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Nepal: Cynicism Amid Competing Visions

Nepal: Cynicism Amid Competing Visions For The Future


By Sanjay Upadhya

The range of reaction to King Gyanendra’s announcement last week lifting the state of emergency he imposed on February 1 after dismissing Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government and taking over the reins of government underscores the cynicism festering in Nepal’s political discourse.

Discussions have centered on the monarch’s motives for lifting the emergency two days before it was scheduled to expire. Was Indian diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of the king’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Jakarta so untenable that he had no choice?

Did the purported “failure of the China card” – advanced most notably by analysts in New Delhi -- push the palace to the wall? Or was the royal announcement part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to hoodwink the international community and impose some form of “guided democracy,” as the mainstream Nepalese parties suspect?

The idea that the monarch’s move might be a genuine effort at bolstering national reconciliation never seems to have gotten off the ground. For now, at least, there is some semblance of politics as usual. Thousands of party cadres and activists have taken to the streets of Kathmandu demanding the release of some 2,000 political detainees, the restoration of civil liberties and the withdrawal of media censorship.

On the extreme left of the spectrum, after suffering a series of battlefield blows, the Maoists have struck against the royal regime by murdering a peace monitor it had recently appointed. Maoist supremo Prachanda, who has for the first time publicly acknowledged deep rifts with the party’s chief ideologue, Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai, has shed little of his ideological defiance. Rebel commanders, after all, must be able to produce some form of victory to shore up the morale of the base.

The international community has shown a welcome measure of engagement, with the appointment of Ian Martin, a former secretary-general of Amnesty International, as the head of the new United Nations human rights monitoring office in Nepal. The move, which follows an agreement between the United Nations and Kathmandu to help establish accountability for human rights abuses and prevent further violations, can be expected to ease some pressure off the royal regime.

Army generals are justifiably peeved at attempts to equate their derelictions with the depredations of those declaring war on the state. Equally, they are confronted with the reality that the custodians of the state’s coercive powers are exposed to a higher standard of scrutiny.

Indeed, a direct United Nations role to settle the conflict, as the Maoists have been demanding, could provide the framework for a lasting settlement. Such a role is out of the question without the approval of Nepal’s giant neighbors India and China. Beset as they are by internal conflicts of their own, New Delhi and Beijing evidently do not want to set an unpalatable precedent.

Clearly, Nepal’s current conflict embodies three competing visions for the future and the contradictions within each. An impatient idealism against the injustices of the status quo has propelled the Maoist insurgency. The rebels’ espousal of an ideology discredited across much of the world deterred few from joining their ranks. How longer can they continue using indiscriminate violence, often against the people they claim to be fighting for, without undermining their cause?

The stakes are the highest for the crown. King Gyanendra assumed full political control at great risk to the future of the institution of monarchy. Undaunted by the crescendo of criticism his action has sparked, the king remains committed to playing an assertive role not only to extricate Nepal from its worst crisis but also as a pivot of modernization well into the future.

Alluding to the Indian government’s stinging reaction to his takeover, King Gyanendra has said Nepal’s peace and stability depended on much more than constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. Speaking to Nepalese reporters on his way home from a 10-day trip to East Asia, the monarch emphasized that curbing corruption and maintaining fiscal discipline were equally important in creating a strong and efficient democratic system.

The creation of a high-powered anti-corruption watchdog and the re-introduction of administrators to govern the kingdom’s 14 zones, among other things, are aimed toward that objective. The intemperate pronouncements of some leading ministers have undercut the credibility of that commitment. It is no secret that political parties, through their abysmal performance over 12 years, have failed the country. Perpetual denunciation cannot provide the drawing board for a blueprint for national rejuvenation.

The government has more pressing tasks on hand. It needs, for instance, to do more to dispel the growing impression that the anti-corruption campaign may be metamorphosing into a full-blown political witch-hunt. The long-term imperatives of creating an inclusive state structure and ensuring distributive justice demand a degree of tolerance and equanimity Nepalese have rarely been asked to muster in the past.

The mainstream political parties, which believe any effort at national renewal must begin with the reaffirmation of the supremacy of the popular will, are understandably adamant. Their effort to establish legitimacy on the streets will be fiercely resisted by the royal regime, while the Maoists continue to mount a brutal challenge to both. How longer can the people, already squeezed in the vise of violence and vendetta, be abandoned to bear new burdens in a multi-pronged battle being waged in their name?

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

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