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Nepal: Unmasking The Real Obstacle To Peace

Nepal: Unmasking The Real Obstacle To Peace

By Madan Prasad Khanal

As U.S. President George W. Bush was reiterating earlier this month in New Delhi the need for immediate reconciliation between Nepal’s royalist government and the mainstream opposition parties, it turns out his hosts were preparing for another set of negotiations.

The Indian capital is once again the venue of talks between the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoist rebels. Ostensibly, the aim is to clarify last November’s 12-point deal to forge a more effective campaign against the monarchy.

Indian officials, as usual, continue to profess ignorance of the proceedings. The protagonists have facilitated plausible deniability by feigning indirect/telephonic contacts. There is little doubt that such consultations would have been impossible without the tacit support of the Indian government. During the last round of talks, Indian newspapers reported that intelligence operatives in New Delhi were personally chaperoning Maoist leaders.

The extent of the Indian government’s hand in constructing the November accord has been exposed in recent weeks. On the eve of President Bush’s visit to New Delhi, American Ambassador James F. Moriarty began a sustained campaign of criticism against the wisdom of such an unnatural alliance. While lashing out against King Gyanendra’s government, the U.S. envoy stressed that the current crisis in Nepal would pale into insignificance should the Maoists seize power.

Moriarty, it may be recalled, was in New Delhi in November when the SPA-Maoist accord was being negotiated. Although Indian authorities had been toying with the prospect for some time, efforts to promote the alliance after King Gyanendra skillfully secured China’s admission as an observer to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as a condition for Afghanistan’s full membership. New Delhi, which had been campaigning to induct Kabul ever since the fall of the Taleban government in 2001, appeared stunned by the way Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, together with Pakistan, backed Nepal’s initiative. Clearly, the SPA-Maoist accord was forged by New Delhi to step up pressure against King Gyanendra’s campaign to free Nepal from India’s self-declared sphere of influence.

Although Moriarty did voice concern about the viability of deal then, his remarks were relatively muted. Now, Washington has placed itself squarely against the alliance, primarily because it considers the Maoists a highly untrustworthy partner for peace and democracy.

The severest criticism of Moriarty’s remarks came from Indian newspaper columnists and editorial writers. At least one pronounced the Indo-U.S. axis on Nepal dead, even suggesting that New Delhi had reversed its long acceptance of the monarchy as a pillar of stability.

Donald Camp, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs, arrived in Kathmandu to explain Bush’s stand directly to all players. Reiterating Washington’s opposition to King Gyanendra’s direct rule, Camp announced the U.S. arms embargo on the Royal Nepalese Army would not be lifted until the restoration of democracy.

After his talks with King Gyanendra, Camp sounded pessimistic about an immediate breakthrough. He ended the visit by identifying the Maoist rebels as the most serious, immediate threat to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Nepal.

A more frank assessment came from Moriarty’s one-time deputy, Elisabeth Millard, who is now a special assistant to the U.S. President and senior director for South and Central Asian Affairs at the Executive Office. Exchanging views with Nepalese journalists in a videoconference, Millard categorically rejected deep-seated suspicions in Kathmandu that the United States was viewing Nepal’s crisis through Indian eyes.

More importantly, she conceded that Nepal’s strategic position between India and China raised the kingdom’s geopolitical profile. Millard revealed that Washington would consult with China on the subject. Clearly, Washington seems to have taken seriously New Delhi’s double game in Nepal. Should a government drawing the participation of the mainstream parties emerge, Washington would appear ready to reconsider the arms embargo.

Understandably, the U.S. position has brought the prospect of a major realignment of non-communist forces in Nepal with the palace to prevent a Maoist takeover. New Delhi has stepped in to thwart that effort.

Undoubtedly, last year’s royal takeover was a big step backward for Nepal. The imposition of a state of emergency, jailing of political leaders and curbs on civil liberties came as harsh facts of life for a populace used to 15 years of democratic freedoms. Although the state of emergency was lifted three months later, many curbs on liberties remain in force.

As King Gyanendra has made clear over the past year, his takeover is an unpleasant albeit temporary measure aimed at reactivating a democratic process eroded in large part by conflicts and contradictions within the political establishment. As part of the king’s roadmap, Nepal held elections to municipal bodies last month. Despite threats from Maoist rebels and mainstream parties, 20 percent of eligible voters came out to vote.

Why the SPA frittered away this opportunity to set democracy back on track was no mystery. Many members of constituent parties complained that SPA leaders were too beholden to India to make any independent decisions.

This is where another element of the king’s roadmap assumes greater importance: the redefinition of Nepal’s role vis-à-vis its two giant neighbors. In view of growing economic and commercial ties between India and China, Nepal hopes to serve as an important transit point. Of course, this would require, among other things, considerable investments in transshipment facilities and improving the quality of physical infrastructure. These could pay off significantly in the years ahead, allowing the kingdom the opportunity to exercise its economic sovereignty.

King Gyanendra has brought back individuals and institutions associated with the partyless panchayat regime, which has raised questions about his motives. The mainstream parties’ fears of an imminent return to authoritarianism are patently unfounded. Many of these individuals were associated with the palace’s efforts to bolster internal cohesion and raise the kingdom’s international profile between 1960 and 1990. Others have worked in the rural hinterland as palace-led political or bureaucratic administrators that linked local institutions with the center.

True, many of these initiatives were introduced and implemented under restricted political conditions under the partyless system. Before condemning the panchayat regime as outright autocratic, however, it would be useful to remember that many democratic processes, such as adult-franchise elections, had begun in the last decade of the partyless system.

Institutions and processes that served the nation under that system did not have to be eliminated in the quest to institutionalize multiparty democracy. King Gyanendra’s revival of the zonal administrators, for instance, is aimed at ending the administrative vacuum the politicization of local elected institutions created in the rural hinterland, which the Maoists could successfully exploit.

Clearly, the monarch is seeking a greater political role for himself. Any serious student of contemporary Nepalese politics and international trends would recognize that this desire does not stem from the king’s autocratic ambitions, as the mainstream parties and much of the media allege.

The systematic effort by the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists to sideline the palace between 1990 and 2002 was obviously aimed at ensuring their monopoly on power. The effect was two-fold. First, it allowed a virulent culture of impunity to creep into the political establishment, where democracy became an end, rather than a means. The people had the right to complain, but their leaders seemed to exercise a greater right not to listen.

Each time the king tried to admonish the government on matters of national importance, the mainstream parties construed it a “conspiracy to subvert Nepal’s hard-won democracy”. The monarchy was expected to bear silent witness to the political class’s
self-serving machinations.

Second, the diminution of the palace’s political role emboldened India, which had turned the mainstream parties into willing accomplices, to pull Nepal back into its exclusive sphere of influence. Regardless of party affiliation, Nepalese leaders began believing in Indian “blessings” more than in their own constituents’ trust. With the entire political class making a beeline to New Delhi, the Indian Embassy became a major power center. Through rampant politicization of the bureaucracy and police, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists monopolizing maintained a stranglehold on the system.

In this stifling environment, a faction of leftists who were part of the parliamentary process went underground and declared war on the state, becoming today’s Maoist insurgents. Within the mainstream parties, voices in favor of upholding Nepalese sovereignty of were shunned. Nationalism, which the political establishment chose to define as little more than anti-Indianism, was ridiculed.

Advocates of a “constructive” monarchy, like this writer, see such an institution as a necessary bulwark against unwarranted Indian interference. In the past, to be sure, the monarchy has succumbed to Indian pressures. However, it has the best record of striving and succeeding in upholding Nepalese interests and widening the nation’s sovereign space.

In view of the political realignments in India over the last decade, the monarchy can play an even beneficial role. As the world’s only Hindu monarch, the king today retains enough influence in Indian religious and cultural spheres to encourage a moderating influence on New Delhi’s policies toward the kingdom. Indeed, it is from this sphere that the most vociferous calls for a revision of India’s hard line against the royal regime come from.

Since the monarchy has proved to be the sole institution capable of winning the trust and confidence of Nepal’s powerful northern neighbor, China, it becomes essential that the crown retain a significant political role. Chinese interests in Nepal transcend the issues of Tibet and Taiwan. Chinese officials have repeatedly stated that the open Nepal-India border represents a threat to their country’s security by among other things, exposing China to drug traffickers and the worst forms of criminals.

As for the Maoists, China believes the rebels, by unleashing massive violence against the people, are impugning the name of their late leader. Beijing has stepped in with military assistance to the Royal Nepalese Army, limiting to a considerable extent the damage done by the U.S., British and Indian arms embargos.

Nepal has wasted too much time debating the narrow confines of democracy. The easiest way of restoring the democratic process would be to hold fresh elections to the national legislature. For this to happen, the Maoist rebels must end their violence, lay down their arms and come to peace negotiations. The mainstream parties, which could have encouraged the Maoists to drop their threats to subvert the elections, have instead announced a boycott of any polls organized by the royal regime.

The Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists, the two largest parties in the mainstream alliance, simply want to avoid facing a fresh popularity test because they recognize that realities on the ground have changed. The “democracy” excuse has come in handy to cover their real intentions: a return to power on the back of Indian intervention. The latest consultations in New Delhi have exposed the real source of instability in Nepal.


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