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Politics

The Republic of Nepal?

25 April 2006

The Republic of Nepal?

By Gwynne Dyer

The prophecy was almost right. It said that the Shah dynasty in Nepal would last for twelve generations, so King Gyanendra is pushing the edge of the envelope. His brother Birendra, whose murder in 2001 brought Gyanendra to the throne, was already the twelfth generation. Even if Gyanendra was technically of the same generation, it already felt a bit like cheating.

It feels a lot more like cheating now. Three weeks of non-violent mass protests (and fourteen demonstrators’ deaths) have forced King Gyanendra to surrender the absolute powers he seized last year, and parliament has already been recalled. Only fear of imminent overthrow forced him to make these concessions, but he is still trying to split the opposition — and it looks like he is succeeding.

What forced Gyanendra to retreat was an alliance forged last November between the seven mainstream political parties and the Maoist rebels who were the king’s main excuse for seizing power and dismissing parliament in the first place. That alliance was a marriage of convenience, however, and as soon as Gyanendra offered to reinstate parliament, the politicians fell over one another in their eagerness to say yes. But the deal may play differently among the protestors, most of them under 30, who have no patience for the monarchy and no loyalty to the established parties.

It is certainly playing very differently with the Maoists, who promptly denounced the politicians as traitors to the anti-monarchical alliance the two sides had made. “The minimum demand is a free election to a constituent assembly,” said senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai on Tuesday. The next few days will decide whether the Maoists resume the ten-year guerilla war that has already killed 13,000 people and given them effective control of at least half the country’s territory.

Only a few days ago, Bamdev Gautam, the leading negotiator for the mainstream political parties, was saying: “Many Nepalis have given their lives to remove the king. We are not going back….” For a moment the political parties, the youthful protestors, and the Maoists were all on the same page, and there was hope that Nepal could escape the calamity of a Maoist revolutionary victory that seems to await it. But the king is still on his throne, and the hope is evaporating fast.

Taming the Maoists and bringing them inside the political system is the highest priority in Nepal, where the peasants are so downtrodden and desperate that a radically anti-urban, anti-foreign, anti-intellectual revolution like the one that devastated Cambodia thirty years ago is a real possibility. There are alarming similarities of ideology and operational style between the Khmer Rouge of the early 1970s and the Nepalese Maoists today. Nepal needs change, but it does not need the killing fields.

Nobody knows how close the Maoists are to a military victory in Nepal, especially since India might well send in troops to prevent such a monster from emerging on its northern borders, but they have been making rapid progress in recent years. They might ultimately win power in a democracy, too, for they have real support among the semi-educated rural young, but they would then be constrained by constitutional rules and democratic norms. (Surprisingly, the prize of democratic legitimacy often makes people behave better.) Whereas if they won power through military victory, they could put even their most extreme political fantasies into practice.

The great virtue of Gyanendra’s royal coup last year was that it enabled all of Nepal’s other main political actors to unite behind the single cause of rolling back his take-over. The legal political parties never formally committed themselves to the overthrow of the monarchy, but that was implicit in their promise to create an interim assembly whose main job would be to draft a new constitution for Nepal. The changes being considered were so radical that they seemed likely to tempt the Maoists into giving up their revolt and entering normal democratic politics.

Gyanendra’s strategy now is to break the alliance between the old political parties and the Maoist rebels in order to save his throne. With parliament restored but no new republican constitution, the old-line politicos can resume their habitual games, whose principal function is to give each urban political party and faction a turn at looting the public purse. If their deal with a chastened king survives, the Maoists will go back to war and Nepal’s future is grim.

The choice lies in the hands of the tens of thousands of young people who have been demonstrating in the streets of Khatmandu for the past three weeks. They wanted real change, a goal that they correctly saw as linked to an end to the monarchy and a new constitution, although beyond that their ideas were not very clear.

If they press on with their demonstrations despite the deal struck between the political leaders and the monarchy, then the king could be gone in a week and Nepal could end up with a more inclusive democratic system that brings the Maoists in from the cold. If they settle now for a return to the system that failed Nepal for the past fifteen years, then the changes they may eventually face instead, after a Maoist military victory, would not be at all to their taste.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Only…fast”; and “The great…politics”)