Revolution on the edge of town

Observations on Nepal

Maybe it was the two gold stars on his epaulettes that made me pay attention to the officer of the Royal Nepalese Army. Or maybe it was the gun he was fingering so nervously. Then again, maybe it was the half-dozen similarly armed, equally dangerous and jumpy young men behind him.

We were at a roadblock about half a mile from the palace where the despised King Gyanendra was hiding from his rebellious subjects, and the officer was reminding me that a daylight curfew was in force in Kathmandu.

A few weeks earlier, when I'd set off from here for a visit to the Everest base camp, the city had been teeming with life. Now, with the curfew doing its job, it was a ghostly place, so deserted that it resembled the site of a neutron bomb experiment. Even the homeless beggars in what is one of the world's poorest countries had found somewhere to hide.

I had fancied a look around, and foreigners on tourist visas were supposed to be exempt from the official "shoot on sight" policy. Somehow, though, it didn't feel right to make this point to the army officer, who sent us away up a dusty backstreet.

The curfew had proved more effective in closing shops and restaurants than the general strike organised by the seven-party democracy alliance, but that can have brought little relief to the royal prisoner now cowering in his gilded palace behind a phalanx of armoured personnel carriers. Out on the ring road, he knew, demonstrators were gathered in their hundreds of thousands, and they were angry.

Weeks of beatings and shootings, coming on top of years of chronic misrule, had turned all except the most blinkered monarchists against him. It was an old-fashioned, bottom-up revolution, and now, unwilling to serve as practice targets for the army in the city centre, they had massed in historic numbers on the outskirts of the sprawl to demand the restitution of parliament.

Though the king and his cronies used the threat of Maoist guerrillas, who control 80 per cent of Nepal, to justify the Kathmandu crackdown, it is clear that most of the violence during the protests had come from the Lee Enfield rifles of his troops.

In three weeks in Nepal, I met not a single citizen (or subject, if you prefer) who had a sympathetic word for a ruler who seems as much out of touch as Marie Antoinette ever was. An Alexei Sayle lookalike plonked on the throne in 2001 after most of the royal family was massacred by one of its own, Gyanendra may, by reversing his coup of 14 months ago, have escaped being hanged from a lamp-post or exiled to India for the rest of his days, but he will do well now to preserve any sort of ceremonial role for himself, let alone a constitutional one.

Political parties, Maoists and, most importantly, the people, who have wielded such power over the past few weeks, have no intention of risking monarchical rule again.

The British ambassador in due course decided to take a look around the quiet streets himself, speeding out of his fortified compound in a wheezing blue Range Rover with a tatty Union flag on the front and enough black fumes belching out the back to give David Cameron a coughing fit. The diplomatic number plates did the trick, though he took the precaution of bringing a pick-up full of squaddies for protection.

Later, a police officer in my party, who was once shot and survived and had no wish to push his luck any further, put in a few calls. The protesters, he reported back, were planning to confront the troops at a junction that lay between our hotel and the king's palace.

The chap at the embassy, however, suggested we do as the ambassador intended to do and stay indoors until the emergency was over. As he said, it was the Easter holidays back home in Blighty, so there were no staff to help . . .

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Wealth and terror