Nepal encompasses an area of 147,181 sq. km (56,136 sq. mi.), about the size of the U.S. state of Tennessee. Its capital, Kathmandu, has an estimated population of 2.2 million people. Nepal's terrain consists of a flat river plain of the Ganges in south, a central hill region, and the rugged Himalayas in north. It shares its borders with China to the north and India to the south.
The 2007 estimated population of the entire country was 29 million, with 86% of its population living in rural areas. Ethnic groups in Nepal include: Brahman, Chetri, Newar, Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Sherpa, Tharu, and others. Nepal's principle religions are: Hinduism (81%), Buddhism (11%), and Islam (4%).
In 1951, the Nepalese monarch ended the century-old system of rule by hereditary premiers and instituted a cabinet system of government. Reforms in 1990 established a multi-party democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. A Maoist insurgency, launched in 1996, gained traction and threatened to bring down the regime, especially after a negotiated cease-fire between the Maoists and government forces broke down in August 2003. In 2001, ten members of the royal family, including the king and queen were killed by a member of the royal family, who then took his own life. In October 2002, the new king dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet after they dissolved the parliament and were subsequently unable to hold elections because of the ongoing insurgency. While stopping short of reestablishing parliament, the king in June 2004 reinstated the most recently elected prime minister who formed a four-party coalition government.
Citing dissatisfaction with the government's lack of progress in addressing the Maoist insurgency and corruption, the king dissolved the government (February 2005), declared a state of emergency, imprisoned party leaders, and assumed power. The king's government subsequently released party leaders and officially ended the state of emergency in May 2005, but the monarch retained absolute power until April 2006. The king allowed parliament to reconvene in April 2006. Following a November 2006 peace accord, an interim constitution was promulgated and the Maoists were allowed to enter parliament in January 2007.
The peace accord calls for the creation of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly elections, already twice delayed, are set for April 2008.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 2008/03; 2007/11