Nepal's last king has been told to leave the palace that his family has occupied for almost 240 years as the Himalayan kingdom last night prepared to become the world's newest republic.
The first matter of business for 575 members of a new parliament who were sworn in yesterday is to formally declare Nepal a republic. After that, the king – the last Hindu monarch in the world – is expected to leave the palace and return to his private home.
"A republic will be declared tomorrow. Once a republic is declared, the king will automatically lose his position and place in the palace," said Baburam Bhattarai, deputy leader of the majority Maoist party. "He has no choice but if he refuses to leave the palace we will use the law to force him out of there."
These are tense times for Nepal. Just last month saw a remarkable election in which former Maoist rebels, who had led a 10-year guerrilla war, won the majority of votes. They are preparing to form a coalition government, which they will head.
But while the Maoists have insisted they are committed to peace and that their armed struggle is over, uncertainty still hangs over the country as it prepares to enter a new era.
Part of that is related to the constant threat of violence. In the past two days, a series of bombs have been detonated in the capital, Kathmandu, wounding two people. Reports have suggested that the bombs targeted pro-republic politicians and activists but that remains unclear, as do the identities of those who carried out the blasts. About 10,000 police have been dispatched around the city to tighten up security.
Ian Martin, head of the UN monitoring mission in Nepal, told reporters yesterday that he hoped the swearing in of the assembly would help usher in new security for the country and that politically motivated killings would stop. However, he admitted he was not overly hopeful.
"This is a time for all political parties to show that they have the political will to bring to justice those responsible for violations of human rights, and not intervene as they are accustomed to do to protect their own supporters while calling for justice when their supporters are the victims," he said.
"I hope that but it is a little hard for me to expect that, because it is now more than three years since I came to Nepal and in all those three years there has not been a single case where the perpetrators of [political killings] ... have been brought to justice before the civilian courts."
Nepal's journey towards becoming a republic has been inextricably linked to the peace process established with the help of the international community to end a 10-year civil war, responsible for the deaths of 13,000 people. In late 2006, the Maoists agreed to re-enter the political mainstream and join an interim government. But their unwavering demand for that co-operation was that the royal family would have to be abolished.
Just five years earlier, the other political parties may have been disinclined to go along with the Maoists' demands. But the monarch, King Gyanendra – catapulted on to the throne by a 2001 massacre at the palace in which his brother, King Birendra, and eight other members of the royal family died – had never been popular with the public.
His unpopularity reached new depths in February 2005 when he suspended parliament and seized power for himself, returning Nepal to a state of affairs not seen since 1990 when absolute rule was ended. His decision resulted in widespread public demonstrations against the king and gave the Maoists ammunition for their argument that the political infrastructure was in need of a wholesale transformation.
In addition to scrapping the monarchy, the Maoists say they want to make Nepal a federal state and improve conditions for its impoverished citizens. The challenges are huge; until the 1950s Nepal was virtually closed to the outside world and parts of the country remain utterly undeveloped. Poverty is widespread.
In preparation for the abolition of the monarchy, King Gyanendra's image has already been taken off Nepal's currency and the title "royal" has been removed from the name of the army and the national airline. All references to the monarch have also been taken out of the national anthem. By the end of today, the monarch should also be gone from the royal palace.
Two centuries of royal rule
The Shah family has ruled Nepal since 1768 when the country first became unified. Once considered "living gods", the family's absolute rule over the country only came to an end in 1990. But for the 2001 palace massacre when Crown Prince Dipendra shot dead eight members of his family before fatally injuring himself, the current political turmoil might not be taking place as the then reigning monarch, King Birendra, was popular. Legislation to abolish the monarchy – the process to be formally taken today by the Constituent Assembly – was tabled by an interim government last December. The current king, Gyanendra, is expected to continue to live in Nepal, despite some reports he might move to India where he has supporters among the Hindu right wing.Reuse content