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Pulling Nepal Back From The Precipice

Pulling Nepal Back From The Precipice

By Sanjay Upadhya

Having endured scathing criticism from much of the world for his February 1 decision to take direct control of the government, Nepal’s King Gyanendra now has a special opportunity to present his case on the sidelines of two major regional forums later this month.

The monarch is scheduled to participate in the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Asian-African summit, considered by many the precursor to the Non-Aligned Movement, on April 22-23 in Bangdung, Indonesia. The following day he is to arrive in Boao, in the Chinese province of Hainan, to attend what is described as the Asian equivalent of the Davos economic forum.

The stakes for the Nepalese entourage could not be higher. The detention of political leaders, declaration of a state of emergency, and imposition of harsh censorship has isolated the royal government. Britain and India have suspended military aid to help fight the nine-year-old Maoist insurgency, which has claimed close to 12,000 lives, while the United States is mulling similar action. Nordic governments have announced a freeze in further development assistance until democracy is restored. The Royal Nepalese Army has come under heavy criticism at the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva over reports of abuses during its counterinsurgency operations.

The government remains defiant amid the international outcry. In a televised address to the nation on February 1, King Gyanendra justified his takeover, saying the political parties had misgoverned the country since the restoration of democracy in 1990 and blaming them for the rise of the Maoists. He said he needed three years to restore peace, put democracy back on track, and hold fresh elections. He asserted that he needed to suspend civil liberties to focus on the fight against the insurgents. That continues to be the message coming from senior Nepalese ministers and officials.

Predictably, the estranged political parties have decided to mount active resistance against the royal government, which is reminiscent of their conduct during the last opportunity Nepal had to restore peace. In 2003, the mainstream parties, while continuing to voice support for a favorable outcome in the government-Maoist negotiations that were under way, focused their energy on confrontation with the palace, which had just stepped into day-to-day politics for the first time in 12 years. While blaming the obstinacy of the palace-appointed government and “foreign powers” for the collapse of the peace process, the Maoists also lashed out against the mainstream parties’ demand to restore parliament and introduce reforms through amendments “to the old moribund constitution” they had declared war against.

The Maoists, who rebuffed subsequent governments’ peace overtures by insisting they would only talk directly with the king, evidently see in the current crisis an opportunity to mount their much-vaunted strategic offensive against what they consider a tottering state. The government, for its part, appears determined to inflict a decisive blow on the rebels in an effort to force them to the negotiating table.

How far the military’s recent battlefield victories against the Maoists and reports of a deepening schism within rebel ranks will change the dynamics of the nine-year-old conflict remains unclear. There are ominous signs the international community must not ignore. In parts of the country, armed villagers have begun attacking those they suspect of being Maoists. The rebels, for their part, have retaliated against those they consider state-sponsored vigilantes. Amid the mayhem, thousands of villagers have fled across Nepal’s southern border into India.

Regional alignments have been rapidly shifting. India’s initial tough response to the royal takeover, including its decision to halt military assistance, has given way to a sobering recognition in political, diplomatic and academic circles in New Delhi of the possibility of China and Pakistan stepping into the vacuum. Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing became the highest ranking foreign leader to visit the kingdom since the royal takeover. In the aftermath of Li’s visit, Nepalese and Chinese officials have stepped up deliberations on various sectors – from transportation to trade -- signaling a desire on both sides to offset the kingdom’s traditional dependence on India. Before Li’s visit, Nepal and Pakistan held their first joint economic commission meeting in 10 years. Islamabad extended a $5 million credit line for boosting the kingdom's industrial and commercial development and growth and has promised to provide military assistance if requested.

In the midst of these fast-moving events, a credible roadmap for renewal has become all the more urgent. Restoring the status quo ante cannot lay the basis for an effective agenda for change. The sturdiness of democratic institutions can be ensured only by restoring the people's faith in them. Theoretically, elected representatives can provide people-oriented governance, but the Maoists have vowed to sabotage fresh elections. The restoration of parliament, dissolved three years ago by an elected prime minister exercising his constitutional prerogative, has been advanced as a way out of the crisis. Indeed, such a move may provide the framework for creating a broad-based government. Considering the skirmishes and deadlock successive sessions of parliament have witnessed in past years, advocates of this option need to be more forthright on how a broad-based government would develop a political, security and socio-economic strategy to address the insurgency and the underlying issues.

To the extent that a reform agenda has been formulated, it is centered on constitutional changes to limit royal powers, ensure civilian control over the military, and codify the supremacy of parliament over the palace. Blaming the current crisis on royal assertiveness would be a monumental abdication of responsibility by the other principal players. If the political mainstream and sections of civil society are so convinced that the palace is indeed the problem, then a more credible approach would be deliberations with the Maoists on the structures and sustenance of a republican Nepal. A constitutional monarchy that would exist merely to bear silent witness to the partisan politics of the day is not what Nepal needs.

King Gyanendra has put his throne on the line at a time when Nepal is facing the most serious crisis of its 237-year existence. This is an opportunity for the Nepalese people and their international well-wishers to launch efforts to pull the kingdom back from the precipice. The obsession with viewing the king’s intervention as little more than a palace power grab will not help such efforts.


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