Nepal: Murder in Palace, Maoists in Mountains
Revolutionary Worker #1107, June 17, 2001
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 areas...to
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
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
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
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
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497