Birth of the coup

A Sacramentan encounters political upheaval in Nepal

After a protracted immigration ordeal, Ray Wheeler and his stepdaughter finally reached the airport counter just as a royal coup closed down all air traffic.

After a protracted immigration ordeal, Ray Wheeler and his stepdaughter finally reached the airport counter just as a royal coup closed down all air traffic.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Nepal is chiefly known for the giant mountain that bears a British name. But it was Ray Wheeler’s own metaphorical Mount Everest that brought the Sacramentan to the troubled Himalayan country: the desire to help his two stepdaughters immigrate to the United States. In the process, on February 1, he found himself trapped in the middle of a historic political coup enacted by the country’s own king.

“The reason my wife left her kids behind when she immigrated here,” explained Wheeler, “is because in Nepal women have no legal rights, not even to their children.” Nepal is a small South Asian nation landlocked between China to the north and India to the south. It is among the least developed countries in the world, and its population suffers from crushing poverty. Nails are such a precious commodity in the shantytown where Wheeler’s in-laws live, that the tin roofs of their homes are not nailed down. Instead, old tires and stones keep the roofs from blowing away. Hinduism is the state religion in Nepal, and an unofficial but quite rigid caste system lingers from the country’s feudal past.

When Wheeler and his wife resolved to bring the children to live with them in Sacramento, they anticipated delays and red tape. “I have some experience with government bureaucracy, so I expected the process to take a couple months,” Wheeler said. In fact, by the time he found himself stranded in Nepal, their quest had been dragging on for a year-and-a-half already.

A supervisor at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, the soft-spoken Wheeler has a therapist’s poker face that is almost imperturbable. However, when recounting his experience with the U.S. immigration service, Wheeler cannot hide his anger. “The fact is, the USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] doesn’t give a shit about immigrants,” he stated. “There was absolutely no reason for the delay. The USCIS [originally said] that my stepdaughters were supposed to be issued visas immediately.” The USCIS, once known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was re-christened and reportedly reformed in the wake of 9/11.

When asked about Wheeler’s case, USCIS public-affairs officer Sharon Rummery said she couldn’t speak about any single case but added, “Don’t let anyone tell you that the USCIS doesn’t care about immigrants. We wouldn’t do this job if we didn’t.”

Upon arriving in Nepal’s capital city, Katmandu, Wheeler rented himself a motorcycle and began a scavenger hunt through various government ministries, looking for the documents that he hoped would secure his stepdaughters’ visas. With the documents in hand, Wheeler believed he had done everything that was asked of him. But the USCIS still balked. “Everything depended on which official you happened to be dealing with that day,” Wheeler said. “This one just said, ‘How do I know these people are really your wife’s children?’” Wheeler presented documents showing they were, but that wasn’t satisfactory. DNA tests would have to be taken in order to prove parentage. But where does one get DNA tests done in a country like Nepal? Answer: One doesn’t. So, test kits had to be shipped to Nepal at a cost of about $1,200.

The USCIS’s runarounds delayed Wheeler’s homecoming for two weeks, during which he watched the elections in Iraq on television with his in-laws. Although they weren’t particularly interested in the elections, he insisted they watch at least some of the coverage. Like many Hindus in Nepal, Wheeler’s in-laws feel deep cultural and religious antipathy toward Muslims. When a group of Nepali workers were beheaded in Iraq last year, Hindus destroyed Muslim businesses in Nepal. Wheeler discovered from conversations with his in-laws that this anti-Muslim prejudice influenced their view of the war in Iraq. For instance, they believed that Iraq had a hand in 9/11 (a belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still held by many Americans). “Muslims are many bad men” is how Wheeler’s brother-in-law summed up his feelings.

But the Nepali people share at least one commonality with Iraqis: Both are struggling with the difficulties of democracy. Until quite recently, Nepal was a constitutional monarchy. It had a parliament and a king—King Gyanendra, to be precise. Unlike today’s European royalty, King Gyanendra is not merely a ceremonial artifact, much less a tabloid curiosity. He actually wields power in the government.

Gyanendra assumed power under circumstances that call to mind European kings of old: In 2001, the sitting king, Gyanendra’s brother, and all of the king’s heirs were murdered by the king’s son, Prince Dipendra, who then committed suicide. Gyanendra was hastily enthroned. In the days following, rioters greeted their new king by throwing stones at the palace. The army had to be called in to take control of Katmandu.

The Maoists, members of a guerilla movement in Nepal who are modeled after the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru (and, ironically, are not affiliated with China), had been fighting for six years to overthrow the constitutional monarchy. They escalated their attacks on the government upon Gyanendra coming to power. In response, Gyanendra designated the Maoists a terrorist group and got a thumbs-up from Washington. Human-rights abuses were reported from both sides of the conflict.

The leaders of Nepal’s parliament brokered a short cease-fire with the Maoists in the summer of 2004, but it soon fell apart. On November 26, 2004, Gyanendra declared Nepal was in a state of emergency. In 1960, Gyanendra’s father had made a similar decree and thereby ended Nepal’s nascent democracy. It took 30 years for democracy to return to Nepal.

On Tuesday, February 1, Wheeler arrived at the airport in Katmandu with one of his stepdaughters. USCIS had decided finally that only one could return with him; the other would have to wait six more months. When Wheeler reached the ticket counter, he was told that all flights out of Nepal had been canceled. Early that morning, King Gyanendra had dismissed Nepal’s parliament; arrested several party leaders, including the prime minister; shut down all the phone lines; blocked Internet access; and suspended civil liberties. At the top of the list of suspended liberties was the right to criticize the king.

Later, Wheeler saw firsthand evidence of the coup: The streets were lined with soldiers in riot gear. They carried batons that were “worn from what looked like a lot of use.” Wheeler saw a group of protesters on one street corner. He was surprised the soldiers weren’t rushing in to disperse them, but then he noticed that they were marching in support of the king. He saw no one willing to contradict that point of view, at least not in public.

Wheeler spent the next four days waiting to leave Nepal. He had no contact with the outside world. The U.S. Embassy scanned a letter he wrote to his colleagues at work and then sent it in an e-mail. In the letter, he asked that somebody contact his wife and let her know what was happening.

Wheeler says he wasn’t frightened, because he had a plan if violence broke out: He would drive his rented motorcycle, with his stepdaughter on back, to the southern border and escape into India. Fortunately, the plan proved unnecessary. He flew out of Nepal with his stepdaughter the following Friday.

Coming in the shadow of the Iraqi election and President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, the coup in Nepal received scant attention in U.S. and foreign media. In that way, it seems, the timing of the coup was fortunate. Could it have been more than a coincidence?

Wheeler is skeptical. “The world doesn’t care what happens in Nepal,” he said. “The U.S. government came out and said that the king shouldn’t have done what he did, but nothing is going to come from it.”

If Nepal were sitting on a lake of oil, Wheeler believes, things would be different. As it is, Nepal’s Hindu population doesn’t even eat beef, said Wheeler, “so we can’t even put McDonald’s over there.”