Nepal plunged into crisis as king stages coup to take power

NEPAL WAS thrown into a dramatic crisis yesterday as King Gyanendra sacked the entire government, put the Prime Minister under house arrest and announced he was taking direct power into his own hands.

Already reeling from a Maoist insurgency that has cost more than 10,000 lives, Nepal appeared more unstable than ever after what, despite the king's protestations, had all the appearances of a coup.

The king declared a state of emergency and sent the army onto the streets. The country was largely cut off from the outside world, as mobile phone networks were closed and landlines and internet connections were cut. The airport was closed for several hours, prompting fears of a repeat of 2001 when thousands of tourists were stranded in Kathmandu amid riots after most of the royal family was massacred.

Nervous citizens formed long queues at grocery stores and petrol stations in Kathmandu yesterday, fearing the worst and stocking up. The king announced he was unilaterally suspending several provisions of the Nepalese constitution that guarantee basic human rights, including freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of the press, privacy, the right to assemble peacefully, and freedom from unjustified arrest.

Sounding severely rattled, Nepal's powerful neighbour India, which has been a close ally of the king's, issued an unusually critical reaction, accusing King Gyanendra of undermining democracy.

Nepal only opened up the outside world 50 years ago. But now it seems to be lurching from one crisis to another. This is the second time the present king has dismissed the entire government and tried to take power back into his own hands in just three years.

King Gyanendra only came to power after his brother, the then King Birendra, and almost all of the royal family were killed, apparently after the crown prince, Dipendra, went on a shooting spree through the royal palace.

Huge areas of the countryside are already under the control of the Maoists, who want to replace the monarchy with a Communist government. The tourism industry, vital to Nepal's struggling economy, is in severe decline because of the insurgency.

King Gyanendra claimed on state television, that he had dismissed the government because it had failed to secure peace with the Maoists or hold elections. "A new cabinet will be formed under my leadership," he said. "This will restore peace and effective democracy in this country within the next three years."

But defender of democracy is an unlikely role for King Gyanendra. He is a known opponent of democratic reforms, and many saw his move as an attempt to take back absolute power. Democracy was reintroduced in 1990 under King Birendra after an earlier abortive attempt in 1959.

Until King Birendra, bowing to popular demand, agreed to become a constitutional monarch, Nepal's kings had absolute power. King Gyanendra was said to be one of the strongest dissenters in the palace to his brother's reforms.

His time came in 2001, when King Birendra and almost the entire royal family were wiped out, apparently by the crown prince. Since then, critics say King Gyanendra has been trying to take back power. In 2002 he dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, but he was forced to reappoint Mr Deuba last year after popular protests.

Yesterday Mr Deuba was under house arrest. "We will oppose this step," he told reporters. "The move directly violates the constitution and is against democracy."

His comments were echoed by India, which has been a vital ally for King Gyanendra against the Maoists. "These developments constitute a serious setback to the cause of democracy in Nepal and cannot but be a cause of grave concern to India," the Indian foreign ministry said.

King Gyanendra cannot afford to ignore this message. Facing its own Maoist insurgency in several states, India has backed the Nepalese government, but yesterday's statement showed its patience is wearing thin. Until the royal massacre of 2001, the monarchy was popular in Nepal, not least because the Hindu majority believe them to be incarnations of the god Vishnu.

But the popularity of the monarchy has plummeted since 2001. The dour King Gyanendra has never been as well liked as his brother, and rumours have persisted that he somehow engineered the massacre to take power, not least because he and his deeply unpopular son, Paras Shah, were among very few survivors.

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