The Prince and the PR Man
|Our Correspondent||Apr 1, 2009|
The British comic troupe Monty Python famously described Aristotle as being 'a bugger for the bottle' in their cheeky Philosopher's Song sketch.
But had the Pythons' Flying Circus set their skits in Singapore, they might've found comic inspiration in the musings of one Clement Mesenas and Nepal's deposed Crown Prince Paras Bikram Shah, in Singapore's New Paper these past few days.
There, in all its glory, was an 'exclusive' interview by Mesenas with Paras, infamously Nepal's own 'bugger for the bottle' who's now exiled to Singapore after revolutionary Maoist republicans took control of Nepal.
As long-suffering Nepalis know too well, this one-time would-be 'living god' Paras doesn't mind the hard stuff himself, preferring the transformational Johnnie Walker Black Label. The patrons and owners of various Kathmandu nightclubs know better, to their peril, for the Harley-riding prince and his friends used to let lawlessly loose on the town after a big night on the sauce at the palace. Nepalis have died because of Paras' carousing.
No longer. The grasping Shahs were removed of their entitlement, their monarchy and Nepal last year by Prachanda and his fellow ascetic travellers. But Paras was and remains one of Nepal's most reviled figures. Unlike his father, who 'retired' quietly as a commoner to a villa outside Kathmandu, Paras felt compelled to seek comfortable refuge in Singapore, where he drives an Audi and a Lamborghini (provided by relatives, he claims) and where one hopes he has developed rather more sober pursuits than the boozing and gun-toting he was notorious for in Kathmandu.
In Mesenas' interview, which seems designed to re-launch Paras as a political player in the country's tortuous struggle for power, Paras outlined a web of palace intrigues which culminated in the infamous 'Blood On the Snows' regicide of June 2001 at Kathmandu's Narayanhity Palace by, as goes the official version of the tragic events, Paras' predecessor as Nepal's Crown Prince, his cousin Dipendra.
But this wasn't just a regicide - the act of killing a monarch - in this case Nepal's popular King Birendra. It seems it was also a patricide (Birendra was Dipendra's father), a matricide (his mother Aishwarya was wasted), a sororicide (his late sister Princess Shruti), a fratricide (his brother Nirajan too), an avunculicide (his murdered uncle Prince Dhirendra) and whatever the correct 'cides are for aunts and in-laws and cousins. There were ten royal victims in total, including Dipendra himself, who survived the massacre for 56 hours to become King before succumbing to his wounds. So add another regicide as well and, per that much-disputed official version, Dipendra's suicide.
In the Mesenas interview at Paras' Singapore penthouse, Paras says he decided to open up because "the Nepali people need to know the truth." The New Paper writes that Paras "now wants to clear his name" about "the ugly rumours of his involvement in the incident."
But what truth? Such is their hatred of Paras, most Nepalis conspiratorially believe he and his deposed father, the ex-King Gyanendra, had a role in engineering the massacre of their relations as part of a power grab to put their part of the family in line in for the throne. But these seemed details too far for Mesenas, in the glossing of Paras' dubious past.
In the interview, Paras claims his royal relations had been arguing over an arms deal for the Royal Nepali army. Dipendra favoured a German assault rifle, whereas the King fancied an American supplier. Paras seems to suggest his cousin would've earned a massive kickback if the army had gone with the German weapons. Mesenas cites Dipendra's other reasons; that Birendra never consulted Dipendra in 1990 when transforming Nepal from the absolute monarchy Diprendra was set to inherit to a quasi-democratic constitutional monarchy. And then there was Dipendra much-discussed romance with a member from the Shahs' rival Rana clan, which apparently displeased his parents.
That's all very well, and the articles' publication have titillated the Nepali intelligentsia, those at least who are able to access the internet during the average four hours a day the monarchy's Maoist successors turn the power on, in one of the world's poorest and least technologically-enabled countries.
But what is more interesting about Mesenas' interview, and revealing so as to place, at the very least, a critical shadow over its credibility, was not so much that Paras was talking about the massacre publicly for the first time, it was that he decided to do so in Singapore. By all accounts not a particularly bright man, the 37 year-old Paras would at least know, or be advised (by Mesenas?), that there are few better places to have an advantageous story published about oneself than in Singapore's clubby media, where standards and placement can depend on who you know.
The Mesenas interview with Paras was not some 'world scoop' exclusive by a respected independent journalist, inasmuch as any exist in Singapore's hyper-control regime. It was enabled by a well-practiced public relations professional – Mesenas – with a history and connections in the Singapore media extensive enough that he was able to write the piece himself, and get it published. No self-respecting media outlet would publish an article with so many holes in it, and so little context, and particularly sourced from an external contributor working in public relations. But Singapore lacks the media that most of us would recognise as reliable and independent, hence it's the perfect place to get a snowjob published.
And what better person to effect that that someone like Mesenas, the director - 'editorial and advisory' - with the Singapore public relations firm Bang, which promises 'effective media communications solutions'? (Among Bang's clients is the Singapore government's Media Development Authority, which regulates and censors Singapore's media).
Mesenas' involvement with Paras raises questions as to whether Paras, or his connections, paid or retained Bang and or Mesenas to act in his editorial interest. Is this self-serving article published in a tame newspaper – the New Paper is not the New York Times – cash for comment? It smells a lot like it. The Paras article is a great many things, and journalism is not any of them.
Asia Sentinel sent the following questions to Mesenas at Bang;
1. Are you or your firm hired or retained by Paras or related parties to him?
2. Why did you, as a PR operative, write the article, and not a journalist at The New Paper?
3. Why was there no contextual discussion in the article of the reasons why Paras now lives in Singapore, not least the charges of criminality/murder directed at him?
Mesenas responded that "he wrote the story as a practising journalist" but that he also works for the PR company Bang. He says he was "introduced to Paras and checked with The New Paper if it would be interested in a story on him. They were and Murali, its associate editor, joined me for the interview with Paras."
Mesenas claims that Paras did not retain him or Bang. "I am a PR man, new to the business (5 months) and still can't get away from being a journalist (40 years)," Mesenas says. "So you might say I am an occasional practising journalist."
The Singapore media that creates operators like Mesenas likes to think itself as probing, as challenging and as independent as the world's best media, superlatives which few Singapore-watchers outside the city-state share. Critics of the government-controlled Singapore Press Holdings, which owns the New Paper, regard its titles more as government gazettes, as handbooks on how authorities want their subjects to believe and behave, much as Pravda (truth in Russian) and Izvestia (information) operated in the old USSR.
But as Russians used to say, there was little pravda in Izvestia and izvestia in Pravda, and so too Mesenas' and Paras' day out for the New Paper. Glaringly absent from the Paras interview for anyone who knows Nepal's fatal politics, such as the 30 million Nepalis who endure it, was critical story-defining context, of meaningful examination of Paras' own brushes with crime and its role in the downfall of his family's Shah dynasty, which inflicted such ongoing misery on Nepal.
Paras is one of Nepal's most reviled men. Many Nepalis believe it was Paras' excessive, and untried, criminal behaviour that was one of the primary reasons for the Shahs' demise, and the turmoil Nepalis now endure at the hands of their dysfunctional government. This is crucial background to the Paras story, and precious little of it was discussed in the Mesenas-led piece, mostly dressed up to the unsuspecting reader as royal titillation barely a step removed from the likes of Hello Magazine.
When in Kathmandu, Crown Prince Paras of Nepal was not a living god to trifle with, especially after he'd had a big session on the bottle. Johnnie Walker Black Label is his preferred tipple and when word used to course around the bars and restaurants of Kathmandu's fashionable Babar Mahal Revisited that the 37-year-old Paras was drunk again astride his black Harley-Davidson and cruising – often armed - with his thuggish outriders, down would come the shutters on nightspots. Some clubs even employed Paras-watchers to keep an eye on his palace gates and the Babar carpark, lest the royal posse show up drunk and looking to party. Kathmandu's nightspot owners got a little sick of calling in the interior decorators the day after Paras and friends had been out on the razzle.
Nepalis know that Paras has form but his killing of Nepali folk singer Praveen Gurung is perhaps the most outrageous of the many incidents involving him. In August 2000, witnesess described a drunken Paras manhandling a waitress he wanted outside a Kathmandu casino that his father part-owned. Praveen gallantly came to her aid and, according to many witnesses, Paras was none too pleased. Paras ran Praveen over in his SUV and killed him, before he headed back to the morning-after sobriety in the sanctuary of the palace. A half-hearted police investigation into the hit and run took no action.
Mesenas, who refers to the ousted royal as 'Prince Paras' throughout his series, airs a very different take on the incident. "One rainy day, he knocked down one of Nepal's most popular musicians. The musician was riding a motorbike at the time. According to Prince Paras, the motorbike swayed suddenly in front of him, and though he stepped on the brake, he could not stop in time. He attended to the man and took him to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead on arrival. The contrite prince visited the dead man's family the next day. "I paid his wife compensation and took care of his two sons, putting them through school," he says. Mesenas and Murali then write 'all that is in the past."
Every Nepali knows that Paras killed Praveen. Some 600,000 people, their outrage uncorked by the Maoists, signed a petition to Paras' father Gyanendra days after the incident demanding legal action against him. But none was forthcoming, except a request to the errant son to reign in his drinking. A week after Praveen's death, and two days after Paras' residence was surrounded by Maoist-organised student protesters, the Nepali Patra newspaper wrote somewhat portentously;
"The murder of well-known singer and musician Praveen Gurung could prove to be costly for the Royal Palace."
"This is the third time someone, who, as member of the respected Royal Family gets an annual allowance of Rs 300,000 (his wife, Himani, gets Rs 75,000), has killed a commoner. Earlier in 1997, a Pajero driven by Paras hit and killed taxi driver Sanukaji at Putafi Sadak. A year before that, a drunk Paras driving his jeep caused a similar accident in Bharatpur, Chitwan. The people have also not forgotten the other excesses of Paras. In 1996 Paras assaulted a traffic police officer who had gone up to him to inquire about the lights used in his vehicle. About a week later, after hitting a motorcycle near Hattigauda, he went around beating people assembled at the site of the accident. The same year, he drew out a pistol and spread terror at Hotel Soaltee and then drove to the Everest Casino where he fired several rounds in the air. A year later, he drove to the police headquarters and beat up a sentry on duty. Again in 1999 he struck a police officer with the butt of his gun and drove away after threatening him with a machine gun. A month later he went to the Durbar Marg police station and thrashed the policeman standing guard. On election day in May last year he went around driving his car threatening all police officers he came across."
Paras is not a nice man. Not that his Singapore cipher Clement Mesenas – or the New Paper - seem to want anyone to know that.
Then again, maybe Mesenas is simply being a PR man, looking after his new friend. Or is it his client?