A monarch willing to kill his own people to save his skin

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Tens of thousands of the people he rules over lined the streets calling for his death yesterday and he has been condemned the world over. But hidden away in his palace in the midst of a city in chaos, King Gyanendra of Nepal appeared desperate to cling to power - and prepared to shoot down his own unarmed subjects in the streets to do it.

The US ambassador warned this week that if he does not give up his autocratic powers, Gyanendra will end up fleeing Kathmandu clinging to a helicopter. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is said to have lost patience with him.

But then, Gyanendra does not just believe in the divine right of kings. He believes he is a living god himself. According to Nepali Hindu tradition, the king is an incarnation of Vishnu. All his life has been devoted to preserving the monarchy's power - even though for much of it, he did not expect to become king.

Gyanendra was thrust on to the throne in 2001, after his brother King Birendra and almost the entire male line of the Royal Family were wiped out in a palace massacre.

From the start, he was a deeply unpopular monarch. There were riots in the streets of Kathmandu at his coronation, and almost immediately he began dismantling the hard-won democratic reforms his brother had granted.

That process culminated in February last year, when Gyanendra sacked the entire government and seized back the absolute powers of a medieval king, suspending basic human rights, including free speech and freedom of thought.

It came as a surprise to nobody in Nepal. Even as a child, Gyanendra was convinced he was different. While he was at school in India, he was asked to present a flower to the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru. He refused, saying: "I am higher than he."

The official version of the massacre that brought him to the throne in 2001 - the version accepted by Western diplomats and the Nepali establishment - is that the Crown Prince, Dipendra, shot dead most of the Royal Family in a drunken rage, before turning the gun on himself. But on the streets of Kathmandu the people have always believed that Gyanendra somehow orchestrated the massacre to win the throne for himself - a belief that has been fuelled by the fact that almost the only male survivors were Gyanendra and his son, Paras.

When he seized power last year, Gyanendra said it was necessary to defeat the Maoist rebels who have waged a 10-year civil war for control of Nepal. But events have moved beyond the king's control since then. He failed to make any military headway against the Maoists, and today they are openly allied to the democratic opposition parties. The Maoists and the parties have proposed peace talks.

The protests began several months ago with calls for Gyanendra to restore democracy and revert to being a constitutional monarch. But now those calls have turned into demands for the monarchy to be abolished altogether. A king who has spent his life trying to preserve the monarchy may be on the verge of destroying it.