A Turning Point for Nepal?

The tiny country of Nepal wedged between India and China in South Asia is at a major crossroads: one path leads to a monarchy and a society continually plagued by internal strife while another offers the possibility of peace and a modern day democracy. A decade old civil war between the monarchy-controlled army and Maoist rebels is the roadblock. Costing Nepal at least 12,500 lives, the war looms over all segments of Nepalese society, preventing progress on social and economic life and leaving issues of democratic governance in the balance.

In February 2005, the Nepalese king suspended civil liberties and assumed near-absolute powers by dismissing the democratically elected government on the grounds that it failed to curb the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) rebels. But in an unexpected development, the Maoist rebels and mainstream political parties united to demand an end to the monarchy and for a constituent assembly election to draft a new constitution. The rebels declared a ceasefire during these talks. However, the king refused to meet the demands of the Maoists and political parties and as a result, the Maoists resumed their violent tactics after the four-month unilateral ceasefire.

Most of the international community including the U.S., while welcoming the new developments with regard to the Maoists and the political parties, are adopting a wait-and-see approach after years of supporting the king.

Atrocities on All Sides

For well over two centuries, Nepal has been a monarchy. In 1950, drawing support from the newly independent India, the Nepali Congress Party led a powerful democratic movement resulting in the compromise of a “constitutional monarchy”. By 1959, a democratic constitution was drawn up and elections held. The Nepali Congress Party won a clear majority in the parliament. But within a year, the king dissolved the government and again assumed full control.

Since then, the monarchy in Nepal has used the country’s key physical location as a buffer between China and India, bargaining with these countries for support to stay in power. Over the decades, both India and China have given enormous amounts of military and economic aid to the Nepalese government.

While this ensured the supremacy of the king and the army, it has done little to improve the lives of the Nepalese. Nepal is the poorest country in the sub-continent and among the thirty most impoverished countries in the world. The level of literacy, health care, sanitation and general public infrastructure is abysmal. Agriculture, the main source of income, is becoming increasingly difficult due to the war. Fleeing the country looking for work, thousands are employed in near slave-like conditions in India as servants, security guards and prostitutes. Increasing numbers are serving in foreign armies or are working for private military companies in places like Iraq.

The dire economic situation is a key reason why the Maoists have been successful in drawing support from rural villages to wage war against the royal regime. However, the violent tactics of the Maoists have caused popular support to remain in check. Maoists are responsible for killings, looting and a general atmosphere of intimidation in rural Nepal. They forcibly collect revenues, raid police stations for arms and have killed police personnel. This terrorization has made it possible for them to control virtually all of Nepal except the capital and some other smaller cities.

Claiming to curb the Maoists, the king has embarked upon a path that is as brutal as theirs. Torture, arrests, abductions and killings by the army have become commonplace. With even less support from the general public for his rule than for the Maoists, the king has used his control over the army to perpetuate his rule with no regard for the law. The army is responsible for almost two-thirds of the total killings in this war.

Key to the king’s power is the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) 2002, which has given the security forces new powers to arrest people and detain them without charge. In October 2005, the king increased the powers of the TADA extending the period of detention without charge or trial from 90 days to a year.

According to Amnesty International’s assessment of Nepal, “Summary executions of civilians and combatants are common, especially in remote districts…. Torture is widespread in military and police custody.”

In addition, thousands have been abducted without trace. According to Human Rights Watch, “Over the past two years, the Nepalese army has been responsible for the largest number of reported forced disappearances in the world.”

The King, the Constitution and the Crisis

The 1990 constitution lies at the heart of the present crisis in Nepal. When the monarchy dissolved the parliament in 1960, it left the pro-democracy movement in a weakened state. But organizing in the late 1980s culminated in powerful street protests and general strikes against the monarchy in 1990. Strong public pressure forced the monarchy to take action. Political parties were legalized once again, and a multi-party democracy and fundamental rights for all were agreed to. A new constitution was written enshrining these rights and in 1991 elections were held under the watchful eye of international observers. While this was a step forward, the king managed to keep the provision of a monarch in place although the constitutional powers were significantly reduced.

The Maoists launched what it refers to as the “Nepalese People’s War” on February 13, 1996 unleashing new levels of violence in the country. The dynamic between the Maoists and the government changed in 2001, when the king and several members of the royal family were killed by the heir apparent who then took his own life.

Following this, the late king’s brother, Gyanendra, assumed the throne. A vocal opponent of the 1990 constitution, Gyanendra immediately set forth to regain the supremacy of the monarchy. The Nepalese Army soon began an extended military campaign against the Maoists.

On the political front, internal strife in the ruling coalition gave Gyanendra the backing to dismiss the prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba who had lost the support of his party. In his place, Gyanendra installed a royalist and postponed general elections indefinitely. However, the new prime minister was not to remain in power for long. Strong public sentiment led to his resignation. The king immediately moved to install another monarchist as prime minister. This also did not last long as public protests continued unabated. Sensing a losing battle, Gyanendra reinstalled the democratically elected Prime Minister Deuba in April 2004 and promised to hold parliamentary elections in 2005.

However, in February 2005, the king declared a state of emergency and dismissed the government and suspended civil liberties. He even cut off Nepal’s communication channels with the rest of the world for a period of time, sealing the international airport and rendering mobile phone service inoperable.

In July 2005, Deuba was convicted and sentenced on corruption charges by an anticorruption commission established by the king. Nepal’s two largest parties, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist), subsequently ended their support for a constitutional monarchy and showed an interest in negotiating with the Maoists to find a solution. In September 2005, the Maoist rebels declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire.

During the ceasefire, negotiations between seven mainstream political parties and the Maoists led to a 12-point agreement amongst themselves which they presented to the king. The thrust of the agreement was an end of allegiance to the monarchy by political parties and agreement to hold an election for the constituent assembly in which all parties would participate. To ensure that these elections would be held peacefully and without undue interference, the parties suggested that the UN or another trustworthy international body would monitor both the army and the Maoists.

The agreement convinced the Maoists to extend the ceasefire to January 2, 2006 in order to give the monarchy additional time to consider the proposal. However, the king with his desire to continue his rule, refused to agree to the constituent assembly election. And he remains committed to keeping elections within the framework of the 1990 constitution. It is understood that his support for the 1990 constitution is a desperate attempt to hold on to power as the most likely scenario of a constituent assembly election would be the final removal of monarchy.

With this rejection from the king and the army failing to reciprocate the Maoists unilateral ceasefire, the Maoists declared an end to the truce on January 2, 2006 and killing resumed on all sides.

The U.S. Response

The U.S. has supported the king’s anti-Maoist stance, alleging that the Maoists want to turn Nepal into a “brutal and anachronistic state.” The State Department has marked the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” organization. The U.S. has also expressed concern over the “Maoist insurgency desiring to… export its revolution to peaceful neighbors” like India.

The U.S. has also been critical of the king’s anti-democratic position but until recently, it did nothing more than issue statements urging the king to restore democracy. While India suspended military aid to Nepal as soon as the king dismissed the government in February 2005, it took the U.S. over nine months to suspend military aid to Nepal.

With the U.S. State Department reluctant to stop providing military aid, human rights groups mounted a campaign to pressure the U.S. congress to limit assistance. Their efforts were successful. In November 2005, Congress mandated that in order for the aid to resume, the Secretary of State must certify that the Government of Nepal has “restored civil liberties, is protecting human rights, and has demonstrated, through dialogue with Nepal’s political parties, a commitment to a clear timetable to restore multi-part democratic government consistent with the 1990 Nepalese Constitution.”

What the U.S. and International Community Should Do

The situation in Nepal demands immediate attention. The spiral of violence can only escalate now that the ceasefire has ended. The Maoists have vowed to disrupt elections planned for February 8 elections for 58 municipal councils held under the framework of the 1990 constitution. And atrocities by the army also continue unabated. Human rights groups are repeatedly warning that journalists, political leaders, trade unionists, student leaders and anyone speaking against the monarchy is under severe threat and several hundred of them have already been imprisoned or have “disappeared”.

Further stifling dissent, the Nepalese government has passed a new law regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) prohibiting any activity endangering “social harmony” and banning NGO staff from having political affiliations. This implies that any NGO advocating a change in the status quo will be seen as a criminal and is liable to be arrested.

It is a positive step that the U.S. has suspended “lethal” military aid to a regime that has crossed all internationally accepted governing norms to continue its illegal rule. However, there are two important steps that the U.S. must take along with other international players to make sure that the king and the army in Nepal put a stop to the violence and that the Maoists resume the ceasefire.

First, the U.S. should stop all forms of aid to Nepal. It continues to supply Nepal with what it terms “non-lethal military aid”, which includes vehicles and bulletproof jackets. As part of non-lethal military aid, the U.S. continues to fund development projects in Nepal through multilateral institutions that it dominates, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). These actions give credibility to the regime. Since development projects are executed through the government, all parties involved in these projects reinforce the legality of the present regime to govern Nepal.

Second, the U.S. must support the demand of the opposition in Nepal to hold an election for the constituent assembly. This demand has the backing of almost all of the major political parties as well as the Maoists. The fact that political parties and the rebels have united in their demand and the Maoists have agreed to a ceasefire and participation in mainstream politics is an extremely hopeful prospect for Nepal. It should not be ignored or taken lightly.

The Nepali opposition is asking in very clear terms for international intervention through the UN or any other recognized international body to hold constituent assembly elections. It is important that the UN and important players like India and the U.S. abandon their current wait and see approach. By giving him time, the international community will only make him stronger. The Nepalese monarchy has a long record of treachery to democratic principles and processes. It will leave no stone unturned in its attempts to hold on to power.

Shirin Shirin is a freelance journalist, activist, and analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org). Her work includes using popular education to campaign against religious violence and promote the rights of women, workers, minorities, and dalits throughout South Asia.