Nepal: Murder in Palace,
Maoists in Mountains

by Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #1107, June 17, 2001, posted at

On June 1, the royal family of Nepal went down in a hail of bullets. King Birendra, the queen, and several others were gunned down at a family dinner. According to news reports, the trigger man behind the palace mayhem, the king's son Prince Dipendra, was mad at his mother because she didn't approve of the woman he wanted to marry. Reportedly, the prince left the dining room, went to his room, changed into military fatigues and returned to the family gathering with an Uzi submachine gun and an M-16 assault rifle. There, he sprayed the room with bullets, killing his parents, brother, sister, aunts and uncles.

Within hours the shocking story hit headlines like a wild tale of regicide out of Hamlet or King Lear--with a Columbine, automatic-weapons twist. And then things got even more bizarre.

News bulletins reported that after killing his family, Dipendra shot himself in the head and was now in the hospital, lying in a brain-dead coma. But, according to the rules of royalty, he had been declared the new king!

Meanwhile, dead King Birendra's brother, Gyanendra, was on his way back from vacationing in Chitwan, the country's national park on the border with India. He was the only close member of the royal family who wasn't at the fateful dinner. And now he was waiting next in line, to become king as soon as Dipendra died.

Returning to Kathmandu, Gyanendra issued a preposterous statement that the bloodshed in the palace was the result of "accidental fire from an automatic weapon." The royal bodies, meanwhile, were quickly cremated according to Hindu tradition--turning any forensic evidence into ashes.

By the end of the week, suspicion was falling on Gyanendra and his son, Prince Paras, who survived the after-dinner shooting spree. One report questioned how Dipendra, who is right handed, could have shot himself in the left temple.


As news of the royal murder mystery spread, thousands gathered in the streets of Kathmandu. The royal family has long been part of the oppressive ruling classes in Nepal. But King Birendra was widely promoted as a patriotic and unifying symbol by the Nepali ruling class. And many followers of the Hindu religion actually believe he was the reincarnation of the god, Vishnu. Few believed the story about a son gone berserk over wedding plans. And there was open speculation that Gyanendra--whose wife escaped death at the dinner--was somehow behind the whole thing.

By Sunday night there were riots in the street as thousands clashed with the police. Protesters, demanding the truth about the Friday night massacre, threw bottles and burned tires. On Monday an overnight curfew was imposed and police rode through the streets on flatbed trucks, shouting through loudspeakers: "Stay in your homes! If you defy this order, we may shoot you!" At dawn on Tuesday, the curfew was lifted--then quickly re-imposed from noon to midnight.

In one scene where police fought to stop a crowd from getting near the palace, two people were killed. When police opened fire on a crowd defying the curfew, at least two dozen people were shot. In a few days, 540 people were arrested and jailed.


The mysterious murder of the royal family in Nepal may seem like something out of Shakespeare. But like all such events, these took place in a context. And the context here is the growing strength of the People's War, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

Today, the defining political question in Nepal is whether to support or attack the Maoist revolution. And King Birendra had been deeply enmeshed in the crisis within Nepal's ruling class over how to deal with the People's War. Current news stories about Birendra portray him as a figurehead with little power. But in fact, Nepal's Constitution puts the king in charge of Nepal's army. And over the last year, one of the biggest disputes within Nepal's ruling class has been whether or not to send the army against the People's War.

The police have been the main force deployed against the insurgency, but they have proven quite ineffective. Police posts in guerrilla zones have been forced to close down. The police have suffered many casualties, and among their ranks, there are defections and widespread demoralization. Meanwhile, areas under Maoist control have grown. All this has intensified the debate over mobilizing the army, creating fierce infighting within the ruling Nepali Congress Party, among the different parties in the parliament, and between the government and the royal palace.

Up until 1990, Nepal was ruled by a monarchy and all political parties were banned. Then after widespread unrest and protest, King Birendra was forced to institute a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The new constitution gave the king supreme command of the Royal Nepal Army and the power to appoint the army commander in chief. The police forces, on the other hand, are under the command of the ruling government. This setup had made King Birendra the focus of much of the struggle over whether or not to mobilize the army against the Maoists.

Some forces within the ruling class may be hesitant to give the monarchy so much power by giving the army the main responsibility for defeating the People's War. And there is also concern that mobilizing the army could lead to bigger and more destabilizing defeats for the government forces and tarnish key state institutions--the monarchy and the army.

Debate in the ruling class over mobilizing the army came out sharply last September when guerrillas launched a major raid in Dunai, the district headquarters of the Dolpa district in the Western Region. This was the first time the people's army carried out an attack like this on a district headquarters. Fourteen policemen were killed, at least 40 more were injured, and 11 were captured.

Four days after this the Home Minister, Govinda Raj Joshi, resigned after criticizing the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) for not aiding the police in Dunai and failing to provide the police with better weapons. The Dunai incident also became the catalyst for Prime Minister Koirala to try and knock down those who had argued against sending in the army. The new Home Minister criticized those who argued that the Maoist problem should be "settled through dialogue." A high-level meeting was held to discuss deployment of the army, but still no consensus could be reached.

Debate intensified again, in early April, after 75 police were killed in a series of raids by Maoist guerrillas. Once again under pressure to deploy the army, King Birendra approved a paramilitary ordinance to set up a special Armed Police Force of 15,000 personnel to combat the Maoist insurgency.

As the People's War advances, it has become increasingly difficult for the Nepali ruling class to keep the king and army from getting drawn into the war. And there is now speculation that the new king, Gyanendra, might be more open to involving the army directly in the war.


In the wake of the palace murders, all kinds of conspiracy theories have been spun--by news commentators, analysts, and protesters in the streets of Kathmandu. India has a lot of economic and political control in Nepal, and among the Nepalese people there is widespread mistrust and hatred for Indian domination. So it is not surprising that many people feel that, somehow, India may figure into the bloody demise of the royal family. In fact, King Birendra--as well as the ruling Nepali Congress Party--have had long-standing ties with and backing from the Indian power structure.

It was not so long ago that India directly intervened to put Birendra's grandfather, King Tribhuvan, on the throne. In 1950, King Tribhuvan of the Shah dynasty--with the full backing of India--launched a bid for power against the ruling Rana dynasty. Tribhuvan escaped to India, where he worked with the Nepali Congress and the Indian government to undermine the Rana regime. With the direct intervention of India, negotiations led to Tribhuvan's being able to return to Nepal in 1951 and set up a new government comprised of Shahs and the Nepali Congress.

While Nepal was never colonized by an imperialist power, India has long regarded Nepal as its protectorate. And today it is largely, though not exclusively, through India that Nepal is linked to the world imperialist system.

In order to maintain its control over Nepal, India would be likely to intervene militarily if the present pro-India setup in Nepal is seriously threatened. So there is much concern by the India government as to whether or not the Nepalese ruling class is able to contain the Maoist insurgency. Whether or not India had any direct involvement in the palace murders, any analysis of recent events must take India's influence in Nepal into account.

India has long considered Nepal strategically important in its often hostile relationship with China. Nepal lies between China and India, and India sees control of Nepal as key to its security. This conflict intensified after China was liberated in 1949 and Mao came to power. Aiming to prevent friendly relations between Nepal and the new socialist government in China, India secured an agreement in 1965 in which Nepal promised to get any arms it required from India and to import arms from Britain and America, only if India was unable to meet its request. The agreement also stipulated that Nepalese officers would train at Indian colleges. And many Nepalese continued to serve in the Indian Gurkha regiments along the border with China.

India also has a long history of ripping off Nepal's natural resources. One of the sharpest examples of this is the 1996 Mahakali Treaty which established India's right to basically steal Nepal's water. While Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, in terms of water resources it is one of the richest--with the capacity to produce electricity equivalent to that of Mexico, the USA and Canada combined. But unequal treaties force Nepal to sell much of its water to India at give-away prices. Meanwhile, 40% of the rural population in Nepal lack regular supplies of potable water. And only about 10% of the country has access to hydro-electric power.

As a landlocked country, Nepal depends on India for transportation and trade goods. And Nepal has been forced into all kinds of unequal trade treaties with India. In 1989, after a dispute over trade agreements, India imposed a virtual trade embargo on Nepal. As a result, much of Nepal's trade simply disappeared overnight, along with essential supplies of fuel and medicine. India cracked down on the border, to prevent goods from other countries getting into Nepal. And Nepalese working in India were not even allowed to bring their salaries over the border. All this deepened sentiments in Nepal against Indian hegemony.

Regional Shockwaves and Concerns

After the palace murders, India and China voiced concern about the politically volatile situation in Nepal and both sent messages to Gyanendra, calling for peace and stability.

India has been closely monitoring the political crisis in Nepal, worried about the Maoist insurgency gaining strength right across its open border. And there has also been talk that Gyanendra is closer to China than India. One analyst in South Asia wrote: "The elevation of Prince Gyanendra as King of Nepal presents India with a tricky problem. The new monarch is said to favor closer ties between Kathmandu and Beijing, a scenario that fills foreign policy wonks in New Delhi with dread. Successive Indian governments have striven to keep Nepal out of the Chinese sphere of influence; they succeeded mainly because of the slain King Birendra's instinctive pro-India stance. But Gyanendra is a different proposition."

Concern that the People's War in Nepal could shake the already volatile South Asian region has been underscored in recent months by the parade of diplomats from India, China, Britain and the U.S.--who held meetings with Nepalese officials where the Maoist insurgency was a major item on the agenda.

Now all these countries are worried about how the ascension of King Gyanendra will affect the ability of the Nepalese government to fight the Maoists. A big-time capitalist who owns some of Kathmandu's best hotels, a tea estate and a major interest in a cigarette factory, Gyanendra comes to the throne in a haze of suspicion and unpopularity. And his son, Prince Paras, who stands next in line to be king, is even more unpopular. He is widely considered a spoiled royal brat and out-of-control bully. Last year people demonstrated in the streets when Paras pulled royal strings to cover up the fact that he had killed a popular singer in an intentional hit-and-run.

Among the people, Gyanendra seems to be only slightly less unpopular than his son. The ceremony to crown him as the new king was met with stony silence, punctuated by shouts of, "We don't want Gyanendra!"


Since 1996, the People's War, led by the CPN (Maoist), has spread in the Nepalese countryside. Close to 2,000 people have died in the fighting, which has hit almost all of Nepal's 75 districts. The Nepalese police have carried out gross human rights violations of rape, torture, and murder--chronicled by groups like Amnesty International and even the U.S. State Department. Nepal's press regularly reports on military encounters involving hundreds of guerrillas, and the Maoists now control large areas of the countryside. But before the recent surreal events in Nepal, there was little, if any, coverage of this conflict in the U.S. media. It took a bloodbath in the royal palace for news of this insurgency to make it into a major news story in the United States.

Discussion of the possible fallout from the palace murders could not ignore the significance of the insurgency that, as the New York Times put it, "is gradually encircling Kathmandu." The Washington Post reported that "Analysts expressed concern that the tragedy could encourage Maoist insurgents, who have been gaining influence in rural step up their violent attacks and take advantage of the country's political uncertainty." Another newspaper reported, "There were signs the palace massacre would aggravate public unhappiness with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's government, which already was under attack over allegations of a bribery scandal and its failure to quell a Maoist insurgency."

A former official in the U.S. State Department under (the first) George Bush said one of the factors to watch in the future is: "How will the new King deal with the Maoists, not just whether he will engage the army--that is a somewhat high risk strategy. The army has not covered itself with glory in dealing with the insurgents."

In the Spring of 1999, I witnessed the power and deep roots of this revolution when I spent several months traveling with a squad of the people's army through guerrilla zones in western, central and eastern Nepal. I lived and talked with villagers, guerrillas, party leaders and military commanders. And I spent a month in the western districts of Rolpa and Rukum, where today, some two million people are living under guerrilla control.

Traveling in the isolated and remote countryside I didn't have to look far to see why peasants would support an armed struggle to overthrow the present order. Nepal is one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world, and living conditions are extremely primitive even by Third World standards. Per capita income is $210 and 85% of the people live in the rural areas without electricity, running water and basic sanitation. There are few, if any, doctors and malnutrition is widespread. Life expectancy is only 55 years.

Small farmers, who fed and sheltered us, talked bitterly about landowners and corrupt officials stealing their tiny plots of land and money lenders charging them exorbitant interest. "We work all year," one farmer angrily told me, "but the crops we harvest only provide food for three to four months." His face lit up when he described how the Maoists burned property-ownership records and redistributed land.

I saw how poor peasant women are giving this insurgency much of its determination and strength. About a third of the guerrilla squads are female and the women fighters I met talked about how they were rebelling against oppressive feudal traditions of arranged marriages, rigid control by husbands and fathers, domestic violence, and denial of education. Just about every village has a revolutionary women's organization, and women in these areas have the right to own land, choose a husband, and go to school.

News articles about Nepal in the wake of the palace murders make it seem like everyone in Nepal is a devout Hindu who reveres the king and the royal family. But I found a completely different situation in the guerrilla zones. The royal family is widely seen as corrupt, living off the backs of the people and beholden to India. And among the supporters of the People's War, the king is clearly seen as a part of the oppressive ruling class, which must be overthrown.

I also found that even though Nepal is called a "Hindu Nation," many people, especially from the oppressed nationalities, practice other religions. And beyond this, a lot of people in Nepal are not so religious. This has been a favorable factor for the revolution because in many areas, religious beliefs do not stand so strongly in the way of the peasants embracing the revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. When I traveled through Rolpa and Rukum, the absence of Hindu temples was striking. And as soon as I crossed the border into another district I began to see many signs of Hindu religious practices.

The news of the palace massacre made me wonder how these events will impact the big questions being discussed when I was in the Maoist areas. Two key issues on the minds of the Maoist political and military leaders were: how soon the Nepalese army would be used against them and when India would get more directly involved in the conflict. When I interviewed Comrade Prachanda, the leader of the CPN (Maoist), he told me, "Ultimately, we will have to fight with the Indian army. That is the situation. Therefore we have to take into account the Indian army. When the Indian army comes in with thousands and thousands of soldiers, it will be a very big thing. But we are not afraid of the Indian Army....."


In the days after the palace murders, government officials were clearly worried that the turmoil in the streets would provide openings for pro-Maoist forces. On June 6, the Kathmandu Post (an English-language paper put out by Kantipur publications) reported that 800 people had demonstrated in the streets against the monarchy, pelting the police with stones and shouting slogans in support of the People's War.

The same day, Kathmandu's largest daily newspaper, Kantipur Daily (also put out by Kantipur publications) printed an article attributed to Baburam Bhattarai, a leader in the CPN (Maoist). According to the Nepalese press, the article included a call to the military to stop protecting the royal palace and join the people who oppose Gyanendra. The police promptly arrested three top editors of Kantipur on suspicion of treason.

As the crisis deepens in Kathmandu and people continue to demand answers about the palace murders, the inability of the king and the ruling Nepali Congress Party to crush the Maoist insurgency has set the stage for this developing drama.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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