While Nepal is an ancient land, it has only been a country for about 300 years. Independent hill states ruled the area until the late 18th century, when Prince Prithvi Narayan Shah united all of what is now Nepal. The nation became a constitutional monarchy in 1950, before slipping into a dictatorship eight years later. Demonstrations in the late 1980s against oppressive rule resulted in multiparty elections in May 1991. The transition to democracy has not been an easy one, however. The country is plagued by an ineffective bureaucracy, corruption and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
Partly because of these problems, Maoist rebels based in western Nepal have been fighting a small-scale war against the central government since the mid-1990s.
In June 2001 the popular King Birendra and much of the royal family was killed in the palace by a gunman, apparently the crown prince, who himself died of a gunshot wound sustained that night (believed to be self-inflicted). Public grief and conspiracy theories about the unknown motivation of the massacre paralyzed the country for several weeks. The country's monarch is now the late king's brother, Gyanendra.