King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (1945-2001), the son of King Mahendra and the grandson of King Tribhuvan, ruled as an absolute monarch from 1972 to 1990. He was very popular and regarded as liberal and a “gentle king” and a “nice guy” who liked a good cigar and helped establish Nepal as a popular tourist destination. He was assassinated along with much of his family by his son in 2001.
King Birendra (ruled 1972–2001) took the throne at the age of 27 after King Mahendra died suddenly in January 1972. He adopted a more liberal approach to government. Amid student demonstrations and anti-regime activities in 1979, King Birendra called for a national referendum to decide the nature of Nepal's government — either the continuation of the Panchayat system —a partyless political system of local governments under the direct rule of the king — with democratic reforms or the establishment of a multiparty system. The referendum national was held in May 1980. The king interpreted the narrow margin of support for the panchayat system (54.7 percent voted in favor) as a need for political change. The King carried out the promised reforms, including selection of the prime minister by the Rastriya Panchayat. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009; Library of Congress, November 2005]
From a very young age, Birendra was described by his school teachers as kind and emotional and was described as one of the few Nepalese monarchs who wanted the Nepalese people to experience real democracy. Some historians have speculated that King Birendra's democratic views and simple nature led to the success of the People's Movement I (1990).  He is credited for introducing SAARC in Asia in order to strengthen the foreign relations of Nepal with the other South Asian countries. [Source: Wikipedia]
King Birendra provided be a somewhat stabilizing force as Nepal became more democratic. He often mediated during political crises and dedicated himself to upholding democratic principles and was largely credited with strengthening rather weakened democracy. Other efforts to modernize endorsed by the king included the creation of secular schools, development and expansion of irrigation to improve agricultural yields and the launching of a manufacturing belt along the Indian border.
King Birendra’s Life and Family
The eldest son of the then Crown Prince Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and his first wife, Crown Princess Indra Rajya Lakshmi Devi, King Birendra was born on December 28, 1945 at the Narayanhiti Royal Palace in Kathmandu . The first Nepali king to be educated abroad, he was tutored by a British Roman Catholic aristocrat named Tom Stonor and attended St. Joseph's School in Darjeeling, Eton in Britain, Tokyo University and Harvard, where he took courses in economics, government and American politics, in 1967 and 1968 .
King Birendra was the son of King Mahendra. King Mahendra married Princess Indra Rajya Laxmi. They had three sons — the King Birendra (the oldest), the future King Gyanendra and Prince Dhirendra — and four daughters. Princess Indra died in 1950
After studying at Eton until 1964, Birendra returned to Nepal where he traveled extensively on foot to the remote parts of the country, living on whatever was available in the villages and monasteries he stayed in. He also took trips to Canada, Latin America, Africa, many parts of India, and a number of other Asian countries. He was also an avid art collector and supporter of Nepalese arts and flew helicopters.
Like previous Nepalese monarchs, Birendra married a member of the Rana family in order to ensure political peace. He married Aishwarya Rajya Lakshmi Devi, his second cousin, in 1970. The wedding, billed as one of the most lavish Hindu wedding ceremonies ever, cost $9.5 million. King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya had three children. The royal couple's first born child, Prince Dipendra, was born on June 27, 1971, Then, two more children: Princess Shruti and Prince Nirajan. The royal couple lived a cloistered existence in the royal palace and prohibited the British-born wife of the king's brother from setting foot in the palace.
King Birendra’s Coronation
In March 1955, King Birendra’s grandfather King Tribhuvan died, and his father King Mahendra succeeded to the Nepalese throne. With his father's ascension Birendra became the Crown Prince of Nepal. Twenty-seven-year-old King Birendra was crowned on January 31, 1972 after the sudden death of King Mahendra. His formal coronation did not take place until 1975, a time considered more auspicious by royal astronomers. After taking power King Birendra continued the policies of his father but there were strong forces for change and charges of excessive corruption in his government,
After King Mahendra death, King Birendra consulted his court astrologers, who advised him to delay his coronation to the most auspicious moment for his crowning, which was at 8: 37 am February 4, 1975. Soon after dawn on that day, King Birendra was driven to the temple of his ancestral palace, the Hanuman Dhoka ("gate of the monkey god"). There he was smeared with mud taken from various symbolic places - the bottom of a lake, the tusk of an elephant, a mountain, the confluence of two rivers and the doorstep of a prostitute's house. Then, with Queen Aishwarya beside him, he was cleansed with butter, milk, yogurt and honey as priests chanted praises and salutations. [Source: Wikipedia]
The coronation ceremony was attended by statesmen and political leaders from 60 nations, with the Prince of Wales representing the British Royal Family. The King's personal guests included his former housemaster at Eton, Peter Lawrence, three other masters and 15 old boys. At the ordained time, the chief priest placed on the King's head the emerald green crown, encrusted with jewels and adorned with feathers from a bird of paradise.
On the auspicious occasion of his coronation, the King announced that he had ordered his government to make primary education available and free for every child, but disappointed those Nepalis who hoped that he would promise progress towards democracy.
Early Years of King Birendra’s Rule
The death of Mahendra in January 1972 and the accession of Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev allowed the possibility of turmoil. The new king was associated with young, educated, administrative experts who were dedicated to economic development, but not to sharing power with political parties. Students at Tribhuvan University went on an indefinite strike in August to support a ten-point charter of demands. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
That month, 100 armed men attacked an eastern Terai village and killed a constable in a revolutionary action supposedly linked to the policies of B.P. Koirala. In June 1973, terrorists hijacked a Royal Nepal Airlines airplane to India and escaped with 30 million Indian rupees (approximately US$4.6 million). Other armed attacks and assassination attempts occurred into 1974. These isolated incidents had relatively little impact on a government that the army and the bureaucracy supported and that monopolized the allocation of all resources to local development projects. *
In 1975 the king appointed a seven-member Reform Commission to investigate making changes in the panchayat system, but during that year Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in her country, jailing members of the opposition and curtailing democracy there. In this climate, the recommendations of the Reform Commission in Nepal led to a 1975 constitutional amendment that made cosmetic changes in the panchayat system but only increased its rigidity. The changes included the establishment of five development regions to promote planning and the increase in membership of the National Panchayat from 90 to 134 persons. The king was to nominate 20 percent of its members. *
Reform of the Panchayat System
After violent protests in 1979 King Birendra promised further liberalization. The existing panchayat system was endorsed by 55 percent of the voters in May 1980 referendum. Reforms were made. The king agreed to allow direct elections to national assembly — but on a non-party basis. The king's constitutional amendments established direct elections and permitted the Panchayat, not the king, to choose the prime minister.
When it became apparent that the panchayat system — a partyless political system of local governments under the direct rule of the king — was going to endure, B.P. Koirala and other political exiles began to tone down their revolutionary rhetoric and advocate a reconciliation with the king. On December 30, 1976, Koirala and his close associate, Ganeshman Singh, flew to Kathmandu hoping to "make a fresh attempt." They were arrested for antinational activities and violence, and a tribunal was set up for a trial. After considerable agitation, Koirala was released in June 1977 because of ill health. He met briefly with the king and then went to the United States for treatment. When he returned to Nepal in November 1977, he was again arrested at the airport. After further public agitations on his behalf, he underwent five treason trials in early 1978 and was ultimately acquitted. Thereafter, despite factional splits, the Nepali Congress resembled other opposition parties in its acceptance of the king's power. Thus, the pattern of modern Nepalese politics was established — loyalty to the king and opposition to his government. In practice, there were continuing student demonstrations against the panchayat system and for human rights in 1977 and 1978. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
On May 24, 1979, King Birendra announced on Radio Nepal that there would be a national referendum in the near future, during which the people could decide to support or reject the panchayat system of government. This referendum represented the first time in modern history that the monarch had publicly consulted his subjects. Political freedom was allowed to all citizens during the period of preparation for the referendum, and there was intense realignment of political factions inside and outside the panchayat system. *
Finally, on May 2, 1980, out of a potential 7.2 million voters, 4.8 million cast their ballots. The outcome supported the panchayat system, with 54.7 percent for and 45.3 percent against it. Koirala and the Nepali Congress accepted the results. Although the referendum was a victory for the king, its narrow margin clearly indicated the need for change. Accordingly, the king quickly confirmed freedom of speech and political activity and announced the formation of an eleven-member Constitution Reforms Commission. The result, in December 1980, was the Third Amendment of the 1962 constitution, setting up direct elections to the National Panchayat, which would then submit a single candidate for prime minister to the king for approval. A Council of Ministers would thenceforth be responsible to the National Panchayat, not to the king.
Elections and Governments in the Early 1980s
Parliamentary elections were held in May 1981 and a prime minister was appointed. The changes were largely cosmetic. Political parties remained banned and real powers continued to rest with the king, who was able to hold off opposition, propped up by a friendly India and money from foreign aid, which seemed to have done more to enrich the Kathmandu elite than help the poor.
In March 1981, the Constitution Reforms Commission announced that elections to the National Panchayat would take place on May 9, 1981. Aside from pro-Moscow factions of the Communist Party of Nepal and a "Group of 38" from the Nepali Congress, political parties rejected the amended constitution and refused to participate in the elections. The king's failure to lift the ban on political parties had led party members — ineffectively — to boycott the 1981 elections.. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The Koirala-led Nepali Congress (NCP), which early in its history was accused of bowing to Indian opinion, organized a National Awakening Week during which 3,500 party members committed nonviolent civil disobedience. Student demonstrations against India began to take on antigovernment tones, and all campuses in Kathmandu closed for two months. The "election boycott week" was held May 1 to 8, but on election day on May 9 a 52 percent turnout of voters chose 111 representatives to the National Panchayat. The crisis demonstrated the fragility of the political and economic system in Nepal — an old culture but a young nation.
In May 1981 Surya Bahadar Thapa, a former civil servant .who had become prime minister in 1979, was reaffirmed in June 1981 and continued in office until 1983. The king formed a twenty- eight-member Council of Ministers in June 1981. In 1983 Thapa’s government fell following the government's loss of its majority on an opposition "no confidence" motion that resulted from corruption charges and a food crisis.
Factional Politics in the 1980s
Opposition politics were in a state of disarray, dominated by the terminal illness of Koirala, who died in July 1982. The victory of the king was not complete, however. During the elections, more than 70 percent of the candidates favored by the king lost. The panchayat system, a major source for local patronage, was becoming the stage for factional fights and shuffling coalitions. On many college campuses, elections for student unions went to communists after violent clashes. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The trend toward factionalism in the National Panchayat intensified in 1983, when a serious food crisis and charges of corruption caused the fall of Surya Bahadur Thapa's government. Lokendra Bahadur Chand took over as prime minister, but two blocs, or samuha had emerged in the National Panchayat around Thapa and Chand.
Factional tensions between supporters of Thapa and Chand nearly paralyzed the National Panchayat, In 1985, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) began a civil disobedience campaign for restoration of multi-party system. In the second general election in 1986, Marich Man Singh Shrestha was elected prime minister. The Nepali Congress boycotted the election, but it and other parties were widely regarded as having substantially declined in effectiveness. [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]
The 1986 election were held amidst the celebration of the panchayat system's twenty-fifth anniversary. Even though the Nepali Congress and most other opposition parties again boycotted the elections, the communists and a few other small parties did participate. The elections drew 60 percent of the voters, and 60 percent of the members of the National Panchayat supported Marich Man Singh Shrestha as prime minister. Before elections to the local panchayat the following year, the Nepali Congress announced that it would continue its boycott but then changed its strategy and allowed its members to run for local seats, claiming that it could "capture the outposts" of the system and politicize the people. The poor showing of the Nepali Congress candidates embarrassed the party, however, and revealed its isolation from many rural voters. *
Economic Problems and Troubles with India in 1989
Despite low growth figures, throughout the 1980s Nepal at least had made some progress in economic development, but it remained in any case one of the poorest countries in the world. The king was achieving a higher profile in international affairs, canvassing widespread support for the declaration of Nepal as a zone of peace and participating in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
These modest trends encountered a sudden interruption in 1989 when a major international incident with India occurred. On March 1, the Indian embassy announced that trade and transit treaties with Nepal, renewed regularly since the 1950s, would expire twenty-two days later. Both the Indian and Nepalese governments accused each other of delaying negotiations. When March 23 arrived, India declared the treaties had expired and closed all but two border entry points with Nepal.
In the 1980s, Nepal’s improving relations with China placed stress on its relations with India, and for this and other reasons India terminated trade and transit treaties in March 1989. The loss of trade routes and exports essentially devastated Nepal’s economy, These closures caused huge backups on the border and delayed or halted the bulk of foreign trade, including crucial shipments of oil and gasoline and the tourist trade, a major source of foreign exchange carefully cultivated under King Birendra.
The economy was already straining under falling agricultural production, increasing factory layoffs, and growing inflation. The inflation rate in 1987-88 rose to 11 percent. The growth rate of the economy, a healthy 9.7 percent in 1987-88, declined to 1.5 percent in 1988-89.Political parties campaigned for the end of the :panchayat “system, and after a period of strikes and violent demonstrations, foreign nations pressured King Birendra to allow democratic reforms. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]
Demonstrations Against the Monarchy in 1990
In early 1990, the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) and the United Leftist Front (ULF), a Communist alliance of seven parties, took to the streets, organizing agitations and pressing King Birendra for government change. Leftist parties of the ULF and the Nepali Congress Party launched strikes and demonstrations in the major cities of Nepal.
In March 1990, students rose up against King Birendra and began demonstrating against corruption in his government. The protest began against shortages of basic foods that occurred after a treaty between India and Nepal expired in March1989 and supplies coming in from India were sharply curtailed. Ordinary people relied on India-suppled kerosene for cooking and other basic food.
Later in the spring of 1990, the protests began taking on more of an anti-government tone and the protesters demanded more freedoms and the right to form political parties. Protesters chanted slogans referring to the king as a "thief" and a "murderer" and called for him to leave the country. Banned political parties reorganized and formed an alliance. Civil servants and ordinary Nepalis began taking to the streets.
This “Movement to Restore Democracy” was initially dealt with severely. The climax of the demonstrations was when a crowd of 50,000 people tried to storm the royal palace, and police opened fire on them. During the 50-day, 1990 uprising some say 500 people were killed and more than 10,000 were imprisoned. The government says 50 were killed and hundreds were arrested. I was visiting Nepal at that time and watched protests from the roof of my hotel. We could make helicopters flying around in the area of the palace. Walking the streets I came across groups of protestors gathered around piles of burning tires. On the way to the airport to catch a plane to the Everest area I could see debris and remnants of protests all over the streets.
Democracy Finally Comes to Nepal in 1990
After the storming if the Royal Palace the royal family gave up much of its power and allowed the creation of a multiparty democracy and a new constitution. The violence ended one of the world's last ruling monarchies and brought democratic government to Nepal for the first time ever.
In April 1990, the king dissolved the Panchayat system, lifted the ban on political parties, and released all political prisoners. An interim government was sworn in on April 19, 1990, headed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai as Prime Minister presiding over a cabinet made up of members of the Nepali Congress Party, the communist parties of Nepal, royal appointees, and independents.
A Constitutional Reforms Commission produced a new constitution in November 1990 that ended the panchayat system, restored multiparty democracy in a constitutional monarchy, enshrined fundamental human rights, established a British-Westminster-style parliament., legalized political parties, and vastly reduced the king's powers in a constitutional monarchy.
On April 18, 1990, King Birendra invited K.P. Bhattarai, president of the Nepali Congress, to form a government, and Bhattarai subsequently headed a cabinet composed of representatives of political parties and human rights groups as well as two royal appointees. After months of contentious negotiations between the king and the new cabinet, a new constitution was promulgated on November 9, 1990, with provisions for basic human rights, adult franchise, and a multiparty democracy with the king as a constitutional monarch. The cabinet and political parties reportedly feared that the king could misuse some provisions in the constitution, but they accepted it as the best document possible under the tense circumstances in which it was drafted. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]
Elections in Nepal in 1991 and 1994
In May 1991, the first openly partisan elections in 32 years were held, resulting in a Nepali Congress Party (NC) majority in the new House of Representatives. International observers characterized the elections as free and fair. The centrist Nepali Congress Party won 110 out of 205 seats to form the government. Girija Prasad Koirala was chosen as prime minister. As of December 2002, Koirala had held the office of prime minister four times in his career. [Sources: BBC, “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]
In 1994 the Koirala government was defeated in no-confidence motion and parliament was dissolved due to dissension within the Nepali Congress Party. The subsequent general election held November 15, 1994, gave no party a majority. The 1994 elections resulted in a Nepali Congress Party defeat and a hung Parliament
In 1994 the Nepali Congress was defeated in midterm elections, and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist Party (CPN-UML) formed a minority government. This made Nepal the world's first communist constitutional monarchy. The United Marxist Leninist Party, a reformist Communist party, won 40 percent of the votes in a general election. Man Mohan Adhikary became Prime Minister. In spite of the hammer and sick and Marxist-Lenin imagery, the party said it wanted "to create a pattern of property ownership not destroy it." [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]
Communist rule lasted only nine months. Afterwards, a coalition government led by the Nepali Congress came into power in September 1995 with Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister. This coalition remained in power until 2002, but contentious relations with opposition parties and within the coalition often undermined the coalition’s stability and diverted attention from worsening social and economic problems. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]
Democracy Equated with Chaos in Nepal
Democracy in Nepal quickly became characterized by bitter feuds, instability, corruption, lawlessness, and political infighting. Government frequently collapsed and politicians earned a reputation fo being greedy and incompetent. Panjak Mishra wrote in the New York Times, "The political parties...have proved unable to rise above petty loyalties of caste and ethnicity. Feudal politicians have busied themselves with plundering state resources."
In the 1990s, there were six different prime ministers and nine different government. Several of prime ministers served several times not in succession. The period between 1995 and 2000 saw five successive unstable coalition governments and the beginning of a Maoist insurgency, which began in rural Nepal during the mid-1990s. . Devendra Raj Panday, an economist and writer, told the New York Times, "Democracy has more or less meant multiparty chaos. Coalitions of odd bedfellows with no ideological compatibility have been running things."
The restoration of democracy initially brought tremendous optimism that Nepal would experience improvements in various spheres of life, but that didn’t happen. Under democracy, inflation and corruption rose, law and order deteriorated, and the Maoist insurgency gained strength. The prime ministers and their cabinet were charged with corruption while Parliament was brought to a halt by opposition boycotts. Following a succession of failed coalition governments, the Congress party once again won a majority in the 1999 legislative elections, and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai became prime minister.
But by the end of the 1990s various developments culminated to make the era one of the most difficult in the country’s history, threatening its very existence. The earlier trade and transit impasse with India was quickly settled, but other economic problems worsened, sometimes to near-crisis levels. High inflation and substantial foreign debt limited the government’s capacity to address economic development and poverty alleviation. Furthermore, the open political climate enabled various social groups to express long-held ethnic and linguistic grievances and to demand policy changes. [Source: Library of Congress]
Following the May 1999 general elections, the Nepali Congress Party once again headed a majority government after winning 113 out of 205 seats. But the pattern of short-lived governments persisted. In 2000, (G.P.) Koirala returned as prime minister, heading the ninth government in 10 years. There were three Nepali Congress Party Prime Ministers after the 1999 elections: K.P. Bhattarai (5/31/99-3/17/00); G. P. Koirala (3/20/00-7/19/01); and Sher Bahadur Deuba (7/23/01-10/04/02). [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]
Prime Ministers in the 1990s
Krishna Prasad Bhattari, a politician who made a career of opposing the monarchy, became prime mister in 1990 during the demonstrations to oust the king. He had spent many years in prison and arrived at the prime minister’s residence with a single suitcase. He returned in 1998 when his Nepali Congress Party took 105 of the 205 seats in Parliament's lower house.
Girija Prasad (G.P) Koirala was prime minister during much of the 1990s and served as the leader of the Nepali Congress party. In 2001 he became prime minister for the fourth time, none of them successive. He was blamed for not ensuring the safety of the royal family, not handling the Maoist rebels and was tied to a bribery scandal involving the national airline. He was prime minister when King Biredna was killed in June 2001. Koirala was so unpopular at the time of the king’s death his car was stoned during the funeral procession. He was born in 1921. He served as prime minister in 1991–1994, 1998–1999, 2000–2001, and a term beginning in 2006..
She Bahadur Deuba served as prime minister four times: . He fired in 2002, appointed in 2004, and fired in 2005. He was a seasoned politician who had been jailed numerous times and spent a total of nine years in prison fighting for democracy and trying to fight the monarchy’s absolute power. In 1997 he lost no-confidence vote, ushering in period of increased political instability, with frequent changes of prime minister.
Lokendra Bahadur Chand was appointed Nepal's prime minister for the third time in March 1997. Surya Bahadur Thapa, a flamboyant orator and head of the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party. He was the third prime minister.
Rise of Maoists
The Maoist revolt began in 1995 and would last for more than a decade and kills thousands. The rebels wanted the monarchy to be abolished. [Source: BBC]
A civil conflict began in February 1996 in which the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) killed, expelled, and threatened government officials, landlords, and others it charged with economic and political oppression of Nepalis. Initially, the government largely ignored the conflict, but by 2000 the conflict had expanded to nearly two-thirds of the country. Furthermore, unstable political institutions and worsening civil conflict weakened the government’s capacity to address economic, social, and other problems. Factional fighting within and among political parties led to rapid changes in government and prompted parties to spend precious time and resources on maintaining or acquiring power. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]
In July, 2001, Maoist rebels step up campaign of violence. Prime Minister GP Koirala quits over the violence and was succeeded by Sher Bahadur Deuba. In November 2001, Maoists end four-month old truce with government, declare peace talks with government failed and launch coordinated attacks on army and police posts. [Source: BBC]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022