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It is still unclear who shot Nepal’s royal family, but the impact will be significant.
Freshly crowned King Gyanendra is a nationalist who will likely break with Nepal’s pro-India policy and attempt to play Beijing and New Delhi off each other. At the same time, Gyanendra will also attempt to roll back his dead brother’s democratic reforms, increasing popular dissatisfaction with the monarchy and bolstering support for Nepal’s Maoist insurgency.
Most of Nepal’s royal family died June 2, including former King Birendra, in a still-unexplained palace massacre believed to have been carried out by the king’s son Crown Prince Dipendra. Media accounts said the heir to the throne, angered over his family’s refusal to let him marry the woman of his choice, killed his father, King Birendra, and eight others in a bloody, 15-minute shooting spree.
But while details of the shooting are still unclear, the impact of the killings will extend far beyond the kingdom’s borders into the relations of powerful Asian nations. Taking the throne is Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, brother to the dead king and an ardent nationalist.
He will likely abandon his dead brother’s India-friendly policy and attempt to play China and India off each other. He will also attempt to roll back the former king’s democratic reforms, fueling public dissatisfaction with the monarchy and bolstering support for Nepal’s Maoist insurgency.
Landlocked Nepal inhabits an uneasy existence between rivals China and India. The Hindu kingdom controls the Kuti, Kerong and Kodari passes – some of the few navigable routes through the Himalayas – and is flush against several of India’s most populous northeastern states. India controls the alternate Himalayan routes east of Nepal, which empty into the state of Sikkam.
Although Nepalese rulers traditionally have been leery of India, seeing it as an overbearing “big brother,” the late King Birendra had begun to tilt toward India during the past decade. At the same time, Birendra gradually relaxed the monarchy’s near-absolute power. However, these policies often took a backseat to concerns about the Maoist insurgency that has steadily grown over the past five years.
Gyanendra opposed these policies. An ardent nationalist, Gyanendra is said to tacitly support a cadre of elites calling themselves “Save the Nation,” according to The Hindustan Times.
Headed by former Prime Minister Marich Man Singh, the group is set on halting what it sees as the gradual erosion of Nepal’s sovereignty to India. Nor does Gyanendra appreciate India’s links to Nepal’s pro-democracy groups, according to the Press Trust of India. Indian news channels have already been blocked from Nepalese cable.
Gyanendra is also a fervent royalist and did his best to stall his brother’s reforms. Besides backing “Save the Nation,” which also has a strong royalist streak, Gyanendra was rumored to have links to Nepal’s Maoist rebels, according to Asia News Agency.
If this is true, rebel victories were intended to discredit the democratic process. Gyanendra has been unpopular with citizens since at least 1985, when protesters publicly criticized a member of the royal family for the first time and asked King Birendra to get rid of his brother due to perceptions that he was involved in influence peddling and shady business deals.
Gyanendra’s rise to power will discredit the monarchy that he so wants to re-establish. Many of the demonstrators that took to the streets were upset not only that King Birendra had died but also that Gyanendra was still alive.
For the first time in Nepal’s recent history, the monarch’s coronation was met with hostility. Reuters reported that Gyanendra’s coronation procession was barely over June 4 when an angry mob surged toward the royal palace; it was held back with tear gas and batons.
And Reuters reported June 6 that police arrested the editor and two directors of a leading national newspaper after it printed an article critical of King Gyanendra.
Gyanendra is also seen as a poster-child for royal corruption. This public perception is fueled by reports such as one by the South China Morning Post that he refuses to pay the state power company $230,000 for electricity used at one of his vacation homes.
The reputation of his son, Prince Paras, is worse. Paras has been accused of killing several people, including a famous Nepalese singer-poet, while driving and of bouts of shooting at random, according to the Times of India.
Popular discontent with Gyanendra and Paras will manifest in more public protests in the capital. More dangerous for stability, it will likely increase support for the Maoist rebels who now control about one-third of Nepal.
As the populace turns against him, Gyanendra will push a nationalist agenda in an attempt to drum up support. This would mean leaning away from India and toward China. Gyanendra will not commit his loyalty to Beijing but will likely attempt to play balance-of-power politics between Nepal’s two neighbors.