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S. Upadhya: Nepal - Mixed Message Of Moderation

Nepal: Mixed Message Of Moderation

By Sanjay Upadhya

Weathering scathing global condemnation and strident threats of isolation, Nepal’s royal government completed 100 days in office this week. Actually, it seems to have made headway in making its case. Coinciding with the milestone, the Indian government announced it was releasing some military supplies to the kingdom, suspended since King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 takeover of full executive powers.

This week, US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca held discussions with a broad spectrum of leaders in Kathmandu, including the king, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit Nepal since the takeover. Earlier, US Ambassador James Moriarty had said the royal government had vowed to deliver a plan within 100 days to restore democratic freedoms and tackle the Maoist insurgency. Rocca, who urged the king and political parties to work together to restore democracy and deal with the Maoist insurgency, said US development aid would continue to Nepal. But she added that military aid was under review.

Domestically, the lifting of the three-month state of emergency two weeks ago has energized the mainstream political parties into drafting a common program of action against the takeover. With hundreds of leaders and activists still under detention and many restrictions still in place, a gripping sense of uncertainty prevails in the kingdom. The latest stirrings of political life nevertheless have come as a relief.

Seven major parties representing a broad spectrum of political opinion have decided to work together to seek the reinstatement of the parliament dissolved in 2002 and to reform the constitution to limit the king's powers.

Affirming the constituents’ commitment to finding a permanent solution to the nine-year-old Maoist insurgency, which has claimed over 12,000 lives, the agenda addresses the rebels’ demands only superficially. A roundtable conference of all political forces, an interim government and election to a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution -- ostensibly to institutionalize a republican Nepal – remain at the core of the Maoist agenda.

Former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, leader of the Nepali Congress, the majority party in the dissolved house, has achieved a victory of sorts in being able to put his demand for the reinstatement of parliament at the center of the alliance’s agenda. The United Marxist Leninists, the main opposition party in the house, elected in 1999, had previously shied away from explicitly endorsing the demand. This policy shift has irked a faction within the UML, although it is unclear to what effect.

The restoration of a parliament that even in normal circumstances would have completed its natural life raises constitutional issues. Who would issue the restoration order? The king who ordered the dissolution on the recommendation of an elected prime minister? The Supreme Court, which would have to reverse an earlier decision affirming the constitutionality of the dissolution?

From a political standpoint, though, such a restoration could underpin the creation of a multiparty government that could start pulling Nepal back from the abyss. The limiting of monarchical powers, however, cannot be construed as a step in that direction. That agenda presupposes that the monarchy is responsible for Nepal’s current crisis – a fallacious claim, to say the least.

King Gyanendra has set out on a three-year plan to reactivate the democratic process. He has announced that municipal elections would be held by early April next year, ostensibly to be followed by parliamentary polls. The mainstream parties, anxious not to be seen conferring legitimacy to the palace takeover, see the value of street protests. That would undermine the overriding imperative of bringing the Maoists back to the peace process. Strikes and shutdowns have emaciated the economy. It would be impossible for the alliance to maintain control over the situation, should the Maoists infiltrate the protests. Unless, of course, the parties would be willing to go along with the rebels’ republican agenda.

Having suffered serious battlefield losses and mired in deepening internal rifts, the Maoists have injected a chilling dimension into the conflict by murdering one of the top Hindu leaders of the kingdom. They have been stepping up pressure against the royal government by mounting deadly attacks on military bases and murdering royal appointees in the districts.

Clearly, the armed might of the state can only continue exerting pressure on the Maoists to forsake violence, not force them to abandon the grievances that fuel the insurgency. It is up to the mainstream parties to draw the rebels into the political process through credible assurances.

The parties are understandably opposed to engaging the Maoists when their own cadres continue to be targets for liquidation. Moreover, the experience of Cambodia, the only place outside China where the Maoists have risen to power, continues to cast a horrifying shadow almost three decades later. The trail blazed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978 – during which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died from execution, forced labor, disease and starvation – is certainly no acceptable road for Nepal. Reversal of class order, destruction of all markets, banning of private property and money cannot be a recipe for renewal in a globalized world.

The Nepalese Maoists, who argue that democratic changes of 1990 were incomplete, resent any comparison to the Khmer Rouge. Top comrades regularly speak against imposing an immediate communist agenda and go to great lengths drawing contours of a multiparty republic. Maoist literature abounds in pleas for enlarging the scope of democracy to take care of the oppressed classes, nationalities and regions. But how far can an internationalist ideology bent on enforcing conformity go in respecting diversity?

The mainstream parties are best equipped to force the Maoists to demonstrate their true intentions. If the new alliance succeeds in persuading the rebels to shun violence and join the political process, democracy could return to Nepal well before the timeframe laid out by the palace.


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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