Tag Archives: Kings

“The Last Royals”

When it is quiet during my lunch hour, I sometimes like to shut my office door and watch documentaries that are streaming on Netflix. The past few days I was busy during lunch, so yesterday I thought I’d microwave my leftover rice and egg curry, put my headphones on and watch a National Geographic program called “The Last Royals.”

The description of the 50 minute show was “Though royalty has governed nearly every civilization, revolution and democracy have taken an enormous toll on the power of crowned heads across the globe. National Geographic offers an inside look at four enduring monarchs.” The cover of the film had a picture of Price William and Harry, so I figured it would mostly be about England, (I shamefully admit I thought I’d watch the program because my interest in the British royal family has been piqued by the William/Kate Middleton wedding—I know, guilty pleasures!)  but actually a sizable portion of the film was surprisingly about Nepal. (Later on I realized the expanded info mentioned Nepal, but I didn’t notice it when I started watching).

The film was put together by an American who came from the perspective of “Hey, America got rid of the British monarchy hundreds of years ago, and I’m happy with that. Why does England still have a fascination with the Royal Family?” (and by extension, what are some of the other monarchy situations around the world.) The film then looked at four monarchies—UK, Buganda (Uganda), Nepal and Tonga–offering different perspectives on why a culture did/did not feel the monarchy was important.

The UK monarchy was shown as a type of happy middle ground—the royals are more or less used for ceremonial purposes but don’t really have a governing role. People like them because they feel they represent tradition and culture, and many enjoy having them as national icons; however others find the royals’ use of taxpayer money as outrageous and their national symbol status unnecessary. The narrator transitioned by asking, “If they royals were deposed, would people miss them and ask for them back?”

Then he brought up the example of the Kingdom of Buganda (in present day Uganda), and how in the ‘60s the king was exiled from the country by the Idi Amin led military. Effectively the monarchy was dead in Uganda, but 30 years later, after Idi Amin was gone and the violence subsided the Bugandan people wanted the monarchy back, and the late king’s son was asked to return from exile. His role is purely ceremonial, but he uses his celebrity status to garner support for public interest projects like wells, schools, health programs, etc. It discussed how the monarchy was a powerful cultural institution, and a way to keep ties to tradition, and was useful in rallying the people and creating cultural cohesion. Thus it was ultimately shown as a positive example.

The next transition was supposed to be the “crisis” example—and what better crisis than the Nepali royal massacre of 2001? It gave a brief overview of what happened, and the controversy over succession rights (king was supposedly killed by the heir to thrown, should that heir, an apparent murderer, become king? And if he didn’t survive his injuries, the next in line was also rumored to have had a role in the massacre, should he be king?) As part of filming, the documentary crew interviewed Gayanendra, the late king’s brother who became king when Crown Prince/King Dipendra died. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in an English language interview before, so it was interesting to hear what he had to say. I was surprised to find him articulate. In my mind I always imagined him as a bumbling bad guy.

Next the film moved to Tonga, to give an example of a monarchy that was still culturally important, yet had too much governing power and whose people, or at least some of the people’s representatives, wanted a change. One politician leading an anti-monarchy campaign stated that the king could still be a figurehead, but it was time for more democratic representation. The king and his role had to be modernized for the new millennium.

Ultimately the film returned to Nepal and started talking about the Maoist insurgency and how Gayanendra not only took over the monarchy during the grips of a familial crisis, but a political one as well. Knowing the history, and knowing that ultimately Gayanendra’s actions after taking office and during the Maoist surge on Kathmandu together with his his unpopularity with the people ultimately led to the end of the Nepali monarchy in 2006, it was very interesting to hear the commentary on the potential future of Gayanendra’s rule in a documentary made about a year or two before the Hindu monarchy disappeared. In this case it truly was “the last royal.”

So I thought I’d share. Although I found the British royals part of the documentary kind of dull, it was interesting to learn more about Buganda and Tonga, and ironic to hear about the Nepali monarchy knowing now that it no longer exists.

Return of the Kings

Part III on my brief series on Nepali history… we left off with the Rana regime in control.

In 1936 a movement against the Ranas began; it was quickly crushed but revolution was in the air. By 1946, the Nepali National Congress was established by Nepali exiles in India, and in 1950 the Nepali National Congress merged with the Nepal Democratic Congress to launch an armed movement against the Rana regime.

King Tribhuvan

The Congress parties had won an ally in King Tribhuvan, who was ready to free the powerless Shaw monarchy of Rana influence and on November 6, 1950 he escaped to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu with Crown Prince Mahendra and his grandson Birendra (the second in line for the thrown). Birendra’s younger brother Gyanendra (he will become important later on in the story) was left as “king” in the real king’s absence and served for several months between 1950 and 1951.The royal refugees were flown to Delhi and within days an orchestrated armed insurrection flooded across the border into various regions of Nepal. In what would be an eerie window into the future with the Maoist insurgency, battles raged for several months between the rebels (at this time pro-king) and the government troops (pro-Ranas). On February 7, 1951 peace was brokered between the King, the Ranas and the Nepali Congress at the “Delhi Compromise.” King Tribhuvan was able to triumphantly return to Nepal and an agreement was made to set up a constituent assembly to create a democratic constitution.

Tenzing on the summit of Everest... photo taken by Hillary

It was around this time that Nepal’s borders were again opened up to the outside world and the Rana policy of isolationism ended. On a side note… prior to Nepal opening it’s borders all Everest expeditions had been attempted by the Tibetan side of the mountain, and none had been successful. On May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, making the historic ascent from the Nepali side.

Unfortunately, political rivalries stalled the democratic process, and in 1955 King Tribhuvan died without a constitution in place. His son and heir apparent, King Mahendra, was not as diplomatic as his father and rather than help the fledgling constitutional monarchy, he used politics to assert himself as an absolute ruler under the “Panchayat” system. Political parties (including the Congress party that helped to bring the monarchy back) were banned, and many were jailed or fled to exile in India. Defectors attempted to regroup in India, and with the covert support of the Indian government, they planned a renewed rebel insurgency- but this time against the king. However, nothing more than small skirmishes took place, and when China invaded India in 1962, the Indian government could no longer antagonize a buffer state so close to the other massive rival nation. Nepal’s insurgency funding from India swiftly ended and this led to a thirty year period of absolute rule by first Mahendra, and later his son Birendra.

King Mahendra

In the midst of this continued political turmoil was the birth of the Nepali communist parties. Although all political parties united in the 1950s to help overthrow the Rana regime, the first communist movement emerged during the 1947 strike of workers at a cloth mill in eastern Nepal. The leader, Man Mohan Adhikari was a member of the Communist Party of India, since there was no Nepali communist party at the time. Man Mohan’s contemporary, Pushpa Lal Shrestha, was serving as secretary of the Nepali National Congress when he grew disenfranchised with the party and decided to start his own communist party. By 1948 he had already translated and published the Communist Manifesto into Nepali. Although the party was not welcomed in the Panchayat system, it slowly gained support from people in the countryside who felt discriminated against by the caste system of the Hindu Kingdom and who continued to feel the poverty from the Rana years.