It was 10 years ago June 1st that, by the official account, Nepal's Crown Prince strode into a royal family gathering, opened fire, and killed nine people — including his father the King, before shooting himself.
The royal palace is a tourist site now, where families pose for photos at the gates. You can go in and stroll around, through halls where kings once walked — past stuffed tigers shot by monarchs, and shimmering chandeliers over long, polished banquet tables.
"Oh my God, what a life they were living, inside," Librarian Ananta Koirala exclaimed. "And being a Nepali citizen, I'm facing the lives of the poor people in the country. But after seeing this palace, I'm really shocked. What a sophisticated life inside the palace."
Actually, the palace and its furnishings look like they were lifted out of a kitchy early '60s timewarp. That's when the palace was built and decorated. The walls display portraits of 250 years worth of Nepalese kings — and photos of more contemporary visitors — Queen Elizabeth, Romania's Nicolae Ceaucescu, China's Jiang Zemin.
Prabal Baniya, who's 30, is a guide here. He used to work for the last king — and Baniya's father worked in the palace before him. He thinks it was a big mistake for Nepal to end its monarchy
"Now, the situation is not so good, compared to before," he said. "Different parties are only fighting among themselves … in my view; there must be a king, to look after his children."
That's what the King's role here used to be — the patriarch, the absolute monarch. Then, in 1990, Nepalese demonstrated for democracy, and then-King Birendra agreed to transform Nepal into a constitutional monarchy. His son, Crown Prince Dipendra, was studying in England then. He is said to have had a temper tantrum and broken a door when he heard that his future role as king would now be a diminished one.
"He was kind of a dual character. Outside, he was very much gentle, very much liked by everyone," said Lt. Gen. Vivek Kumar Shah, an aide-de-camp at the royal palace for 26 years. He knew Crown Prince Dipendra from when he was small.
"But inside, from the beginning — probably, he didn't get the love he should have as a child. That's what my belief is," Shah said. "He had a kind of sadistic nature. He would burn a cat or a mouse. He would enjoy that."
Dipendra also liked guns. Shah says the Crown Prince had a whole range of them in his bedroom.
"He had an MP5, a submachine gun. He had an M16 commando, a submachine gun again. And then, he had a hunting rifle, pistols, you name it," Shah said. He admits that made him and others tasked with the royal family's security nervous. "We always thought it wasn't proper, but there was nothing we could say. Nothing we could do."
In fact, Shah says, it was kind of the tradition of the royal family to carry guns around. The King did it too. And whenever the Nepalese army got a new weapon, he says, both the King and his son wanted to try it out, and perhaps keep one at the palace.
The Crown Prince did have a lighter side. He liked to frequent pubs and parties, and sing and dance with his buddies. He was educated at Eton, before coming back to Nepal for university, then joining the Military Academy.
And the Crown Prince was in love. He'd met Devyani Rana in England, and wanted to marry her. His parents didn't approve. Rana's mother was from an Indian royal family that was considered of a slightly lower caste than Nepali royalty. And her father was a politician, from a rival clan to the King's. The Crown Prince was reportedly told that he had to make a choice. He could marry Rana, but he'd have to give up his right to the throne.
That's one story told about why the 29-year-old Crown Prince might have chosen to kill his family. Kunda Dixit, publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper, says there may have also been another factor.
"If you remember, King Birendra was educated in the West, in Japan," Dixit said. "He believed in a constitutional role for the monarchy, not a dictatorship. But his brother, who later became king, and his own son, the Crown Prince, totally disagreed. They felt the country was going to the dogs, he gave too much away in the 1990 People Power uprising. And that we should do something before it's too late."
Whatever the reason, eyewitnesses say Dipendra, after having some drinks and smoking some pot, came down from his room to the royal family soiree on June 1st, 2001, dressed in army fatigues and carrying several guns. He shot his father first, and then turned to others. One was his father's cousin, Ketaki Chester. She later told a British Channel Four documentary team what she saw just before she was shot.
"The look on his face was very scary," she said. "I still remember it, and still, it gives me the creeps when I remember his face. He looked exactly like the Terminator 2 — absolutely expressionless, but very concentrated. And it still haunts me, that look of his."
But even a decade later, despite eyewitness accounts like this one, many Nepalese still doubt they know the whole truth. Librarian Ananta Koirala says he had suspicions from the beginning that the murdered king's brother, Gyanendra, was behind the massacre, at least, putting the Crown Prince up to it.
"I also thought the King, Gyenendra, was involved in the royal massacre, and he was the master planner," Koirala said. "There was an investigating committee, and it gave a report, blaming the then-Prince Dipendra. But … I'm not still believing that Dipendra killed them."
Even the former palace aide-de-camp Vivek Kumar Shah, wondered at the time why the investigation of the massacre only lasted a week, and only concentrated on answering the question of what happened, not why.
"I told His Majesty, King Gyenendra, this part has not been investigated," Shah says. "Was he alone? Or were there other forces involved in it? That should be investigated. We don't have that expertise, so we should ask international experts.' But that didn't happen."
Shah goes into some of this in his book, "The Palace as I Saw It" — which made a splash in Nepal when it came out late last year. Shah speaks more warmly about the murdered King than about Gyanendra, and in that, he is in good company in Nepal. Gyanendra was singularly unpopular. He dissolved parliament, jailed journalists, and tried to return Nepal to an absolute monarchy. That gave fuel to the Maoist insurgency, and eventually helped the Maoists — once they led an elected government – bring him down and end the monarchy.
When Gyanendra stepped down three years ago, he said at a chaotic final news conference at the royal palace that he accepted the decision to end the monarchy. He didn't apologize for anything he'd done, but he did say he was sorry for suffering that may have been inadvertently caused by him trying to do what he thought was best for the country.
An Ordinary Citizen
Now, Gyanendra lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Kathmandu, and is an ordinary citizen.
"There's a popular perception that he's up to mischief, that he wants to come back," said Nepali Times publisher Kunda Dixit. "But he's lying low. Once in awhile he makes a statement to the effect of 'well, at least when I was king, things weren't this bad.' And a lot of people would agree with that. But I don't think this country is going back to monarchy. And one reason is that he as a person is so unpopular."
Dixit says he wouldn't have minded Nepal retaining a cultural monarchy, even if only as a tourist attraction. "But we had such bad luck with dictatorial monarchs that (it's hard to make) the argument of, 'oh well, sometimes a benevolent dictator is good for a country like this.' How long are you going to wait for luck to give you a benevolent dictator? We've had malevolent dictators for so long, so often."
Back at the palace, librarian Ananta Koirala agrees. He revered the king as a child, and felt his world rocked by the royal massacre. He acknowledges Nepal has its problems now, with its widespread poverty and unemployment, frequent power cuts and political leaders acting like little kings themselves:
"The democratic system is not being practiced well by our parties, and that is causing some frustration of democracy to the people," Koirala said. "Still, I go with democracy."
It's not a perfect system, he says, but at least with democracy, there's a chance for the people to fix their own problems — including dealing with leaders who think they're so far above the law that they can get away with murder.
(Photo: Mary Kay Magistad
Vivek Kumar Shah with Photo of Self as Palace Aide de Camp (photo: Mary Kay Magistad)
On the streets of Nepal (photo: Mary Kay Magistad)