June 13, 2008 / 12:45 PM / 10 years ago

WITNESS-Amid chaos, Nepal's king bows out gracefully

By Simon Denyer

KATHMANDU, June 13 (Reuters) - In the end, it was hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra.

He had seemed an impossibly distant, arrogant figure in the past, but on Wednesday, addressing the press before leaving the palace, in his first and possibly final news conference, he kept his dignity and showed a previously unseen human side.

So it was a pity his swansong — and that of a once-cherished 239-year-old monarchy — was surrounded by chaos, with more than 200 journalists jostling for a view in the palace’s small main hall, constantly pushing and shoving each other.

As Gyanendra read from a prepared text in the palace’s small main hall, two stuffed tigers behind him, people shouted aggressive questions as the former king ploughed on, his amplified voice alternately booming and then dropping out altogether.

He may have spent most of his time in his gaudy pink Kathmandu palace cut off from reality, ultimately unloved and unlistened to, and some may have felt his final farewell was a fitting end.

But for a monarchy traditionally revered as incarnations of Hindu gods, here was a king almost pouring his heart out and the media hardly seemed to be listening.

Gyanendra took over as king in 2001 after the death of his more popular brother and many of his family in a royal massacre, which he said was a time of "overwhelming grief", and was ousted after a specially elected assembly voted to abolish the monarchy.

In the years between, he alienated most of his subjects by seizing absolute power and doing little good with it. Most Nepalis are glad to see the back of him.

Being jostled at that rugby scrum of a news conference, I wondered how Gyanendra could ever have hoped to be a success when he grabbed the reins of the state.

In the end, royal rule failed to rescue Nepal from civil war and economic decline, leading instead to street protests and ultimately his ouster two weeks ago.

Gyanendra, 60, said he accepted the decision to abolish the monarchy. He did not quite apologise for his mistakes, but he did express sorrow for any suffering he said he may inadvertently have caused.

He spoke movingly of the massacre, when King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family were shot dead in the same pagoda-roofed palace by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then turned the gun on himself.

He said dignity of office prevented him from shedding tears but that accusations he might have been complicit in the murder were "very painful to us and are still so".

A NEW NEPAL?

In the new corridors of power, former Maoist rebels, who fought a decade-long war to abolish the monarchy but are now on the verge of forming a government, talk of a "New Nepal".

But the sight of yawning, lackadaisical immigration staff, broken airport trolleys and chaotic roads on arrival in Kathmandu show the old Nepal is going to take some shifting.

This is one of the world’s poorest countries, where politicians have a reputation for squabbling and stealing, and bureaucrats are widely seen as lazy and lacking initiative.

Millions of Nepali people live in abject poverty but the deposed king is widely believed to have a fortune invested in tea, tobacco and casinos.

He will not want for much in his new life as a commoner. But his family is being forced to leave its home in disgrace and will stay, for the time being, in a modest tin-roofed hunting lodge on the outskirts of the capital.

His stepmother and his step-grandmother, in their 80s and 90s respectively, have refused to leave and have been allowed to stay on, in small houses in the palace grounds.

In the old days, Gyanendra had more than 700 staff and retainers, but these days the palace apparently cannot find anyone to mow the lawn. Those who are left seem to have lost their spirit.

"Many are weeping and have not eaten meals for a long time, because they are sorry," said Madhav Bhattarai, the former king’s chief religious adviser. "It is natural, some of them have worked there for 40 or 50 years."

Most Nepali people now believe the country is better off without its monarchy and a few jeered at Gyanendra as he swept out of the palace in a black Mercedes for the last time on Wednesday night.

But without such a convenient scapegoat as the king, politicians could face more pressure to achieve something. In a country as difficult to govern as this, that may take some doing. (Editing by Mark Williams and John Chalmers)



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