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Fresh Breeze in the Himalayas

IT took two months of sometimes violent confrontation with army and police, but Nepalese activists succeeded in forcing King Birendra to loosen his grip on power and agree to multi-party politics. In line with traditions long dead in most of the world, the monarch has been the source of all authority in Nepal, tightly controlling the National Assembly. Elections were ``nonpartisan.'' As with autocracies elsewhere, corruption flourished.

That should now change, but it won't be easy. The newly legalized opposition is far from unified. Its coalition partners include moderate members of the Nepalese Congress Party and leftist radicals, and all want a say in shaping the new government. Representatives of the old system will try to cling to what remains of their authority, too.

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New elections and constitutional revision lie ahead. They're not scheduled as yet, but an aroused public wants them as soon as possible. Birendra and his top aides have met with opposition representatives to discuss a peaceful transition - a process of consultation which, in itself, remarkably reverses past practice in Nepal.

For now, the king remains a powerful figure. But hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Kathmandu clearly indicated a changed attitude toward the monarch. Past protests had centered on other officials; this time Birendra himself was a target. Still, most of Nepal's 17 million people eke out a living in the countryside, and millions continue to believe the king is divine.

For the sake of national unity, Birendra will undoubtedly remain on the throne, though the throne will move into the background, as it has in other constitutional monarchies.

The opposition is determined to take charge of an interim government. It should be given the chance to prove it can lead Nepal toward greater pluralism, freer expression, and opportunity.

The Nepalese people, among the globe's poorest, badly need these fruits of freedom.

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