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Nepal: Denunciation Gives Way To Deliberation

Nepal: Denunciation Gives Way To Deliberation

By Sanjay Upadhya

Nearly three months after King Gyanendra took over full executive powers, sparking widespread international condemnation, his government can finally take satisfaction in having presented its side of the story to the world.

In an address to a summit of Asian-African leaders in Jakarta last week, the Nepalese monarch said he was forced to act on February 1 in order to prevent the Maoist insurgency-wracked nation from further sliding down to chaos and anarchy.

During bilateral meetings with key counterparts on the sidelines of the Jakarta summit and the subsequent Asian economic conference on the Chinese island of Boao, the monarch reiterated the urgency of international support for his efforts to stabilize Nepal and reactivate the democratic process.

On the surface, at least, the royal effort bore fruit. King Gyanendra’s talks with Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh in Jakarta restored a vital channel of communication virtually severed since New Delhi’s harsh criticism of the royal takeover.

In this sense, the process of Nepal’s international rehabilitation may have begun. For this, the kingdom owes much to the finesse of Chinese diplomacy. While key Western governments joined India in a crescendo of condemnation, China described the monarch’s action as an internal affair of Nepal.

In the ensuing days, the fallaciousness of the argument in certain circles in Kathmandu and New Delhi that China’s warming ties with India would somehow limit Beijing’s diplomatic options vis-à-vis the kingdom was rebuffed. From Kathmandu’s perspective, competition and cooperation between the two Asian giants would best be left to New Delhi and Beijing to calibrate.

Following Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing’s visit to the kingdom earlier this month, Kathmandu’s emphasis was on strengthening economic and commercial relations with the world’s fourth largest economy.

Recognizing that China's effort to modernize Tibet would help the kingdom develop its own remote northern districts, Kathmandu stepped up the pace of consultations. A Chinese delegation held talks in Kathmandu on bilateral trade and possible areas of investment, tourism promotion, development of physical infrastructure and setting up of a special economic zone (SEZ).

Specifically, Nepal hopes to benefit from the Gormo-Lhasa railway project that will link China with Tibet's heartland. Beijing is working to complete the project this year, two years ahead of schedule, and hopes to bring in 5.64 million tourists over the next five years. A Lhasa-Kathmandu bus service, scheduled to being May 1, aims to benefit from the impending tourism boom.

The SEZ will encompass districts close to Tibet where both governments will have special laws, special taxation structure and special investment policies. Nepal hopes this would provide its products a wider market.

Admittedly, these developments, along with Nepal’s emphasis on boosting trade and commercial ties with Pakistan, encouraged New Delhi to review its early hard line against the royal regime.

Many Indian military and security analysts saw New Delhi’s imposition of an arms embargo as playing into the hands of Nepal’s Maoist rebels. New Delhi, according to this line of thinking, has a vital stake in helping Nepal quell the revolt to prevent a spillover into parts of India where radical leftist groups are active. Despite its improving relations with China and Pakistan, furthermore, India was in no mood to cede to either country the opportunity to expand military ties.

How the resumption of the New Delhi-Kathmandu dialogue will influence the tenor and substance of Indian policy in the days ahead would depend, among other things, on the posture of other Indian parties in the ruling coalition. The communist parties backing Prime Minister Singh’s government from outside have already sought an official clarification on India’s decision to lift the military embargo.

In addition, the palace’s moves after May 1, when the three month emergency expires, will be keenly observed in New Delhi, which views constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy as the twin pillars of the kingdom’s stability.

The king, of course, can choose from several options. He can lift the emergency for a short period and then re-impose it. Alternatively, the palace can try to get a second phase of emergency rule approved by the upper house of parliament. The support of the 10 royal appointees in the chamber would not be enough for that purpose. Reaching out to the Nepali Congress and the United Marxist-Leninists for help is by no means easy. Trade unions affiliated with the two biggest parties are planning a fresh round of agitation from May 1, while the five major political parties are working out on a common agenda for the restoration of democratic rights.

In the absence of a credible plan of action, the centerpiece of the mainstream parties’ agenda – the restoration of parliament dissolved in 2002 – is certain to irritate the palace, which sees it as a thinly guised effort to reduce the crown’s powers and prerogatives.

Seizing the middle ground, the palace could invite representatives of the major political parties to join a new government. Each option, at best, would merely scratch the surface, since the overriding priority remains the resolution of the Maoist insurgency.

Like their compatriots, army generals have conceded that the insurgency does not have a military solution. Their effort is to weaken the rebels to a point where they agree to return to the negotiating table. In recent weeks, the rebels, mired in internal rifts, have suffered significant battlefield losses. This has not prevented Maoist supremo Prachanda from ruling out the prospect of immediate talks with the royal regime. But, then, one should note the operative word “immediate” coming from an elusive leader who has perfected ambiguity to an art form.


Sanjay Upadhya is a Nepalese journalist currently based in the United States

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