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The late King Birendra of Nepal

By Mark Tully

The late King Birendra of Nepal was the world's only Hindu king. He endured the difficult change of heading the government of his mountain kingdom to accepting a new role as constitutional monarch.

The dignified manner in which he accepted his reduced powers endeared him to the people. His popularity was demonstrated by the crowds on the streets of Kathmandu which greeted him recently on his 55th birthday.

Birendra was described by the international press as an absolute ruler during the years from his acession in 1972 to 1990, when a popular movement spearheaded by various political parties forced him to accept a new constitution acknowledging the supremacy of parliament.

Birendra himself resented being called an absolute ruler and maintained that he presided over a democracy, although one in which representatives to the assembly were indirectly elected.

He wielded ultimate power, dismissing prime ministers from time to time and keeping political parties at bay. He justified his political decisions by maintaining that his poor and backward country could not afford a democracy based on party politics, but needed firm and decisive government.

Loyal armed forces

Although deeply committed to Nepal's development, he was unable to solve the country's chronic economic problems nor the corruption in government that beset South Asian nations. The unstable governments that followed under parliamentary rule have had no more success than the king did.

Even after the transfer of power to parliament, the Nepalese army remained loyal to King Birendra. Yet he never made any attempt to recover his former position by force.

A senior politician in Kathmandu mentioned that the king had resisted deploying army troops to combat Maoist rebels demanding the abolition of the monarchy and who control large areas of Nepal.

Even when Congress campaigned against Birendra's rule, it would always stress that the monarchy was a vital symbol of Nepal's unity and independence.

Birendra always tried to steer a middle course, beset by the conflicting pressures of Nepal's two gigantic neighbors, India and China. He succeeded for the most part until a rift in the late 1980's with Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, abetted an economic crisis which fuelled the movement against Birendra in 1990.

Limited powers

Birendra was a traditional monarch even with reduced powers, still surrounding himself with elaborate protocol, retaining an important religious role, and keeping well away from the press.

He was reported to believe that the monarchy's survival lay in maintaining a certain mystique. The way he chose to perform his role suited his own reserved personality.

With Birendra s death, Nepal has lost a well-loved king. For all the criticism heaped on him before he accepted parliamentary rule, he proved himself in the end to have been wise and statesmanlike, deeply understanding his people.

With Nepal's politics in turmoil and no sign of government being able to subdue the Maoist rebellion, the country's instability is seen to worsen if the position Birendra occupied as the symbol of Nepal's unity is politicized.




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