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Leading Article: Nepal must not be allowed to slide into tyranny

IT IS a long time since the days of the Hippy Trail when Nepal, high in the Himalayas, represented the destination nearest to heaven. For the last nine years, a Maoist insurgency has been tearing the world's last Hindu kingdom apart. More than 10,000 people have died. A palace bloodbath in 2001 wiped out most members of the royal family and plunged the country into political upheaval. After this week's decision by King Gyanendra to impose a state of emergency, detain hundreds of political opponents and arrest the Prime Minister, Nepal looks more than ever like a failed state.

The King is using his government's failure to end the Maoist rebellion as a justification for this regression to tyranny. His argument is that he has to suspend democracy - brought in by his popular brother Birendra only14 years ago - to save it. But his actions bear all the hallmarks of a coup.

The King's democratic credentials have been questionable from the day he succeeded his murdered brother. He has displayed open contempt for the political process, dissolving parliament three years ago, and shutting the political parties out of the peace process. In doing so he has opened up a dangerous three-way power struggle.

For his latest action to have any justification he would have to draw the Maoists back to the negotiating table. But that seems a slim hope when their avowed aim is the abolition of the monarchy.

Far from solving Nepal's problems, the King's revocation of fundamental rights will only perpetuate the conflict and the suffering of the impoverished Nepalese people. Britain, America and India have armed the Nepalese forces in their battle with the Maoists. The onus should now be on these countries to pressure the King to restore democratic institutions and a government with the legitimacy to sue for peace.

Continued military assistance, for example, could be made conditional on a return to a constitutional monarchy. The international community should also press Nepal to allow the UN to mediate in the civil war. The alternative is further bloodshed in Nepal and alarming repercussions for the entire region.