Katmandu, Nepal —The 12 bombs that exploded across the mountain kingdom of Nepal may be the first warning shots of a dangerous revolution.
The death toll was low: seven police killed, including two of the bombers. But the choice of target Nepal’s much revered, 218 year old monarchy was stunning.
Responsibility for the June 20 and 21 blasts was claimed by a little known, antimonarchist group calling itself Janwadi Morcha, or People’s Front.
India, the group called for the establishment of a People’s Republic and warned the bombings were only “the first step towards revolution.”
Nepal’s monarch, the 39yearold King Birendra, is still loved and respected by most of his people, but moves to halt progress towards democracy have sparked increasing resentment.
“The bombing was terrible, but it was a good warning for his majesty,” former Foreign Minister Rishikesh Shaha said in an interview. “There is no reason to panic, but reason to think.”
Locked in the high Himalayas with few natural resources, Nepal’s sluggish economy has not kept pace with its annual population growth of 2.6 percent.
Nepal is one of the world’s five poorest countries, with an annual per capita income of only $120.
The isolated subsistence farmers who make up the majority of the country’s 16 million people are mostly too poor, too weak and too ignorant to protest.
But Nepal’s colleges and technical schools are pro ducing a class of educated youth about 9,000 graduates a year who cannot be absorbed by the stagnant economy.
Many of those who do find jobs become poorly paid teachers, who contrast the poverty of their rural schools with the affluence of the elite in Katmandu. Frustrations are heightened by restrictions on political freedom.
Nepal had 18 months of parliamentary democracy beginning with free elections in 1959. The King Mahendra, Birendra’s father, stepped in to dissolve the legislature and introduce a system of layers of indirect elections.
The system, called “Panchayat” after a traditional village council, left the king with almost absolute power.
Many hoped that Birendra, the first Nepalese king to receive a formal education he studied at Eton, Harvard and Tokyo University would be more liberal than his father, whom he succeeded in 1972.
But it was not until student riots in 1979 that the king made any reforms, alleging direct election to the national assembly. And since then, the king has tightened his hold.
“The government is trying to stop all movement towards democracy,” said former Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, a moderate who believes democracy can evolve within the Panchayat system. “When you try to stop this evolutionary process you are bound to get violence.”
Even before the bombings, the government faced a strike by 60,000 teachers and a civil disobedience movement led by the banned Nepali Congress Party called for legalization of political parties, banned since 1960.
More than 7,000 people, according to the party, were jailed during the nonviolent campaign.
But King Birendra has made clear he will not consider change.
“The king has put the prestige of the monarchy squarely in the way of what seems inevitable,” one political observer said.
One source acquainted with the king described him as “well-intentioned and interested in developing the country, but without much political acumen.”
Some Nepalis feel the king is poorly advised and too heavily influenced by conservative relatives, some of whom are accused of using that influence to increase their personal fortunes.
Birendra, who flies hig own helicopter, makes regular visits to outlying areas of the country. But the tours are highly organized and artificial, with the king insulated from his people by protocol and security, with the recent bombings that insulation likely to increase.
Nepal’s strategic position as a buffer between the world’s two most populous nations China and India adds special urgency to the need to maintain order.
One of Nepal’s first kings compared Nepal’s position to that of a “yam between two stones.”
Diplomatic sources said India would be particularly concerned at widespread disorder in Nepal because it considers the Himalayan barrier of northern Nepal a part of its natural defenses against China.
“If things went to hell here, India might feel compelled to intervene,” said one source.
The Nepalese government is stepping up the training of its riot police and the king has been careful to take good care of the military.
But few analysts believe that repression will be sufficient to contain the growing pressures.
“The king has been sitting on a volcano for a long time,” said Shaha. “If he does not open up the system and put some curbs on his own power, then all those separate groups will be forced to jell together against him.” “Then the volcano will erupt.”