June 11, 2001

CHAOS IN KATMANDU
Who or what is behind Nepal's regicide?

The vortex of intrigue and international politics swirling around the murder of Nepal's King Birendra a deed supposedly committed by his own son and the slaughter of practically the entire royal family threatens to engulf the Himalayan kingdom, and unhinge the delicate balance of power in South Asia. The official story is that well, there is no official story, as yet. The brother of the slain king the unpopular Gyanendra announced to universal howls of laughter that the whole thing has been a "tragic accident." Huh? How does someone "accidentally" fire over 60 rounds? However, the story we are being asked to believe by the international media or most of it, at any rate is, on close inspection, not all that credible, either. . . .

ROMEO ON THE RAMPAGE?

We are asked to believe that Crown Prince Diprenda, forbidden to marry the woman of his choice by the willful Queen, went berserk and slaughtered his entire family. According to an eyewitness account, he killed not only his mother and father but a whole array of aunts, uncles, brothers, 10 others in all, by spraying them with submachine fire. According to this semi-official version, a young man formerly described as "a model student," "intensely loyal to his father," and even "gentle," was suddenly transformed into "Dippy" the coked-out love-crazed patricide, who massacred the entire Nepalese royal family except for Prince Paras, the son of the newly-installed King Gyanendra. It is just the kind of unrealistic, drippy love story made-to-order for the West, but to say that the Nepalese man-in-the-street is skeptical would be a definite understatement: they just don't believe it. There were riots in the streets, as protesters accused the government (and the newly-crowned King) of being behind the murders, in conjunction with India and the US, while the pro-India faction (grouped around the ruling Nepali Congress Party) hinted darkly that Pakistan was behind the murder. In any case, the people of Nepal don't believe anything their government is telling them and I, for one, don't blame them.

NO SHANGRI-LA

The tall tale being cooked up by what remains of Nepal's royal family is perhaps the single most dubious cover story ever concocted: and, after that "tragic accident" statement by the new King, their credibility is about on a par with O. J. Simpson's. But before we go any farther down this particular rabbit-hole a tunnel that has more twists and turns than the Maze of the Minotaur it is useful to step back and ask: aside from the tabloid flavor of the whole thing, why should anyone care about what happens in Nepal, anyway? This tiny kingdom stashed away in the Himalayas is no Shangri-la: its 33 million inhabitants are the poorest in Asia, with the average national yearly income below that even of poverty-stricken Bangladesh. If you're into monasteries, mysticism, and mountains, Nepal is the place for you, but otherwise it would appear to be of limited interest that is, unless your name is Donald Rumsfeld.

FLASHPOINT

US secretary of defense Rumsfeld, you'll remember, is the author of the new Asia-centric thrust of US foreign policy, a much-heralded military and diplomatic realignment that will put China squarely in America's gun sights. The idea is to "contain" China much like the US contained the Soviet Union during the last cold war. By letting Japan re-arm, tilting toward India in the ongoing Indo-Pakistani dispute, and playing the Russian card by reaching an accord with President Putin at the upcoming summit, US policymakers hope to erect a new Great Wall around the Chinese. In this context, Nepal takes on great importance as potentially the first theater in which Act One of a new cold war drama is acted out. Tucked in between Indian and China, and long the center of political intrigue and violence in the region, Nepal is a flashpoint in the escalating conflict between the US and China that may have already gone off.

"ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS"

Katmandu is a kind of high-altitude Casablanca, swarming with spies, counterspies, insurgents, and provocateurs. The Katmandu Times opines that "Most are from neighbouring countries, notably from India and Pakistan whose RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) agencies respectively are engaged in a perennial game of one-upmanship." Most, but not all: for Nepal is also a hotbed of Tibet's nationalist insurgency, and home to a large number of refugees who provide a fertile recruiting ground for the clandestine movement. When the Karmapa Lama, or "Boy Lama," a top Buddhist religious figure, defected and sought refuge in India, he escaped through Nepal. On the Western side of the ledger, the British, who once dominated the country, retain their interest here, and the Americans wherever they go are always a force to be reckoned with. The Chinese, for their part, are not only concerned about the Tibetan resistance, but also quite nervous about the Maoist insurgency that has taken over anywhere from 7 to 40 provinces depending on whom you believe 5 years after announcing the start of their "people's war." For – irony of ironies! – the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN[M]), which launched the insurgency, is no friend of the current Chinese government.

PRAIRIE FIRE

In a long interview with some of his American co-thinkers, "Comrade Prachanda," the Great Helmsman of the CPN(M), declares: "My main thrust is that I hate revisionism. I seriously hate revisionism. And I never compromise with revisionism. I fought and fought again with revisionism. And the party's correct line is based on the process of fighting revisionism. I hate revisionism. I seriously hate revisionism." In Maoist jargon, the "revisionists" are the late Deng Xiaoping and his followers, currently in power in Beijing, who abandoned the Cultural Revolution for the "Four Modernizations" and the opening to the West. "Right now," says Prachanda, "subjectively, the proletarian forces are weak after Mao's death and the counter-revolution in China. Nepal is a small country, we are a small party but we have a big perspective. Our People's War may be a spark, a spark for a prairie fire."

"I HATE REVISIONISM"

That is one fire the Chinese would rather put out before it starts. The Chinese maximum leader, Deng, rose to power on a slogan that just about sums up the light-years that separated him from the Maoist "Cultural Revolution": "To get rich is glorious!" As China gets ready to shut down state-run industries, and sheds the hard outer shell of state socialism that has dragged it down and prevented development, the last thing the government wants is a revival of ultra-leftist lunacy. And make no mistake about it: Comrade Prachanda really really does hate "revisionism," i.e. the Chinese, as he makes clear to his American fan club:

"We are carrying out People's War under the banner of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Therefore we think it has played a very significant and important role among the Indian revolutionary masses and in the ideological debate in the Indian communist movement. It has also helped the RIM [Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, a coalition of sympathizing parties in the US, Western Europe, and elsewhere] very much in exposing international revisionism, modern revisionism, revisionism in China and Russian revisionism. In Nepal there is a very big revisionist party and much revisionist influence. And the People's War has played a very big role in exposing all this."

RICOCHET

In Nepal, the main opposition party is the United Marxist Leninists (UML), who won a large number of votes in the last election and were once, briefly, the ruling party: this is the "very big revisionist party" Comrade Prachanda refers to. In 1995, with the UML in power under Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikary, Nepal demanded the right to revise a treaty with India that forbids importation of arms from China. "It is the right of every country to import arms which are cheaper," declared Adhikary, who also said he would seek stronger ties with Tibet during a visit to Beijing. The government soon fell, however, due to disunity in the ranks. In any case, the last time Nepal tried to buy from China, in 1988, it triggered a direct confrontation between New Delhi and Katmandu: India imposed a trade embargo that lasted until mid-1990 and crippled the Nepalese economy. This led to a popular movement against the absolute monarchy, and the institution of democratic elections, which were won by the pro-India Nepali Congress Party. The country has ricocheted between the ruling pro-India Congress party, the UML, and nationalist groups associated with the monarchy ever since then, in a series of violent upsurges of which Diprendra's Katmandu rampage may be the latest installment.

COUNTDOWN TO CATASTROPHE

In May, Birendra had just returned from a visit to China and, with the government at a virtual standstill, rumors were rife that he would follow the example of his father, suspend parliamentary democracy, and rule by decree. The pro-India Congress party was under severe attack in the Parliament, and opposition deputies got into a knock-down drag-out fist-fight with government supporters as they demanded the Prime Minister's resignation. The government, according to the opposition, was completely paralyzed by the Maoist insurrection. So far only the police had been involved in the fight against the guerrillas, because the army is commanded directly by the King, whereas Parliament controls the cops and, at least up until the day of his death, the King had refused to crack down. The crisis was headed for a catalytic conclusion, but no one imagined it would be this catastrophic. . . .

PRO-CHINA OR PRO-NEPAL?

While a typically addled report by Stratfor speculates that the new King is pro-Maoist and, impossibly, a tool of the "revisionist" Chinese government the arrest of pro-Maoist journalists by the new regime probably presages a change of the Royal Palace's hands-off policy on the part of King Gyanendra. Time magazine also chimes in, declaring that Gyanendra will tilt toward China: but this merely means, it turns out, that he will implement the same policy of national independence pursued by his predecessors, playing off New Delhi against Beijing and hoping to create some space for his tiny nation to survive intact.

TIME BIBBLES ON

In the new cold war atmosphere generated by Washington and its journalistic amen-corner, one is either "pro-China" or "anti-China" with nothing in between. Yet, in between two giants is precisely where Nepal has always been, in spite of India's best efforts to treat it as a protectorate. As long as there is a King in Katmandu this balancing act is likely to continue. Time bibbles on about the late King Birendra's "instinctive pro-India" stance, but this description fails to take into account the Indian embargo against Nepal that occurred during Birendra's reign: did New Delhi close off most border crossings and stop virtually all trade because they thought the King was too "pro-Indian"?

BHUTANIZING NEPAL

Another inconvenient fact for our Time correspondent is that the rioting crowds now demonstrating their grief in the streets are shouting "death to India" they blame India, not China, for the de facto palace coup. They are calling for the head of the pro-India Prime Minister, and accusing his government of complicity in the murder. Of course, getting rid of the King and establishing a republic has always been the ostensible goal of the "democratic" movement, led by the Congress party, as well as the Communists. This would be the prelude to a de facto merger with India, or, at least, the Bhutanization of Nepal (the neighboring nation of Bhutan, once completely independent, is now an Indian protectorate. Even smaller Sikkim, also once an independent nation, was absorbed outright.)

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

There are several problems with the "Romeo & Juliet" story coming out of Katmandu, starting with speculation that Diprendra, whom we are told turned his gun on himself after massacring the others, was shot in the back. There is supposedly some Nepalese "tradition" that demanded the cremation of the King's body before sunset on the day of his death, so we'll never know exactly what happened. There are also conflicting reports about the reality of Diprenda's mother's opposition to his marriage plans: some say that both families had already approved the match. There is also the story being circulated by the surviving wing of the royal family that Prince Paras, who reportedly killed a popular singer while driving drunk and had someone else take the fall for it, acted completely out of character and played the role of the hero, diverting the love-maddened Diprendra long enough so some could escape. Curiouser and curiouser . . .

COMMIES FOR THE KING

Even more curious is an article in the Nepalese daily, Kantipur, by a leading member of the CPN(M), which makes the dead King a posthumous defender of "liberalism" (this in spite of the CPN(M)'s longstanding vehement opposition to the monarchy as an institution): the article implies that he was knocked off because he was standing up to India and the US and, therefore, he had to go. While the Commies' sudden appreciation for the King is a bit much one wonders how they justify this sudden conversion to monarchism there is a grain of truth in their analysis. For the death of King Birendra was preceded not only by rumors of a "big change" in policy, including a possible coup, but also by a series of visits to and from China: Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian visited this year, the first Chinese military figure of his rank to confer with his Nepalese counterpart, along with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji: King Birendra also made a trip to Beijing, his third. Could it be that Birendra was killed because he was perceived as tilting dangerously toward China?

WHO BENEFITS?

Inquiring minds want to know the answer to another question: Who benefits from the destabilization of the Nepalese state, and the impending success of the anti-China Maoist guerrilla movement? Certainly not China. China's interest is in promoting regional stability, and the electoral success of the "Marxist-Leninist" parties denounced by the Maoists as "revisionists" and you can bet that, right now, alarm bells are going off in Beijing.

AN EXPLOSIVE GIFT

If Nepal is to be used as a base of operations for the destabilization of China, then the success of the Maoist rebels who resemble the fanatical Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru in both their ideology and their ferocity is key. For this would turn the country into a zone of subversion, from which Tibetan and Uighur separatists could operate freely. In April of this year, Muhammad Arshad Cheema, First Secretary at the Pakistan Embassy in Katmandu, was caught with a large cache of high energy RDX explosives in his apartment: he was detained, and then expelled from the country. The Taliban in Afghanistan has long preached that the liberation of their Uighur brothers is a holy obligation: could this arms cache have been intended for them or the Maoists? Whomever was the intended recipient of such a gift, one thing is clear: the domestic players in Nepal's power game all have foreign backers. As to which one of them if any was behind the gruesome death of King Birendra and the massacre of his family, we must wait and see how this operatic melodrama plays out. Meanwhile, of one fact we can be certain: while the events of the past week in Nepal have indeed been "tragic," as King Gyanendra put it, it was certainly no "accident."

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