Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Last September, in the wake of a royal coup six months earlier that had only deepened the country's longstanding crisis, Nepal seemed close to falling into the abyss. Since 1996, Nepal's brutal civil war had claimed more than 12,000 lives. Civilians in the countryside remained caught between the royal forces and Maoist rebels--increasingly ignored as street and royal politics in Kathmandu preoccupied the political class, diplomats, and the media.
When King Gyanendra staged his coup in February 2005, he claimed that only he could find a solution to the Maoist problem. Yet the longer he governed, the more apparent it was that he had no plan for just about anything. Isolated in his palace and increasingly unpopular, he persisted in prosecuting a war that neither side could win while opening another front against Nepal's politicians, press, and civil society.
It took a while, but the law of unintended consequences finally kicked in. At the time of the coup, the political parties were opposed to the Maoists and at each other's throats; in their first post-coup meetings in New Delhi they could not agree on anything except their opposition to the king. But thanks to his failures to follow through on a road map to democracy or to reciprocate the Maoists' ceasefire offers, Gyanendra had managed to bring together, in opposition to him, virtually the entire political spectrum. With the diplomatic help of India, and over the objections of the United States, the Maoists and Nepalese opposition parties soon agreed on a political alliance and a common platform: a return to civilian rule, the revival of parliament, and elections for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. Gyanendra made the Maoists look reasonable and the parties that had been derided as feckless and corrupt, principled.
Despite the recent largely peaceful "color" revolutions, "people power" often fails, ending in bloodshed and intensified repression (think of the thousands who died in Burma in 1988). Older Nepalis had been through this before: in 1990, the country was transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy after street protests that left hundreds dead. So it was simultaneously thrilling and frightening last month to watch hundreds of thousands of Nepalis defy shoot-on-sight curfews, brave unpredictable police violence (14 were killed and hundreds injured over three weeks), and take to the streets to demand an end to the king's rule.
Gyanendra misjudged the public mood. There was a time when handing power back to the parties would have sufficed, but as April passed it became clear that an end to the monarchy--a longstanding demand of the Maoists--had become the main aim of most protestors. Under enormous pressure, on April 21, Gyanendra grudgingly asked the political parties to nominate a prime minister. It was too little too late. Although U.S., Indian, and EU diplomats initially urged them to accept the offer, the parties stuck to their demands, recognizing the king's offer as a ploy to divide their alliance. Four days later, Gyanendra capitulated. The tense and bloody streets of Kathmandu erupted in euphoria. (It is worth noting that while the parties found it hard to find individuals brave enough to stare down the army and risk being shot, the Maoists quietly worked with them, even leading some of the marches.)
The parties said they hoped to convene parliament to repeal all laws adopted during the royal reign, including those related to press censorship and detention without trial. On April 27, the Maoists' leader, Prachanda, endorsed the deal after receiving assurances that the parties would indeed call elections for a constituent assembly. The same day, the Maoists announced a unilateral three-month ceasefire, apparently to see whether they have more in common with the parties than a common enemy.
The clear purpose of the constituent assembly appears to be to permanently sideline or even end the monarchy (some Nepalis are calling this "Gyanendra's Gift"). Nepal could emulate Cambodia, which stipulated in its 1993 constitution--not once, but twice--that the "King reigns but does not rule."
Yet the monarchy is hardly the fount of all of Nepal's problems. Nepal was in crisis before Gyanendra's coup last year. And few seem to have given much thought to how to make a new constitution matter in practice. How can "dalits" (untouchables) and ethnic minorities gain rights and their place in society? How can the National Human Rights Commission and the courts function independently?
The hard part remains. Human rights abuses triggered and have fueled the conflict. Rapid progress on both making the Maoists and the Royal Nepalese Army accountable and ending the cycle of impunity is essential to political progress and stability. A good place to start would be to prosecute those who ordered the police to fire into crowds in Kathmandu and elsewhere.
There are also the elections, first for a constituent assembly and then, presumably, for a new parliament. Can these be organized in a country with an undisciplined army and where the Maoists control as much as 70 percent of the territory? Will the Maoists let other parties operate in their zones? What will happen to those who dare to vote for other parties? How will the Maoists react if they fare poorly at the polls?
There may be some wishful thinking in the heady days after the king's fall. Some are confidently predicting that the Maoists will soon enter the political mainstream. From the Maoists' perspective, things are going according to plan. They have a newfound credibility with the seven-party alliance, in particular with the left-wing parties. But their army is intact, their human rights record remains poor, and they continue to recruit child soldiers. There has been no outbreak of free speech or pluralism in Maoist zones. Prachanda said on April 27 that the ceasefire was intended to facilitate the ongoing "people's struggle" for a constituent assembly and a democratic republic "so as to lead the struggle to a historic conclusion." But the big question remains: a conclusion to what? Can people steeped in "people's war" rhetoric and "united front" tactics change that much (see the Maoists' website at www.cpnm.org, which features a bright red backdrop with the slogan "Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and Prachanda Path")?
Reforming the army must also be a central focus of international attention. U.S. and Indian sanctions have led to some improvements, but abuses such as the torture of detainees in custody continue. Last week, the UN human rights office in Nepal found it necessary to issue a statement condemning "the latest killing of seven unarmed civilians by the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), in Belbari, Morang District, on 25 and 26 April." Hard-line, anti-democratic monarchists such as General Rukmangath Khatawal, the army's second-in-command, remain in their positions. India, the United States, and the United Kingdom need to maintain their suspension of lethal military assistance until real reforms are made and accountability for human rights abuses is established.
Managing elections, drafting a new constitution, and finding a working arrangement between the Maoists, the political parties, and the army will certainly require the United Nations to play a major role, perhaps even in a traditional peacekeeping mission. The UN human rights office in Nepal, set up in 2005, has proved remarkably effective and politically adroit, showing Nepalis and the international community that the organization has a key part to play in the months and years ahead.
A looming test for a new Nepal will be to see how the Maoists react when the issue of disarming and demobilizing their troops makes its way up the agenda. Can a Maoist army integrate an essentially royalist RNA? There have been stranger bedfellows, but it would take a genuine optimist to think this is likely in the foreseeable future.
But then again, after last month, when some of Asia's poorest people showed that they were stronger than a royal army, perhaps optimism should be given a chance.