Nepal on the brink

Maya G Kumar
23 April 2006

There they were, the angry young Nepalis, throwing stones at nervous, and increasingly furious, policemen. Slogans were shouted, tires burnt, there was some occasional looting, bits of arson. And then came the order to the troops to retaliate, first beating the demonstrators viciously with batons, and eventually opening fire. There were injuries, deaths and more public rage.

Over the last two weeks, as the street protests in Nepal built up, calling upon the king to step down, there was the weird sense that this is what history does best: repeat itself.

On 21 April 2006, King Gyanendra finally announced that he was retreating to his palace as constitutional monarch, and wanted the political parties to nominate a new prime minister. It was the replay of all that had happened sixteen years ago: the protests, the initial state repression, and eventually, the king's capitulation.

But this time round, the protests have not stopped. Political leaders say that people will risk both baton and bullet until democracy has been truly secured. This time, they will ensure that there is no longer a political space for Nepal’s king . The Nepali people want a new constitution, one that will end a system where a despot royal can dismiss elected governments and grab power.

openDemocracy writers analyse the crisis of democracy in Nepal

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's war without end"
(April 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta "Nepal's civil war: from security to politics"
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the 'international community'"
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (July 2005)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude"
(January 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit & Maryann Bird, "Nepal: the underbelly of the beast" (April 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the rising"
(April 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal"
(April 2006)

As yet, the king seems determined to be obdurate. But for how long? Public rage, when it no longer fears the state, can be an overpowering beast. Already, fourteen protestors have died and several hundred injured, while Kathmandu reels under a shortage of essential items. Perhaps it is time for the king to listen to those shouts, the ones demanding that he leave.

But this battle for a new constitution is only the first of many challenges Nepal will face to prevent the failings of its past.

Nepal’s leaders have to show greater maturity. After their victory in 1990, the political parties had proceeded to commit the worst kind of infanticide, brutally murdering a nascent democracy. Avarice and political ambition made them forget that it was the people that had brought them to power. The stranglehold of Kathmandu's powerful elite upon the economy continued. The roads still petered out a few kilometers from the capital. There was still a shortage of water, electricity, schools, hospitals or jobs. Nepali women continued to be trafficked into brothels in India.

Meanwhile, Nepal descended into political chaos. There were unseemly quarrels, governments toppled, parties split, new prime ministers took over, briefly, until they too were deposed. Thirteen governments were formed and disbanded since the 1991 general election. The incapacity of political leaders to deliver change led to loss of faith as the Nepali people began to say that almost all their leaders were motivated by corruption, that politicians tumbled over each other for important posts only to loot the national treasury.

In 1995, a faction of the communist party led by former parliamentarian Pushpa Kamal Dahal, formed the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists). Dahal became Comrade Prachanda and retreated to the hills, where along with his supporters, he plotted regime change, revolution and power to the people.

Even as the political leaders in Kathmandu continued to walk through the revolving door to the prime-minister's chair, the Maoists began to gain control of all the remote districts, where governance had failed. Initially, it was the police that came under attack, symbols of the state and a source of weapons. But gradually, political workers, suspected informers, so-called class enemies, were tortured and murdered. And there were other human-rights abuses, including extortion, recruitment of children, forced indoctrination. Retaliation by government forces led to even greater violations including summary execution and torture.

By the time King Gyanendra took over in June 2001 after the death of his brother, King Birendra, thousands had died because of the Maoist rebellion, many of them civilians. In November 2001, King Gyanendra mobilised the Royal Nepal Army. Fighting increased dramatically, as did the number of casualties. What is worse, Nepal began to report the largest number of enforced "disappearances" in the world. In almost all cases, the disappeared person was last seen in the custody of government security forces. Troops, who thought they had the blessing of the king, committed terrible abuses. Soon, civilians were caught up in the middle of a vicious battle. Refusing to help the Maoists put them at risk of ruthless retribution; helping them left them at the mercy of an equally ruthless army.

In February 2005, King Gyanendra, empowered by the constitution, declared an emergency, dismissed the civilian government, arrested leaders of all major political parties, placed thousands of activists in jail, and imposed press censorship. Faced with a war that was approaching stalemate, he was determined to quash the rebellion, even if it meant violating international humanitarian law. Criticisms and warnings from human-rights groups and the international community were met with what can only be ascribed to royal disdain.

Despite his defiance of the world community, what King Gyanendra did manage to do was to end whatever support he might have had among the people of Nepal. Those who in the years of dysfunctional political leadership had thought wistfully of the monarchy, believing that the king could perhaps solve their problems and end the war with the Maoists, soon joined in the movement to remove him from power. The political parties - forced to abandon their squabbles now that they had all been kicked out of power, and united afresh in their dislike of the king - took to the streets in protest. Once again, Kathmandu is a sea of protestors armed only with flags, slogans and banners. And once again, they are met with gunshots and beatings.

King Gyanendra wants to remain a constitutional monarch. The Maoists will not settle for anything less than a new constitution that will end the monarchy. Will a consensus emerge? Or will Nepal fall hostage yet again to intransigence and political ambition?

Whether it is the Nepali Congress, the royalists, the communists or the Maoists, this is their chance to make amends. This time, they must not blame India, China or the United States for their failings. They must take charge.

And there is another promise that they need to make, now. That all officials and troops who were responsible for human-rights abuses will be held to account; that is the only way to restore confidence in the law. The Maoists too have to be held accountable for the crimes they committed over the last decade. Unless this is done, members of the Maoist cadre that committed those abuses will continue such practices even if they come into power.

History has repeated itself. The Nepali people have, once again, shown that they want democracy. There are hundreds of thousands of Nepalis out in the streets. Let their political leaders hear them well. This time, let them win the democracy they deserve.

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