TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW GRANTED BY
HIS MAJESTY KING GYANENDRA BIR BIKRAM SHAH DEV TO MR ALEX
PERRY, SOUTH ASIA BUREAU CHIEF, TIME MAGAZINE
(Monday, January 26, 2004)
TIME: Where is Nepal heading?
His Majesty: The future of Nepal, yes, lies in constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. Economically, it lies in openness and competition, and in joining the WTO [World Trade Organization]. Socially, we are in a difficult phase: some infrastructure, some of the basic things that were gelling the country together, have been trampled. There has been a lot of injury to much of rural Nepal, which needs to be addressed.
TIME: Why did you sack the elected government 16 months ago?
His Majesty: I did not dismiss the government on Oct 4, 2002, out of my own free will. Are you saying I liked doing what I did, what I had to do? The compulsions of those days made me do what I had to. I was given a written request by the Prime Minister [Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was acting] on the advice of all the parties to invoke the last clause of the constitution [which, as a last resort in a national crisis, allows the King to take “appropriate measures” to safeguard the country]. So I was surprised when the parties accused us of regression. I had become regressive on their advice. Now, we can go on debating forever whether it was the correct thing to do. I thought it was my constitutional obligation, otherwise the constitution was as good as dead. Don’t forget I am the constitution’s custodian: as long as it is there, I am going to pull everyone within its ambit. And had I not acted as I did, I think that Nepal would be in a worse situation that it is today.
TIME: What’s the way out of the impasse that has developed?
His Majesty: Even at that time, I asked the parties to come with a consensus government. Recently, I also met all the political leaders and I have asked them to put the nation and people first, to come to me with a government made up of all the parties. That is my roadmap, my agenda. I personally believe there is nothing that cannot be solved by dialogue and there is no issue that cannot be addressed within the ambit of the constitution. But for that, the government of the day and the political leadership of Nepal must be pro-nation, pro-people. Everyone talks about the impasse between the “triangle” of the Maoists, the political parties and the palace. But this country is not a triangle. They are forgetting the most important component of any nation: the people. Who is going to talk for the people? If the Maoists are not, if the political parties are not, if they don’t want to, then shouldn’t the King? Someone must.
TIME: I’ve heard that a lot, that many people wish the parties could just put personal ambition aside, forget the competition to be Prime Minister and the rivalry and the corrupt rewards of office, and plain grow up.
His Majesty: Well, you said it, not me. But I wish the political leadership would understand this and speak more often about the people rather than issues which are irrelevant, which only concern their own betterment. You see, I see myself as accountable to the people. If they don’t want to be, then I’m sorry. Much of the ill we have suffered is not because of the democratic political system, it’s because of the actors in the system. All I’m saying is stop saying ‘me.’ Say ‘us.’ Stop saying ‘party.’ Say ‘people.’ We do have our own characteristics, culture and value systems in Nepal and democracy must be, if you like, tuned into these. But if the parties start viewing issues from that point of view, I see no problem in the democratic system functioning in Nepal.
TIME: Are you worried about recent student protests demanding a republic?
His Majesty: Should it concern me? Is that public sentiment? Yes I agree the monarchy in Nepal does conduct itself according to the aspirations and hopes of the people. It reflects those. But my government has advised me that these protests might be only pressure tactics [by political opponents]. And anyway, the government has a job to uphold the law of the land. Does the law allow them to say things like this?
TIME: What do you say to the parties’ accusations that you’re essentially an autocrat only interested in restoring power to the palace?
His Majesty: If some people do not understand me, if there is mistrust and a crisis of confidence, let’s do something about it. In a democracy, the street might be the place to do something, yes, but there are other ways of solving the issue: quiet diplomacy is also an accepted form of dialogue. And, they are right, it should not be my role to point the way out of this crisis. I should not have any active responsibilities [in government]. As a constitutional monarch what I should be doing, on any issue that effects the betterment of the people, [is to] either make suggestions or warnings, or simply keep myself informed. And yet on the other hand, the reality is: the people of Nepal want to see their King, they want to hear from him. The days of royalty being seen and not heard are over. We’re in the 21st century. It’s not that I am taking an active role. I see it as a constructive role. If I step on some people’s toes, I’m sorry. But I can assure you this: the monarchy is not going to allow anyone to usurp the fundamental rights of the people, and those who say they represent the people must learn to lead the people, not be led by them and have the courage to have a vision of prosperity for the people and the nation.
TIME: People see you as very different to your late brother, King Birendra.
His Majesty: Too many people misunderstood my brother too. They took his kindness for weakness and they exploited that. I know many people realize how peace-loving and how development-oriented he was, but I ask them to realize how close we were. His role was very, very constructive too and I think mine is just an extension of that. The circumstances I face are slightly different so our styles are slightly different. But just because I have spelled out what I want to do does not make me any better or any worse.
TIME: What if the parties continue to refuse your demands?
His Majesty: That means they want to carry on playing musical chairs in government. [Nepal has had 12 governments since the arrival of parliamentary democracy in 1990.] But is that what we really want? And I think they are realizing that I am serious.
TIME: How close is Nepal to becoming, as many have warned, a failed state?
His Majesty: It’s not happening. It’s a clichÃ© that you all love. There is a vacuum, yes, a political vacuum. And whatever efforts the security agencies are making will come to little unless this is filled. Previous governments did not have the foresight, the tactfulness to address the issues, the poverty of the common man. Or they addressed in such an inhuman way that those areas developed into the hot spots we have today.
TIME: How important is international military assistance from the US, UK and India in the current conflict?
His Majesty: I would prefer if you’d asked me, ‘Should there be more.’ We cannot view terror in hues and colors. It only has one color. Red, the color of danger. The government is grateful that so many countries are supporting us in this; the fact that their help could have been more expeditious is another thing, but no one wants to see a ‘one-party proletariat state’ in Nepal. And for the US in particular, we all know terror is their main agenda: so we are not surprised, because of the way terrorism is lifting its head in our country, that they are so forthright here. But I can tell you that I am very proud of the way our security forces are conducting themselves on the minimal [equipment] they have. It’s really shoe-string circumstances. But they’re coping. That Nepali resilience is there.
TIME: What about the accusations, and documented cases, of human rights abuses by the armed forces?
His Majesty: Well, I hope you will also mention the documented human rights abuses by the Maoists.
TIME: Yes. Actually, I’ve documented them myself.
His Majesty: Then I would say we’re learning. I will not say that there have not been remises. But at the same time, action has been taken against the violators. It may not be as quick as many people wanted, but there is a due process of law in these things. But do you mean to tell me that earlier on, when other so-called governments of the day were in power, there were no human rights abuses? It’s all cropping up [as an issue] now. But is it because the security agencies are becoming effective that these questions are being asked, or because they are failing? Is it success that is leading to this? In the case of the army alone, they were not deployed before 2001 and now they are. But which country does not have friendly fire, which does not have accidents? Many people have told me that the Fourth Estate is being unkind to the security agencies.
TIME: What happened on the night of June 1, 2001?
His Majesty: I wish I knew. I was not here. I can only tell you what I have been told by surviving members of my family. The report that came out of the commission that investigated this clearly indicated who was responsible. I can tell you what happened. But I cannot tell you why. [The conspiracy theories] are nonsense, wild goose chases. If some people do not want to accept this, then it’s a sad thing. And the people putting them out there are being cruel. It’s offensive.
TIME: But given the unfortunate manner in which you came to throne, have you felt your acceptance by the country, your legitimacy, has been damaged?
His Majesty: My question is, ‘If the Crown Prince had lived, would the kingdom have accepted him, knowing all the facts. [Dipendra, the heir to the throne, lived in a coma for two days and was briefly crowned King before dying.] My whole, prime and first effort when I came to the throne was for the consolidation of the monarchy. From reports that I was hearing, there was a conspiracy to get rid of the institution.
TIME: How traumatized were you, was your family, by the massacre?
His Majesty: I am a human being, after all. But we all show our grief, happiness and joy in different ways. And I had to conduct myself in a proper manner and tried to do that. There is a human face to every King, but that does not mean he has to flaunt it. And it was not only a tragic personal loss, it was a national loss. We personally lost a benefactor and the nation lost a noble King. It was a black spot on our history that will never be wiped out, but that’s the reality of life that we have to face and we have to get on with the future.
TIME: Has it been lonely since?
His Majesty: It is lonely. I miss my brothers and my sisters. But we have learned to cope. And I don’t think it’s that bad. What makes you think I don’t have friends? What makes you think that because I meet you here I do not have a den? Many people have been there.
TIME: It must be uncomfortable though, living here, in the same palace where so many of your family died.
His Majesty: I left this palace when I got married 30 years ago and I never thought. I would have to occupy it again. It is difficult, but we have done the best we can. After all, it’s the occupants that transform a house to a home and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
TIME: What’s it like being a living god?
His Majesty: I’ve been waiting for you to ask this. On the question of the living-god thing, let me interpret it this way: we were given the personification of Vishnu and Vishnu is the preserver of all things. And I’m glad that my roleâ€”the role I have to playâ€”has been spelled out like that, just as it is in the constitution. But I’m a pragmatic and practical person. I’ve never said I’m God.
TIME: Do you think the monarchy, and Nepal’s continuing feudalism, needs to reform in the 21st century?
His Majesty: Yes. I do think we have to look at and adapt to society and culture. We need to be in keeping with the times. By that I mean all of Nepal should have the opportunity to progress irrespective of color, caste and creed. This needs to be put into practice.
TIME: Outline what you see in Nepal’s future.
His Majesty: With discipline, dedication and determination, prosperity.
TIME: What keeps you awake at night?
His Majesty: I work hard enough to get a good night’s sleep every night. But you know, there is a saying here: if the people are happy, the King is happy. And my fear is that we might be heading for a ditch if the people, their grievances and their betterment are not thought of. I put myself in their shoes every night. Why are these things not being addressed? If anything keeps my awake, it’s that.