Ten years ago today Nepal suffered a tragedy that shook the nation to its roots and forced a sharp turn in the course of its evolution into a modern state. The Crown Prince, in a drunken rage, killed both his parents and other members of the royal family, then shot himself. A stunned public suddenly found itself bereft of the core symbols of its national identity. True, it still had its army and its flag and its Parliament and its government bureaucracy. And there had been a steady erosion in the real power of the Palace in recent decades, as decisions in an increasingly complex world were transferred to an emerging class of politicians, and to the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, everyone, even those who professed to oppose the monarchy, felt the shock and sensed the loneliness of a child whose parents have been suddenly wiped out.
I base this arguable assertion on my personal experience when the King’s father, King Mahendra, died of a heart attack in 1972. I was Charge d’Affaires at our embassy in Kathmandu and participated in much of the ensuing ritual. I was impressed by the solemnity, seriousness, and unity displayed by normally cynical Nepalese, even those who had most eloquently opposed the policies and practices of the royal regime. It showed me that deep down they accepted the monarchy as part of their roots and as an essential kind of insurance of last resort, even when they agitated against it.
The system evolved a lot in the next couple of decades, but this sense of roots persisted. And then, suddenly, the people of Nepal were uprooted.
The most immediate response to the massacre was patchwork and damage control. The late king’s brother was hastily crowned. The country rocked along for a while, but the new monarch didn’t measure up to the many challenges he faced, and pretty soon the monarchy itself was abolished, to be replaced by a parliamentary system based on an as yet undrafted constitution that would guarantee democracy. However, drafting that constitution was a problem that remains unresolved to this day; successive political leaders have been unable to agree on what it says. They establish deadlines and then postpone them, kicking the can down the road. Meanwhile, although the civil war many expected between the Maoists and the army has not materialized, practical problems have multiplied as successive governments have been unable or unwilling to cope. Now, the lights of Kathmandu go out much of the time as sewage litters the streets and politicians complain about rampant corruption. Everyone believes that the country is drifting and in trouble but nobody has discovered a way out.
Conflicting thoughts come to the surface as I reflect on all this. I am not a sympathizer for monarchy in general; in fact my pride in my own country stems largely from the fact it was the pilot project that led the way and turned the tide in the general drift in modern times away from kings and landed aristocracies to government by the people (check my essay, “The Second American Revolution”). But there are revolutions and revolutions. The certifiably successful ones are not necessarily the most violent ones. Indeed it can be stated as a general rule that the most successful ones occur when there has been a gradual evolution of attitudes and institutions favoring the change, so that when it occurs it is more like a snake shedding its skin than like the birth of a brand new creature. Democracy in England today is no less effective than ours for the fact that it occurred incrementally, over centuries. When the revolution occurs in a sudden explosion of generalized hatred for the old regime, without the necessary infrastructure having already evolved, the inexperience of the new leaders usually dooms them and they are soon replaced by authoritarian figures with more experience in political organization.
The monarchy in Nepal died a relatively sudden death but it was not a true revolution, because that monarchy committed suicide rather than being done in by outside forces. The institutions and attitudes necessary for democracy’s emergence and survival were developing but were still not robust enough to take over and flourish. Under these circumstances it is satisfying enough that a parliamentary system of sorts continues to teeter along. Much worse could have happened, and quite possibly still will. But there are also grounds for hope. Having survived this long, perhaps democracy in Nepal will make it after all. Just possibly, a government will emerge responsive to the people and yet able to get the swill out of the rivers, provide constant electricity, control the traffic, and generally function as a good government should.
As an American sympathizer, who has watched the evolution of the former mountain kingdom for at least four decades, I can only wish this still-incubating democracy well.
Carl Coon, June 1, 2011