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
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