Just a little after nine in the evening on Friday, June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra, His Majesty the King of Nepal’s oldest son, staggered drunk into the royal dining room, a cap pulled low over his face. He shot one bullet into the ceiling. His family stared at him from the dinner table as he lowered an M-16 and shot his father, King Birendra. He shot him first in the neck and then in the stomach.
Crown Prince Dipendra walked out of the room, then back in. He fired again, shooting family member after family member. He left the room and returned, over and over, each time shooting more wildly.
Dipendra’s mother, Queen Aishwarya, and his younger brother, Prince Nirajan, so far had survived. When Dipendra walked out of the room one last time, into the Royal Garden, Queen Aishwarya followed him. Perhaps she thought she could reason with her son. Prince Nirajan tried to stop her, then followed his mother and interposed his body between hers and Dipendra’s. Dipendra shot and killed them both, then turned the gun on himself.
This is what the press reported about the tragic events, but it is not what Nepali kerosene porters believe. Not then and not now.
A kerosene porter is a commercial porter, the red blood cell in the body of Nepal, one of the most mountainous and poorest countries in the world, where many villages are still connected only by treacherous walking paths going in two directions: up and down.
The average kerosene porter is a farmer who cannot provide his family with its basic needs, needs that in Nepal are truly basic: food. He is a farmer with a tiny plot of land on a steep hillside, and he supplements his income at a rate of 30 Nepali rupees (40 cents) per darni for an eight-day walk. A darni is about 2.5 pounds and the body weight of most of these porters is under 110 pounds. The weight of the baskets they carry strapped around their foreheads is often above 200 pounds, and the informal record for an eight-day walk is 330 pounds.
The kerosene porters of Nepal have been used by researchers at the University of Colorado to disprove scientific assumptions about the ability of the human body to carry large loads for long distances. Many destroy their knees by the time they are 30.
The kerosene porters often cannot afford shoes. Those who can usually wear only cheap plastic flip-flops, even above the snow line. They are at the bottom of Nepali society, without distinction of caste. Any caste can become a porter—Raj, Sherpa, Nepali, Tamang, Magar, Chetri, Dalit, even Brahmin. Many aspire to learn a little English and become trekking porters. All aspire not to be commercial porters.
Western trekkers come to Nepal to enjoy walking in the highest mountains in the world. Sometimes the younger porters laugh as they see the Western trekker walk by. They laugh for no real reason, in warmth. A joke will often consist of the simple question, “Where are you going?” Strange humor for a Westerner.
A few porters carry radios that play Chinese music. These porters are less likely to laugh. They are more likely to have a closed expression on their face. It is the expression of a fraternity, a secret society.
Perhaps this latter porter is remembering the night before, when he and 150 of his fellows threw a pressure bomb into the police post at Jiri, at Shivalaya, or at Kenja. These are towns that a Western trekker might pass on his way to Namche Bazaar and Everest Base Camp.
Only the relatively poorer or fitter Western tourist would have passed these towns, though. The richer tourists fly in directly to the frighteningly short runway at Lukla, bypassing seven mountain passes and many target points of the Maoist insurgency. The insurgency has been spreading within Nepal for the last five years with almost no coverage from the Western press. It has been moving east and is now only two mountain passes from Lukla and the types of tourists who cannot carry their own packs.
In the saddle of the second mountain pass sits the picturesque village of Deorali. The Western tourist is exhausted as he arrives in Deorali after ten hours of walking. The wind is strong, and the red banner proclaiming allegiance to Lenin, Stalin and Mao flutters like a welcome flag at the village’s entrance. Unable to read Nepali, the tourist thinks the red banner is indeed a welcome flag; he enters the first lodge and asks for a beer. The lodge owner, a Sherpa, tells him it is not possible. The Maoists have banned alcohol, as well as all products from India. They came in a month before, dumped out two bottles of whisky as a message, and drank the rest. Deorali is now a Maoist town.
The next day the tourist stays in Deorali. He’s not as fit as he thought; his blisters hurt and he needs a rest day. That morning, while he eats a yak-cheese pizza, drinks a Coke covered with Chinese characters and admires the view, a large group of police enter Deorali carrying single-shot rifles better suited for the First World War. It is the only way that police can travel through Maoist parts of Nepal—in large groups.
They enter the lodge at a brisk pace, unhappy perhaps that the door is open and they cannot kick it down. The police beat the Sherpa because the red banner is next to his lodge. They tear down the banner, force him to feed them rice and lentils, and collect a tax.
There used to be a police post in Deorali, but no more. It is too dangerous, so the police leave the village in a large group, as they entered it.
That evening, 200 Maoists re-enter Deorali from the hills above the saddle. They always come from the hills. If the tourist were better at recognizing faces, he would notice among them a few of the kerosene porters who had passed him on the trail. But only a few. Most of the kerosene porters are still walking, too poor in money and time to be active Maoists.
The Maoists who enter Deorali are armed with automatic pistols, Second World War Lee-Enfields, single-shot rifles taken from the police, and even bows and arrows. One pulls the Sherpa out of his lodge and places a pistol in his mouth. The Sherpa moans hollowly around the Chinese pistol barrel. The Maoists are angry that the banner was torn down. They heard that the Sherpa had co-operated with the police, even fed them.
The lodge owner is terrified, yet he has hope because the Maoists are not wearing masks. When they come to kill you, they wear masks.
They do not shoot him, but next time they will, they tell him. He prays that maybe the army will come in before the Maoists, before the police, before someone shoots him for being trapped in the middle. Because the army is loyal to King Birendra, and the King has only the best interests of the people in mind. He is their last hope. It is May and Birendra, reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, is still alive.
The Maoists search the Sherpa’s books and take precisely ten percent. They apologize to the tourist for any inconvenience and leave. Only rarely do they rob tourists, and when they do, they provide receipts for later insurance recovery.
The tourist is surprised by these events. Until the dramatic shooting of the royal family, the Western press did not report much on the spread of the Maoists. Their ideology is carried quietly from porter to porter, from town to town. Some are trained in China, some in Burma, most in Nepal. They are not friendly. The insurrection’s death toll is around two thousand. They want an end to the monarchy, shoes for the porters, and a shift in geopolitical alliance from India to China.
At that point, in late May, the Maoists thought it would take five more years before a red banner flew over Kathmandu, as it flies over Deorali and Lhasa. But Prince Dipendra shot King Birendra, and although the abolition of the monarchy has always been one of the Maoists’ core demands, they claimed that the massacre was the result of an international conspiracy. They said that it was not the Crown Prince at all, but the new King Gyanendra, backed by the corrupt Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, a man who kowtowed to India. Behind Gyanendra and Koirala stood India and the CIA.
The real reason for the royal assassination, the Maoists continued, was King Birendra’s warm relations with China and his opposition to using the army against the Maoists. The police are controlled by the prime minister, but under a secret deal brokered when the king gave up absolute power in 1990, the army was loyal only to him. And while Birendra lived, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) with its famous Ghorka soldiers was never used against the Maoists.
A country of 23 million people, two-thirds of whom are under 30, Nepal is divided by caste, by clan, by class, by geography, by wealth, by degree of urbanisation, by altitude and by politics. There are a dozen major political parties and nearly a hundred “registered” parties. There are so many communist parties, fifteen, that their acronyms sometimes differ only by one confusing letter.
The weeks that followed the royal murder were weeks of general strikes, shoot-on-sight curfews, riots, arrests of newspaper editors, and a re-invigorated campaign by the Maoists, who capitalized on popular discontent with the new King Gyanendra and his son Paras, infamous for four separate drunken hit-and-run fatalities, including the deliberate running over of a popular Nepali singer.
It didn’t help Gyanendra’s credibility that Dipendra’s final suicide shot was to the back-left quadrant of his head. The Crown Prince was right-handed, and sources close to the family say it is privately acknowledged that he was neither drunk nor on drugs. They say he was killed by his aide-de-camp.
The truth will remain a mystery, but not the kind for which tourists come to Nepal. They want to see Nepal as a mysterious and mystical mountain kingdom, but they want the mystery of Shangri-la, not that of a desperately poor country convulsed by conspiracies, stuck between two regional superpowers. Visitors do not come to Nepal to learn methods for counteracting tear gas or to see mayhem, murders and Maoists. Tourist arrivals into Nepal fell 56% in June 2001 compared to June 2000, and mountaineering expeditions seeking permission to climb various Himalayan peaks dropped to 22 from 64 teams the previous year. This is bad news for porters, as it is for nearly every segment of Nepal’s economy. In one of the world’s poorest countries, there is no buffer for bad times.
The Maoists, whom the locals call simply “Mao,” present a way out, of sorts. They force restaurants to feed their cadres, bus drivers to drive them, hotel owners to house them, and businesses of all sorts to contribute “financial aid.” Ironically, only the largest businesses can afford such financial aid. Those that do not pay are burned down, and small shop owners have become afraid to bump into one-time friends on the street, friends who have revealed themselves to be Maoists and asked, “How much would you like to donate? I will come visit next week.”
Until the royal massacre, the Maoists had kept largely to the villages, following Mao Tse-tung’s dictum of “surrounding the cities with liberated villages.” This ceased to be true in June 2001.
After the deaths of the Royal Family, the Maoists stepped up their attacks, killing and kidnapping scores of police. The RNA was sent out for the first time. It claimed to have surrounded the attacking rebels, the rebels claimed they had captured the army, and the stand-off continued for days until locals told reporters that neither the army nor Mao had been there since the first night.
The next day Koirala finally stepped down. Two months later he stunned Nepal by telling the Kathmandu Post that “the Palace and India are directing the Maoists.” This was a strange accusation, but blaming big-brother India is an easy way to get votes in Nepal. India has often seemed clumsy and bullying in its relations with Nepal, and the Maoists have tapped into and nurtured the resentment. Why should Nepal bother with India, they say, when China is donating millions to build a new superhighway between Tibet and Kathmandu, supplementing the treacherous Arniko Highway, breaching the great wall of the Himalayas, offering friendship, alliance and much cheaper products?
Koirala withdrew his accusation two days after he made it, but he and other leaders have turned Nepal into a country run by rumor. The summer of 2001 was one of crazy and sad events in Nepal, with accusations and conspiracy theories flying back and forth along with bullets and pressure cooker bombs.
In Mahottari, for example, a fight broke out between police and villagers at a religious celebration; twenty police officers went on a rampage, destroying small shops and beating people indiscriminately until they were dispersed by the army. In Parsa, a team of 15 policemen beat a woman to death when she tried to stop them from uprooting her cabbages; villagers besieged the police station for 30 hours until Maoists intervened and ordered the police to pay a fine to the bereaved family within seven days. In the same lowland village a few weeks later, 10,000 anti-Maoist villagers organised themselves to repel the Maoists from the hills; they burned other hill villages for two days before police dispersed them with tear gas and live bullets. In Ghorka, villagers rose up in revolt against a Village Development Committee chairman who was extorting money and torturing villagers. And in Sonpur, Maoist militiamen revolted against their own leadership, accusing them of fostering a feudal culture within the party and of looting innocent villagers.
Such incidents died down significantly after Sher Bahadur Deuba replaced Koirala as prime minister, and the Maoists agreed to peace talks and a cease-fire. Deuba courted the Maoists by instituting radical land reform measures, banning “untouchability,” curbing liquor sales, creating a minimum drinking age, and presenting a bill to outlaw domestic abuse. The Maoists reciprocated by agreeing to peace talks, while at the same time asserting that they would rather be hanged than bow to any government demands. Hard-liners within the various Maoist groups warned that they would take up arms against their own leaders if they compromised on complete armed struggle.
Since Deuba could not negotiate away the monarchy or democracy, the rebels’ main demands, in the end there was little to talk about. After three negotiating sessions, the Maoists’s commander, Prachanda, declared the cease-fire obsolete and mounted co-ordinated attacks throughout Nepal. Following their practice of taking what they need from the enemy, Maoists attacked an RNA barracks in the most daring raid of their six-year insurgency. They gained a large cache of modern weapons and the anger of the RNA.
In response, Prime Minister Deuba and King Gyanendra declared a national state of emergency for only the second time in Nepal’s history (the first was declared in 1960 by Gyanedra’s father, King Mahendra, while he was toppling the democratically elected government of B.P. Koirala). On November 26, 2001, freedoms were suspended, the Maoists were labelled “terrorists,” the RNA was fully mobilised, and the battle for Nepal reached a new level of ferocity.
Few in Nepal believe that the insurgency can be put down with either weapons or grand political negotiations. Not while the poverty of the people remains so extreme. Not while kerosene porters have no shoes. And with tourist money frightened off, the situation is spiralling in the wrong direction.
During the first five years of the “people’s war,” Western tour companies considered the Maoists a far-away phenomenon. They continued turning parts of Nepal, particularly the Everest trek, into a mountain Disneyland, helping feed porters and hotel families but driving yak farmers further into the hills. Fancy lodges ate up the mountainside at a ferocious pace. Namche Bazaar even got an Internet cafÈ, though the nearest road is eight walking days away. But the Maoists are a reminder that Nepal is still far from Disneyland. So is the condition of Phaphlu airport, second only to Lukla as the Everest gateway for tourists. It was described by its district chairman after a Maoist attack in late November with one grisly sentence: “You can see brains scattered all over the place.”
Except for the police guarding the airport, most of the dead in Phaphlu were Sherpas, peaceful Buddhists who included at least three women. Maoists don’t like Sherpas because they often own lodges. The lodges ae built with wood planks passed down from great-grandparents and stone bought with three or four generations of savings. Still, the Maoists say, this makes them capitalists.
The Western tourists who cancel their trips thinking that Nepal is no longer the mysterious, medieval and mystical country they imagined are wrong. It is simply that the mystery does not come with easy labels, not in a country where a former prime minister speculates on conspiracy theories so convoluted that they are never described in full, where to this day no one knows who killed the king, where modern day witch-hunts mingle with armed revolutionary women’s movements, where police and Maoists and Village Development Committees all behave like armed gangs, and yet where the people are somehow still gentle and kind and ready to laugh warmly at any opportunity despite spending their lives, seven days a week, treated as little more than beasts of burden.
Nepal is a country where the people’s daily suffering is tied to incredibly complicated power struggles, both internal and international. The Nepali porters, rickshaw drivers and fruit vendors have a saying that they are children of their geography. Meanwhile, the U.S. Geologic Survey has said that a massive earthquake is overdue in the Himalayas as the Indian plate continues to collide with the Chinese plate. Somehow this is all tied in to the treacherous mountain trails, where a mile as the crow flies can take twenty miles of switchbacks.
Still, I had friends in Phaphlu.