Nepal is teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state as a result of the 1 February military takeover by King Gyanendra. A new phase in the nine-year civil war is imminent, one with the potential to create a regional hotspot that could drag in India and China.
The king has marginalised the political parties and argues that he has cleared a single front to take on the Maoists in an attempt to end the nine-year war that has claimed 11,200 lives. The king is in direct command and the army is the de facto administrator. For thirty months since Gyanendra first sacked the elected government on 4 October 2002 Nepal has been in a constitutional impasse. Now the king has invalidated the constitution and brought about the death of democracy.
The military aid provided to Nepals government by India, the United States and Britain mean that these three countries were already heavily involved in Nepals conflict. Yet each denounced the King Gyanendras takeover as a major blow to the consolidation of democracy in Nepal. The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, deemed it a serious setback for the country itself.
If the consolidation of democracy in Nepal is indeed of paramount concern to foreign states and international institutions, then their focus ought to be on a democratic resolution of the civil war inside Nepal. Almost all major studies conducted since the insurgency began in February 1996 from the International Crisis Group (ICG) to UN visitors and parties to the conflict themselves share two conclusions: that the root of Nepals crisis is socio-political rather than ideological, and that there is no military solution.
A national tragedy
The Maoists who have been fighting the central government in Kathmandu have received criticism for their blatant abuses of human rights, their outrageous campaign of terror inflicted upon the ordinary people in whose name they claim to be fighting, and for their ambition to impose a new peoples republic according to the model of Maos China on a world where such retro-regimes appear discredited. Yet their immediate demand is for a peace process involving negotiations, and this is a test of the governments own seriousness: does it desire a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the conflict? The Maoists call deserves a clear, unequivocal response.
The last negotiations were held in August 2003, at the end of a seven-month ceasefire. Then, the Maoists scaled down their original demand for a republic to a proposed election for a constituent assembly to draft a new Nepali constitution. They had publicly declared that they would respect any new constitution agreed through this democratic process, even if it were to allow the monarchy to maintain a constitutional role.
In the event, negotiations broke down on 27 August 2003 when the government installed by the king following his takeover of power ten months earlier rejected the Maoists demands while the Maoists refused demands that they disarm.
Now, the Maoists emboldened by their increasing control of swathes of Nepali territory outside the major urban settlements, amounting to 75% of the national territory respond to the kings suspension of democracy by suggesting an alliance of all political forces and the abolition of the monarchy. But their spokesperson has indicated that there is room for negotiation.
The result of the kings intransigence and the Maoists confidence is political and military stalemate. Politically, the rebels cant be expected to abandon their rebellion and surrender their arms, while the king cant be expected to surrender his own future by conceding a constituent assembly that is likely to draft a republican constitution a credible fear given the massive unpopularity the monarchy has suffered since Prince Dipendras bizarre massacre of King Birendra and eleven other members of the royal family in June 2001.
Militarily, each side admits the impossibility of complete victory yet neither will envisage giving up the struggle. King Gyanendras new promise of a fight to the end makes a break in the patter unlikely. The kings centralisation of power reflected in the temporary detention of political leaders like the prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba may be justified as a simplification of a complex power-struggle in order to confront the Maoists, but by suppressing political parties he has given the Maoists what they wanted all along an alliance of political forces against the institution of the monarchy.
A global issue
If this stalemate is not halted, Nepal will spiral further into the condition of a failed state which in many respects it already is. If forces inside Nepal cannot prevent this, can its neighbours? India cannot afford to see mayhem next door to its sensitive, populous states of Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Sikkim; these Indian regions have huge numbers of citizens with close ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and (most important) economic associations with the Nepalese.
Similarly, China would not wish to see a persistently troubled Nepal on the borders of Tibet, whose people have close affinities with many Nepalese hill communities and historic cross-border trade links with Nepal. The strategic interests of India and China lie in having a stable, peaceful and democratic Nepal on their borders.
The United States and Britain too have moral obligations to end the unnecessary conflict in Nepal, especially when the path beyond war seems clearly to lie in the democratic drafting of a new constitution to be approved by popular mandate.
Beyond the influence of these four powerful nation-states, the United Nations could also play a crucial role in ending the Nepalese conflict. Kofi Annan has already proposed to mediate, but his March 2004 offer (readily accepted by the Maoists) was declined by the government, who said it could resolve the crisis without outside help. There is an opportunity for a more extensive UN initiative, perhaps along the lines of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), guided by the aim of ensuring a safe and peaceful transition to a free, just and representative democracy that could put Nepal on the track to stability and development.
Any such UN initiative would be contingent upon Chinas constructive engagement in a process that included American, British and Indian involvement. China traditionally maintains a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, a necessary posture given the sensitivity surrounding Tibet and Taiwan. Thus, the success of a UN intervention in Nepal depends on the other three powers convincing China that an escalation of conflict in a country adjoining Tibet is definitely not in Chinas strategic interest.
In the post-9/11 world, democracy and freedom are being promoted as major guarantors of human and national security. To deny it in Nepal could bring regional insecurity with global ramifications. The world cannot afford another failed state.
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