Maoists.

Since the Maoists of Nepal know that India is vulnerable on this front and fear an Indian intervention in Nepal, they will do whatever they can to help India’s Maoists grow into a bigger threat. It probably isn’t much: Maoism is a pretty marginal phenomenon in the more modern parts of the world. But lf India does end up intervening in Nepal it will have a huge negative impact on China, which is highly sensitive about its disputed Tibetan border with India.

The two countries even fought a brief war over that disputed border in 1962, and although Chinese forces withdrew voluntarily from the disputed territories afterwards the fear that China might again become an enemy was India’s main incentive for developing its own nuclear weapons. But the central half of what would otherwise be an extremely long India-China border is occupied by Nepal, which acts as a gigantic buffer zone. Beijing would find it hard to stay calm if Indian forces moved into that buffer zone in strength.

It’s also certain that some cynical Indian ultra-nationalists, noting that Mao was Chinese, would claim that China was somehow behind the Maoists who are stirring up “our Nepalese” — in democracies as in ecology, every imaginable niche is filled. The truth, of course, is that genuine Maoists in Nepal and everywhere else despise the present Chinese regime, which they see as having sold out to capitalism, but it could be enough to fuel Indian popular outrage against China.

We’re not talking about another Sino-Indian war here; just about mutual threat perceptions. What is at stake is how the relationship between the two giant Asian neighbours evolves as they grow over the next generation or so to match the United States in wealth and power. Their relationship for the past generation has been reasonably civil, and there’s no good reason that it shouldn’t remain so as they come into their inheritance of great power. But there’s no guarantee that it will, either, and a long and messy Indian military intervention in Nepal could send it spinning down a very different path.

That is why India (and also the US and Britain, chief purveyors of arms to the Nepalese government) should act now to force the stupid king to step back and restore the democratic constitutional order. No matter how incompetent democratic politicians are (and Nepal’s do not lead the class), it is only they who have the legitimacy to resist the Maoists successfully.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“It’s the same…Maoists”; and “It’s also…China”)