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Subdued birthday party for Nepal's troubled king

Written by: Staff
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KATHMANDU, July 7 (Reuters) Nepal's increasingly isolated King Gyanendra, forced to give up all power by democracy protests in April, marked his 60th birthday with subdued celebrations today as a cloud hangs over the future of the monarchy.

About 4,000 people, including Buddhist monks in maroon robes, Hindu priests in white loincloths, members of the king's ousted administration and their families took part in the celebration.

But it was a much smaller affair at the Narayanhity palace in central Kathmandu.

Gone were the long lines of uniformed schoolchildren bussed in for the event, once a national holiday, and the rows of physically and mentally handicapped of previous celebrations.

For the first time in years, government offices and schools stayed open and ministers skipped the ceremony.

''The king is now little more than a tourist attraction,'' Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly, told Reuters.

Nepal's monarchs are traditionally revered as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but King Gyanendra's image has been battered after he took total power in February last year and by the wave of pro-democracy protests that followed.

POWERS CURBED Nepal's reinstated parliament recently curbed the king's powers, including his control over the army, stripped him of his legislative roles and turned the world's only Hindu kingdom into a secular state.

The king is set to lose the power to name his successor or the regent and is subject to taxes, questions in parliament or courts.

''The king drove the popular support away from him because of his own actions,'' said Ram Chandra Poudel, general secretary of the nation's biggest political party, Nepali Congress, that led recent protests. ''People are increasingly turning against him.'' When King Gyanendra seized power and sacked the government, he said it was the only way to end a Maoist revolt that has killed more than 13,000 people. But while he was in charge, there were no peace talks.

Since he gave up authority two months ago, the government and the Maoists have resumed peace talks that failed in 2003 and are observing a ceasefire, something the monarch had rejected.

Last month, the government and Maoists agreed to a special assembly to prepare a new constitution and decide the future of the monarchy.

The Maoists say the king must abdicate or face execution.

But some, including the ailing 84-year-old Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, see a ceremonial role for him.

''Our king and our country are dearer than our lives,'' shouted some young men wearing red sashes outside the palace gate.

''I will wish him god luck,'' said 84-year-old monk Kalsang Lama, with a small picture of the king pinned to his chest, waiting for his turn to see the king.

But mostly, ordinary Nepalis long for peace.

''We must have peace,'' said 23-year-old taxi driver Ambar Bhujel. ''It does not really matter to me whether peace comes with or without the king.'' And analysts say the king is not out.

''He has the resources and the ambition to stage a come back,'' said Dixit, the editor. ''He thinks he can just wait and let the political parties make a mess of things.'' REUTERS SI RK1715

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