Nepal - Perils Of International Ambivalence
Nepal: Perils Of International Ambivalence
By Sanjay Upadhya
Amid a paralyzing internal political standoff and palpable international ambivalence, revenge killings sparked by vigilante justice threaten to accelerate Nepal’s slide into chaos.
Political parties, still haunted by their three-decade marginalization by an all-powerful palace that ended in 1990, are perhaps naturally inclined to see every step of an assertive monarch as “regressive”. Their stance, while understandable, is nonetheless unsettling. Even the worst critics of King Gyanendra’s February 1 takeover of full executive powers, after all, cannot deny that Nepal needs to be lifted from its worst crisis in history.
To be sure, there is enough blame to go around. The country could have continued its endless debate on the best course of action against the raging Maoist insurgency. But for how long before all the interlocutors were consumed by the conflagration?
While much of the world has denounced King Gyanendra’s assumption of full executive powers, key capitals still seem busy weighing the wider impact of the monarch’s action against the longer term implications of a consummation of the first communist revolution since the end of the cold war. Pronouncements on isolating the royal regime by cutting off all forms of assistance are challenged from within by pleas for engagement with the palace to save Nepal and stabilize South Asia.
The king, for his part, has set out to reactive the democratic process by announcing elections to municipal bodies within a year. He has reinstated the posts of zonal commissioners in an effort to streamline the central administration’s control and coordination in the districts, where the insurgency is most virulent. The appointment of zonal commissioners, considered pillars of the partyless Panchayat system, has brought back bitter memories in the democracy camp, many constituents of which remember them as tools with which the palace enforced its rule. What must not be lost sight of, however, is the fact that former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the king’s fiercest democratic critic, not long ago conceded that zonal commissioners were one of the few features of partyless rule that worked and should not have been scrapped. His point that the absence of such a mechanism was partly to blame for an effective early counterinsurgency operation is worth remembering.
The leaders of the major political parties see the recent moves as part of a “conspiracy” to legitimize the royal takeover. Their call for a common agenda against the palace's attempt to regain the power it lost in 1990 has drowned sane pleas from within their ranks for conciliation. Clearly, the obsession with the notion that a monarchy genuinely seeking a more constructive role in governance is somehow at the root of Nepal’s problems stands in the way of a settlement.
In immediate terms, the state of emergency, detention of political leaders and imposition of censorship, among other things, have limited Nepal’s room for engagement with its international friends. While some of them are being loosened, these restrictions need to be lifted in tandem with signs of improvements in the security situation before the restoration of the democratic process can begin. The reactivation of democratic institutions – through municipal polls and then ultimately national elections within the three-year time frame laid out by the king -- would depend on the cooperation of political parties and the Maoists. Both are facing their own moments of truth. The demand for a leadership change is gaining ground in all three major mainstream parties: the Nepali Congress, the breakaway Nepali Congress (Democratic) and the United Marxist Leninists. Younger leaders are becoming more vociferous in demanding, among other things, changes in the parties’ internal functioning and a re-examination of the relationship between the leadership and the people. Efforts to reunite the two Congress factions have gained pace.
The Maoists, who successfully exploited divisions in the mainstream parties, now find themselves mired in their own conflict. Indications of a moderate-hardliner split were sufficiently evident during the two failed peace talks in 2001 and 2003. After the royal takeover, government and security officials have been claiming that the rifts have deepened to the point where battles between rebel ranks could break out any moment. Even if the split between Maoist supremo Prachanda and the party’s chief ideologue, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, is not as damaging as the official line suggests, recent pronouncements by both men signal some level of serious discord.
This churning process within the mainstream parties and the insurgents would have to run its course before its impact on the national scene can be gauged. The international community does not have the luxury of time. What the Maoists represent may be a historically discredited ideology. In Nepal, mired in deepening inequalities of all kind, it retains its luster. The message and method of the rebels are two different things that need to be seen for what they are. Specifically, the rebels’ shrewdness for ambiguity must be taken more seriously. Addressing the Nepalese people and the political parties, Prachanda has appealed for support for the Maoists’ campaign for “full democracy” through “the twin objectives of a constituent assembly and a multiparty people's republic."
To an international audience, Prachanda has described his “People's War” as “a totally new 21st century war [also against] the evil of the imperialist world, the hypocrisy of so-called democracy that a superpower like the U.S. represents.” (TIMEAsia, April 25, 2005).
A state on the verge of failure gripped by an ideologically driven agenda for international struggle -- could the perils of the world’s ambivalence be any clearer?