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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 11:32 GMT
Letter from Nepal: King's makeover

Nick Bryant
BBC News, Kathmandu

The BBC's South Asia correspondent finds an air of unreality attending Nepal's Army Day in Kathmandu.

Nepal's King Gyanendra
The king is visibly slimmer

King Gyanendra appears to have lost weight since seizing absolute power at the beginning of last month - though whether by design or through worry none of his subjects seems entirely sure.

Saluting the colours on Nepal's annual Army Day recently, the normally corpulent monarch was almost unrecognisable.

He cut a relatively svelte figure in his green ceremonial uniform, his left breast pocket a blaze of medals and ribbonry, his shrunken midriff fitting neatly within the confines of a gleaming gold-buckled belt.

He had dispensed with his traditional plumed emerald crown, choosing instead a rather modest crimson-banded cap.

But today he was appearing not just as the king of Nepal, but in his dual capacity as the commander-in-chief of the Royal Nepalese Army, which since a state of emergency was declared on 1 February has fast become the main instrument of his absolute power.

Colourful show

As an introduction to post-state-of-emergency Kathmandu, it is hard to beat Army Day.

It was an exotic melange of "soothing military music," as a troupe of bagpipers was inexplicably billed in our pocket-sized programmes, "insurgent bomb disposal" displays, dog shows and parachute jumps.

Supporters of Nepal's King Gyanendra
Part of the population believes the king will bring order to the country

But my favourite was a special "guest event", where the military attaches from America, Britain and India, dressed in full ceremonial regalia, raced against each over a course the length of a cricket pitch carrying words which spelt out the slogan: "May Peace Prevail in Nepal".

The British military attache sadly finished a forlorn last, probably because his spurs were ill-suited to the bumpy terrain and he kept tripping over his bothersome sword.

Throughout this two-hour spectacle, the commentary of an officer seated next to me only added to the unintended comedy.

Asked to explain if the soldiers taking part in a firing display, or feu de joie, were using real bullets, he deadpanned: "Not since Britain and America suspended our military aid. We can't afford to waste bullets" - a response to last month's royal power grab.

At the sight of teams of special forces soldiers, dressed in full combat fatigue, he laughingly asked: "What are they doing here? Why aren't they fighting the Maoists?"

Sadly, I could not make out his expression when the bagpipers playing "soothing music" were replaced by blaring trumpeters blasting out Tijuana jazz.

In fact, so complete was the military band's repertoire, that the only composition missing seemed a medley of Beatles favourites.

Arrests

But I thought I detected a half-suppressed chuckle when the public address system announced chirpily that "pretend insurgents are laying explosives and about to be attacked by specially trained dogs".

With that, a Maoist impersonator, heavily dressed in protective clothing, sauntered across the parade ground, his padded arms held aloft, before being wrestled to the ground by two ferocious Alsatians.

Maoist soldiers
The Maoists have been fighting since 1996 to abolish the monarchy

It was a shame that not more people could have witnessed the spectacle - especially since there were so many empty seats in the reviewing stands.

But currently many of Nepal's VIPs are under house arrest, including one of its most eminent political leaders, former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

Another former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, was released last Friday.

Absent, too, were some of the country's leading journalists. Those critical of February's royal coup have been arrested.

Another oddity: throughout the tattoo, bugle blasts did not have to compete with the piercing ring tones of spectators' cell phones.

On 1 February, the king immobilised the entire mobile network - another move aimed at stifling dissent.

Health and malady

In Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, the novelist Manjushree Thapa describes Nepal as a "constitutional Neverneverland" - and that was before the events of 1 February.

Highway blockades are one of the Maoists' most powerful weapons

Now it has become something much more shadowy and medieval - a mountain kingdom run by an absolute monarch, with absolute power, with seemingly an absolute disregard for the civil liberties of his subjects.

Many support his power grab in the hope it will deliver stability in a country whose 14-year experiment with democracy has been fraught with problems and where the Maoist insurgency seems as ferocious as ever.

Dissenting voices nowadays are rarely heard in the areas firmly controlled by the Royal Nepalese Army.

At the end of Army Day, King Gyanendra levered his body into his stretch V8 Daimler limousine, with its personalised regal number-plate showing his plumed emerald crown, and set off for the Royal Palace in the middle of a 10-vehicle convoy headed by outriders wearing smart, claret tunics and spotless white crash helmets.

The king left looking in rude health. The problem is, his nation is in a state of perpetual malady.


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