Murder and intrigue in Kathmandu

The massacre of the royal family in Nepal threatens the stability of a nation that has struggled toward democracy for over a decade.

By Jeff Greenwald

Published June 12, 2001 12:06PM (EDT)

For the first time in more than a decade, Nepal -- a landlocked country wedged between India and China -- has been thrust into the headlines. By now, most of us know the fundamentals of the story. Crown Prince Dipendra, 29, apparently infuriated by his family's disapproval of his fiancée, allegedly went on a Rambo-like rampage -- slaughtering his father, King Birendra, his mother, Queen Aiswarya, and seven other members of the royal family before turning the gun on himself.

Rumors abound that the prince is innocent, that the massacre was a conspiracy to put the king's younger brother, Gyanendra, on the throne. To make a bad situation worse, the editor and two publishers of Kantipur, Nepal's largest daily, were arrested Thursday for publishing a call to arms by a guerrilla leader of Nepal's Maoist party.

For most Americans, Nepal holds two dubious distinctions: It's the staging ground for an endless parade of ego-serving expeditions up Mount Everest; and its photogenic capital, Kathmandu, served as a fabled haunt for the nomadic hash hounds of the 1960s.

In fact, Kathmandu's notorious hashish cafes were outlawed in the early 1970s, when the late King Birendra was crowned. Nepal's current expatriate scene is huge and vibrant: a close-knit international society of scholars and artists, engineers and expedition leaders. Since 1979, I've lived part of nearly every year in Kathmandu. It has been a refuge of relaxed inspiration, a community where, as in Hemingway's Cuba or Paul Bowles' Tangier, one can live life on a human scale.

The Kathmandu Valley is such a community for 2.5 million Nepalese as well. Despite its volatile history, which has included corruption and revolution, palace coups and human-rights abuses, Kathmandu is above all sacred ground, a place of ancient and modern pilgrimage. Its citizens are obsessively nationalistic, even if they have been awkward stewards of their magnificent land. They love their country and, in an ambivalent but undeniable way, they loved their king.

Birendra was one of the world's last absolute rulers. His word, until recently, was law. And though the 1990 revolution made him a constitutional monarch, he was no mere figurehead. He and his family were the keystones of Nepal's social, political and religious life. A laid-back king who enjoyed a good scotch and cigar more than the elbow grease of governing, Birendra asked the world to view Nepal as a "zone of peace."

Many Nepalese complained that he confused peace with passivity; but there is no doubt he unified a diverse population under an umbrella of benign tradition. Nearly 100 ethnic groups coexist in Nepal without bloody rivalry. Tibetan refugees fleeing from the Chinese in neighboring Tibet have been welcomed and, despite complaints from China, enjoy religious freedom -- including the right to venerate the Dalai Lama.

Birendra was no Nelson Mandela, but he was a source of great stability. He was familiar: Nearly every Nepali, no matter how cynical, saw the king in a fatherly light. And though he was broadly disliked before the 1990 revolution, his ability to change with the times ultimately won him the admiration and respect of his subjects.

This sort of affection is not lavished on the new King Gyanendra, a shrewd and powerful businessman once linked (by a prominent Nepali journalist who was later shot in the head) to drug trafficking. His son, Paras, is bluntly despised and had allegedly engaged in drinking and blowing coke with Dipendra since both were teens. (Back in 1988, a very reliable source informed me that the then 16-year-old crown prince had set his room on fire while freebasing cocaine.)

Another reason to be alarmed at Gyanendra's rise to power is his realpolitik recognition that China makes a faddish enemy but a profitable friend. For centuries, Nepal's closest regional tie has been with India, its lumbering democratic neighbor to the south. That relationship has been badly strained for the past 12 years, a tension that culminated in last December's anti-Indian riots in Kathmandu. Still, India and Nepal remain codependent. Nepal relies on India's ports and oil, and only the high Himalayas have kept the Chinese from "liberating" the Taj Mahal.

Many Nepalese believe that Gyanendra will cultivate a cozier rapport with China -- one that will bring new access roads, industrial incentives, even weapons purchases. Such a move is bound to shorten fingernails in New Delhi. In a worst-case scenario, the tectonic tensions between India and China might come to a head, with Nepal pulverized in the middle. A more likely possibility is that Nepal will bow to pressure from Beijing and begin limiting the freedom of Tibetan refugees -- and deporting new arrivals back to China.

But the massacre of Nepal's royal family is more than a blow to the country's ethnic stability. It shakes the foundations of every Nepali citizen's worldview in a way that most Americans, inured to savage and random crimes, can barely comprehend.

Until recently, Nepal proudly identified itself as "the world's only Hindu kingdom." Cows wandered the streets freely; the greatest temples in Kathmandu paid homage to the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. A tributary of the holy Ganges River flows through central Kathmandu. The king himself is considered (more metaphorically than actually these days) a manifestation of Vishnu, the great preserver and protector. According to Hindu scripture, Vishnu will appear 10 times to save humanity from destruction. And Gautama Siddhartha -- the historical Buddha, also revered as a Hindu god -- was born in Lumbini, in what is now southern Nepal.

In the Hindu belief system, the family has a central and sacred role. And although the strict code of obedience has relaxed in modern times, the Nepalese remain conscious of karma -- the chain of cause and effect that has shaped their past and will determine their future. Reverence for one's mother and father is fundamental. "Though you might carry her on your back a thousand lifetimes," one proverb goes, "you can never repay your mother."

For Prince Dipendra to slaughter his family in cold blood is an act so astonishing, so profoundly taboo in the culture, that the majority of Nepalese simply refuse to accept it -- no matter the evidence or the eyewitness accounts. On a personal level, it would be like learning that one's most revered and respected relative had committed an utterly unspeakable crime. On a national level, it's as if John-John had shot JFK, Jackie and Caroline before turning the gun on himself, and J. Edgar Hoover had ascended to the presidency.

With its steep, relentless mountains and roaring valleys, Nepal has long been a word-of-mouth society. News traditionally travels from village to village in a continual game of telephone. Though radio and roads have improved the flow of information, gossip and rumor remain valued sources of intelligence.

During the 1990 revolution, a least a dozen rumors circulated through Kathmandu alone: The city's water supply had been poisoned; Indian troops were massing near Nepal's southern border; Chinese troops were massing on Nepal's northern border; the queen had fled to Greenland; the king had placed a direct call to Sylvestor Stallone, begging advice on how to respond to the mass demonstrations.

The aftermath of the June 1 massacre is no different -- except that the rumors are perhaps more vicious, and less easy to dismiss. Why were the bodies so quickly cremated, destroying all forensic evidence? Why was Gyanendra the only member of the royal family not present at the family's dinner? Why was his son Paras left unharmed? Why was the 29-year-old prince, the wealthy and popular heir to the throne, so bent out of shape by a family squabble? Why did Gyanendra insult the nation with an outlandish alibi that a machine gun had "accidentally exploded"? Why did the left-handed prince shoot himself in the right temple?

The truth about June 1 will continue to be argued passionately, with ever-new wrinkles on the mushrooming conspiracy theories. Given the shroud of secrecy over palace affairs, there will never be a fully satisfying outcome. On the one hand, the bulk of evidence points to the most wrenching answer: that Dipendra performed the killings himself. But it seems equally credible that Paras, a notorious drinker already charged with last year's murder of a popular Nepalese folk singer, may have masterminded the entire scheme.

In a sense, it no longer matters who committed the crime. The fact is that this crisis has shattered the Nepali people. Their simmering distrust of the royal family is now out in the open, much as suspicion of the FBI and the U.S. government surfaced during the JFK investigations. The population has been seeded with anger, and the Nepalese find themselves in a no-win situation. Either the crown prince murdered his family, and a generation of trust and tradition has gone up in smoke, or the whole thing was a conspiracy, in which case the Nepalese are cornered and helpless as the wheels of palace intrigue roll over them.

Given the passionate desire -- among expatriates and Nepalese alike -- for Dipendra to be absolved, it all adds up to a recipe for conflagration. It's not unlike the O.J. Simpson case, in that any verdict is sure to ignite shock, public displays of frustration and eternal charges of corruption. Somehow, the investigation committee appointed by the new king -- a committee made up of people close to the palace -- doesn't inspire much confidence.

The past 11 years have not been good ones for Nepal. Democratic rule has not flourished, with 10 governments in power since the revolution, each more ineffectual and corrupt than the last. Within this vacuum of leadership, many people longed for the "good old days." They hoped, not so secretly, that King Birendra would emerge into the limelight, transformed into the wise and powerful king of their dreams. (Last February, a well-known Nepalese artist named Ragini Upadhaya showed her paintings and prints on the theme of corruption; the exhibition was opened, ironically, by the queen.)

But the stuff of dreams has been transformed into a nightmare. What so many Nepalese hoped for -- new guidance and control by a beloved king -- will have a bitter taste with Gyanendra at the helm. This resentment is the very opening the country's Maoists have been waiting for -- hence the article published last week alleging an Indian/CIA conspiracy and urging the Royal Nepal Army to abandon Gyanendra and unite behind "the people."

That's unlikely to happen. True, the five-year-old Moaist insurgency has strong appeal in rural areas; since its inception in 1996, and at a cost of more than 1,600 lives, it has gained a foothold in most of Nepal's 75 districts. But the Kathmandu Valley is a world apart. Nepal's middle class has far less to gain from the Maoists than the country's agrarian majority. Yes, the rank-and-file Nepalese are sick of their greedy and corrupt government, but they desire stability above all else, and the Maoists still represent unpredictability and chaos.

In one respect, however, the inflammatory article in Kantipur was correct. This is an usually opportune moment for the Nepalese, if they so desire, to cast off the yoke of royalty once and for all, as the American colonists did in the 1770s. If they decide to do so, it will not happen peacefully, and it will certainly be frightening. But their choices are limited. The Nepalese can accept the new king, and risk a new era of palace domination (for as the imprisonment of the Kantipur executives shows, the nation's constitution is still little more than a piece of paper), or they can move to create a true democracy and -- temporarily, at least -- leave notions of monarchy behind. A compromise may of course be possible, as it was with Birendra. But Gyanendra is not as accommodating as his older brother was.

This week, as the citizens of Kathmandu wait for answers -- their nascent freedom of the press already in jeopardy -- is the flashpoint. When the investigating committee's findings are released on Thursday, there may well be violent protests and lives lost.

One thing alone is certain: Nepal's age of innocence is over. Among locals and expatriates alike, Nepal has always been famous for its sense of spiritual community. For the Nepalese, that community has been shattered -- and it is impossible to imagine what might patch it together again.

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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