Charles Haviland

A divided kingdom

Charles Haviland on the struggle between the King of Nepal and the Maoist insurgents

Kathmandu, dawn on Sunday

Under the early sun, a silver disc in a grey sky, candles flicker on the walls of the pagoda temples. People offer morning prayers at shrines. Women from the countryside sit by the roadsides, smoking and selling armfuls of white radishes. Spring is already here; the Himalayas, visible on crisp winter days, have disappeared in a smoggy haze, and the stench of human waste and litter is once more wafting up from the sacred Bagmati river.

Later there’s a big military pageant on the central parade ground, for this is Democracy Day, the anniversary of the ruling Shah dynasty regaining power in 1951 from a rival family, the Ranas. Flowers are dropped from helicopters and a cardboard cut-out of King Tribhuvan, the present monarch’s grandfather, is greeted. Martial arts performers head-butt blocks of ice. King Gyanendra publishes a special message, but makes no public appearance.

The eulogies to democracy and the unchanging rhythms of life belie the turmoil gripping Nepal. Armoured vehicles have been on the streets for weeks now. To a large extent Nepal is a country under military rule. On 1 February 2005 the king seized direct power and now heads the cabinet, loyally backed by the Royal Nepalese Army. For the first few months of his rule, army censors visited radio, television and newspaper offices. This month municipal elections attracted a meagre 20 per cent turnout, people voting under the gaze of soldiers. Hundreds of non-violent opposition supporters and civil society activists are locked up without trial, many in military barracks.

The king is fighting two battles — a military one against Maoist guerrillas and a political one against seven parties. It was under the reign of those parties, and also of King Gyanendra’s murdered predecessor and brother, Birendra, that the Maoist insurgency began a decade ago.

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