The arrests of a powerful aide to the king's youngest brother on a charge of attempted murder and a former national police superintendent on charges of corruption and drug smuggling have rocked the peaceful mountain kingdom of Nepal.
The scandal has touched even the famous Gurkha troops of Nepal, 8,000 of whom serve in the Queen's Guard of the British army. Earlier this year, five Gurkha soldiers were arrested at London's Heathrow Airport after heroin was found in false-bottom compartments of their luggage.
Investigators believe that Gurkha soldiers, returning to Britain after furloughs at home, may have been unwitting carriers of hundreds of pounds of heroin over the past several years.
"Before these arrests," a Nepalese journalist said, "the Gurkhas had always been considered the most admirable people we had. Their luggage was almost never checked."
Prince's Aide Arrested
The Gurkha connection, plus the arrest of Lt. Col. Bharat Gurung, an aide to Prince Direndra, the youngest brother of King Birendra, and the arrest of D.B. Lama, the former national police superintendent, add up to the biggest criminal crackdown since Nepal opened its borders to foreign visitors in 1950.
In the years since 1950, this little kingdom nestled among the world's highest mountains, has lost its innocence. For a time Nepal was a sort of soft-drug Mecca, where hippies came to nibble hashish brownies and hang out along Katmandu's "Freak Street," but now it has a more serious drug problem.
According to U.S. drug agents, Nepal has become an important transit point for heroin from the "Golden Triangle" of Southeast Asia and from the "Golden Crescent" of Southwest Asia.
Moreover, the heroin problem has taken hold in the local population.
"We have gone from only 500 addicts in 1976 to more than 15,000 today," said Father Thomas Gafney, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Nepal for 28 years and directs a drug rehabilitation clinic here.
Journalist Was Shot
The crackdown on drugs and corruption, ordered by the king himself, began last September after a prominent Nepalese journalist who was formerly a member of the National Assembly was shot and nearly killed in his Katmandu home.
The journalist, Padam Thakuratai, had recently published a drug expose in his newspaper, Beemarsha, a Nepali-language weekly. He concluded by saying that in the next issue of his newspaper he would name high-ranking officials involved in the drug traffic.
A few days later, a hired assassin identified as a pimp and petty criminal went to Thakuratai's house, where he cut a hole in a screen, entered Thakuratai's ground-floor bedroom and fired a pistol at point-blank range into the sleeping journalist's head. Thakuratai survived, though he lost an eye.
"They were trying to silence him," a Western diplomat in Katmandu said. "He was about to reveal the identities of people involved in the narcotics business."
An investigation triggered a series of arrests, and they led higher and higher into Nepalese society, finally touching the staff of the royal family.
So far, the highest officials that have been arrested are Lt. Col. Gurung, the senior aide to the prince, and Lama, the former police superintendent.
Has Six Residences
Gurung has always been a behind-the-scenes force in Nepal's politics, allegedly using his proximity to the palace to advance his personal interests. He has six residences, a fleet of taxis and land valued at $7 million, a great fortune in impoverished Nepal.
It was Gurung, journalist Thakuratai has said, whom he was about to name as the kingpin of Nepal's heroin-smuggling operation. Gurung is the son of a retired corporal in a Gurkha regiment, and it is he who is alleged to have thought of using Gurkha soldiers to smuggle drugs.
"He would contact the Gurkhas in the British service when they came back on leave," a Nepalese journalist close to the police investigation said. "He would ask them to carry a suitcase filled with Nepalese handicrafts--hand-woven pullovers, jackets made of Tibetan wool--and other things that would not raise questions at customs. He told the Gurkhas they were presents for friends in London and that someone would pick them up once they arrived."
Many of the suitcases, he said, had false bottoms that were used to smuggle heroin.
Says Gurkhas Were Tricked
"Innocent Gurkha troops," the diplomat said, "were tricked into concealing drugs."
Gurung, who is to be tried by a court-martial on a charge of hiring the gunman who shot Thakuratai, was arrested in July.
One of Gurung's closest associates was Lama, the former chief of Nepal's 20,000-member police force. Lama, too, managed to enrich himself in government service. He has five residences and two wives and owns a company that makes carpets.
Lama has not been charged in connection with the Thakuratai shooting. He was arrested late in July on charges of accepting payoffs from prominent businessmen and criminal networks involved in smuggling not only narcotics but gold as well.
King Birendra has been praised by the press and foreign diplomats for allowing the police investigation to reach into the upper levels of government, even when it touched his own family.
"There was general dismay that people in high places were involved in criminal activity," U.S. ambassador Leon Weil said. "Now the king has decided to get tough."
The king is virtually a deity in Nepal. According to a government pamphlet, "all power--executive, legislative, judicial"--emanates from the king.
But few people believe that the investigation has gone as far as it might.
"It is a good start, but it is only the tip of the iceberg," Father Gafney said.