Lost Democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom
Perhaps eclipsed by the new escalating threats of nuclear war between the mega nations of Pakistan and India, the fate of Nepal remains a tattered shred of its former cloth. A tiny country perched on top of the planet and nestled amongst the world's most impressive peaks, Nepal continues to slouch to an all time low.
It was on this very evening last year that an already crippled economy with the majority of her population struggling merely to survive, learned that the beloved King Birendra had been gunned down at the dinner table under very sketchy circumstances at the royal palace. Even though the incident came as a horrifying shocker and a wallop the size of Mt. Everest, it was only the latest blow in the long lineage of events that solidly confirmed for most Nepalis, that their beloved and hard won democracy had been successfully obliterated. The real heart and soul of the concept had just gone to the dogs - now, only the nine-letter word remained.
For weeks following the massacre, from day break to sunset, a gender-segregated line snaked down along Tridevi Marg; rows of somber faces in formal attire - each Nepali stood like stone, gripping a clutch of color in hand, and waited patiently for a moment to pay a floral tribute at the front gate of Narayanhity Palace. Beyond the rod iron gate, the mystery and opaque nature of the killings within remained unsolved. Of course the "official" yet waffling government line in the Kathmandu Post each morning reported that Birendra's son had pulled the triggers, double-fisted with an Uzi and an M-16, in a calm yet calculated rage. His shots were accurate, even though he was reportedly dead drunk and under the influence of various narcotics. But the consensus on the street, culled from rickshaw wallahs to various heated tea stall debates, was that something truly rotten was wafting behind the veil of the Himalayan kingdom.
King Birendra was a hero for a wide swath of the common folk. He was no JFK, but on some levels, parallels can be drawn - especially on the note that significant truths will never surface regarding the Violent Royal Episode. Yet regardless of the injustices that are historically so common under any form of monarchy, King Birendra ignited a lightning rod of hope for the people and was a figurehead of stability. After years of unrest and international news headlines of discontent, his popularity soared after the 1990 revolution when he ushered in democracy and began a new course - that of elected parliament members and a functional Constitutional Monarchy. For the king to shift gears like this, pressured by the widespread and popular demands of the people, whose vigilance surged in the streets for years on end, ultimately won Birendra an unparalleled admiration and the metaphorical title of Vishnu, the Hindu god of scripture - the great preserver and protector.
For most people during those early days of June, the idea of Prince Dipendra slaughtering his entire pool of relatives, along with a swath of senior ministers, in one blunt stroke, was just too astonishing to accept. Days passed like molasses while rumors twisted in every direction and the so-called eyewitness accounts at the deadly dinner table were laid out like a deck of playing cards in the papers - each new discovery getting lost in the shuffle of other dubious details and skewed gossip. Among the many reports were witnesses who claimed that funeral pyres were burning all night long at the Pashuputanath Temple on the night of the killings, therefore leaving nada in the way of remains. And so, the forensic evidence literally went up in smoke.
A simmering unease with the situation slowly rumbled to a boil. Curfews were enforced practically around the clock. Defiant protesters initiated stand-offs with the police as tear gas intermingled with hurling stones on the Thamel side of town. The stream of trekker tourist dollars and the subsequent trickle of converted rupees through Kathmandu dramatically waned as the weeks passed. Cancellations of incoming flights became routine at Tribhuvan International and were counterbalanced by loads of westerners cutting their vacations short and high-tailing it out Nepal for fear of a random Maoist attack on their bus to Pokhara.
Each day, street vendors either sat on their stoops in a perpetual gloom or bolt-locked their stalls altogether during the marathon strike days that always follow the death of royal individual. What was once a wild spectral display of thangkas, prayer flags, and every imaginable colorful textile - making the collective mosaic of Kathmandu - became a dreary summer of a society under lock-down. The usual blitz of chaos and traffic in the Jyatha District found a new rhythm, one akin to a full-on depression. For a few weeks, the only noteworthy boom was in the blue and Neapolitan green barbershops. Young Nepali men, in a traditionally Hindu gesture of respect, were shaving their scalps as a show of sorrowful solidarity - honoring the passing of Birendra. It was common to spot a small sprig of hair poking from a shiny bald crown passing by in the street, which indicated that his parents were still living - a cleanly-shaven head indicated otherwise.
Today, the shattered morale of the people is still scattered over the land. Word of mouth is more credible for most common folk than the daily news. An overwhelming distrust of the new regime is out in the open, full blown. King Gyanendra, the brother of the late Birendra who was conveniently the only family member absent on June 1, 2001 - now holds the keys to the kingdom. The same Gyanendra who slipped into the throne within three days and publicly insulted the intelligence of the nation by issuing a statement to the international press saying that crown Prince Dipendra's guns had "accidentally exploded" and then, with his left hand, shot himself on the right temple. These clips of absurdity were very common, a year ago today. They continue now in what still appears to be a no-win situation for Nepal, which ranks as one of the poorest countries on earth.
Right from the get-go, Gyanendra was widely unpopular and had the reputation of a shrewd big businessman with skeletons in the closet. His eldest son, Paras, was implicated in the murder of a famous Nepali folk singer and is probably the most despised character in the entire extended royal family. He was unharmed in the palace incident, was reported to have "stowed many ladies behind him in the gunfire," thus saving their lives, and is now the Prince of Nepal. How a dynamic duo like this could be instrumental in pulling an impoverished nation - one with a hardly existent, fledgling democracy - back from the brink, is not clear in the least bit. In fact, the opposite seems to be the current reality.
What has definitely gained notable footing in the political landscape in the last 12 months is the "people's war." The seven-year-old grassroots revolution waged by the Maoist guerillas (Communist Party of Nepal) has strong appeal in most of the countryside, which is divided into nearly one hundred rural districts. At the root, it's a class war. The gap between rich and poor is vast. The agrarian masses, the working class and peasantry, are sick of the endless corruption, false promises, and non-transparency of their government. Routine slaughters at rural police posts have become leading headlines practically every day. In November, a state of emergency was declared by King Gyanendra - suspending peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, and the right to privacy for all of Nepal's citizenry. Publicly, he has shelved the Nepalese constitution. Freedom of the press and freedom from preventative detention has also received the axe. Thirty muzzled journalists are currently being detained without a charge. Fearing the scrutiny of his policies, Gyanendra has clamped down harshly with his own royal version of Homeland Security.
A recently issued Amnesty International report has stated concern that political detainees are being tortured and unarmed civilians extrajudicially executed within the context of government security. It is now well documented that the Royal Nepalese Army has been carrying out their own murderous "search and destroy" campaign since November - killing, torturing and arresting hundreds of guerrillas and civilians accused of being Maoist sympathizers.
Enter George W. Bush. Behind the broad and uncompromising sweep of his brush stroke statement, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," Bush has asked congress for $30 million in military aid for Nepal. This, paralleled with a visit to the kingdom by Secretary of State Colin Powell, where he catapulted the Maoists into the Class One Terrorist List in the world press, has firmly aligned the US government with that of Gyanendra's repressive regime. Painted by the Bush administration as the good fight for "securing democracy and ridding the region of terror" - anyone who bothers to take a closer look sees the eroding reality. Inflating military regimes under the guise of strengthening a people's democracy, doesn't hold up.
It is an armed struggle on both sides. The build up of guns and violence always makes for a sad story that doesn't preach a sane or achievable end. It is always the innocent majority who are caught in the crossfire. Many people die. The pages of history are red. They scream this over and over again.
George W. Bush's convoluted path to peace through an endless 'War on Terrorism,' imbued with an edge of moral certainty is beginning to raise a skeptical eyebrow even within the ranks of established US allies. This was made evident by Bush's recent jaunt through Europe when French leader Jacques Chirac issued a statement to the press saying, "US unilateralism runs contrary to a balanced and serene vision of the world."
It can be argued that "War" and "Terrorism" are one and the same thing, and that it is impossible to wage one on the other. The result can resemble fighting a fire with fuel, badly burning all who participate in the action.
And on and on it goes. Here in Nepal, the food for the flame is Bush making alliances with warfare, doling out big money for Gyanendra, and putting U.S. aid to the King of Nepal within the context of the so called war on terrorism that claims to have no end. In the face of outlandish repression and the bulldozing of human rights, the military machine lurches forward.
And so, one year is ripped from the Nepali calendar. June marks the onset of the monsoon; a deluge of rain that will hide the tears.
Geoff Oliver Bugbee is a freelance photojournalist based in Portland, Oregon. Initially traveling to the Himalayas to further a body of photos on the issue of widespread cataract blindness in Nepal and Tibet, his sense of luck, misfortune, and timing came to a sudden head when he landed in Kathmandu on June 2, 2001 - the morning Nepal learned of their own royal massacre. For three months, he navigated the incessant general strikes, curfews, careening bus rides, and daily episodes of extreme uncertainty. This piece is a one-year tribute to the people of Nepal.
To read more of Geoff's journals from this time period, submitted daily to his website, cut and paste this URL and toss it into your browser:
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