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Nepalese Election

13 April 2008

Nepalese Election

By Gwynne Dyer

Unless the early election returns are completely misleading, Nepal will soon have the first freely elected Maoist government in history: 42 of the 75 seats declared so far (Sunday) have gone to the Maoists. This poses a considerable diplomatic problem for the United States, which still lists the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a terrorist organisation and refuses to talk to its leaders, but the crowds celebrating in the streets of Kathmandu don’t see it as a problem at all. One hopes that they are right.

The Maoists were certainly terrorists five or ten years ago, at least in the sense that almost all rural guerilla movements routinely employ terror to force the peasants to obey them. But Nepal’s Maoists seemed to be at the extreme end of the spectrum, using rhetoric that got them compared to Peru’s Sendero Luminoso or even to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.

But it doesn’t feel a bit like Year Zero in post-election Nepal. After a ten-year guerilla war that killed about 13,000 people, the Maoists accepted a cease-fire in 2006 and promised to enter the normal democratic process — or rather, the new democratic process that people hope will become normal, because until 1990 Nepal was an absolute monarchy. Popular demonstrations then forced the king to permit a form of democracy, but it was so corrupt and ineffective that the Maoists took to the hills in 1996.

The monarchy then proceeded to self-destruct. The crown prince, enraged by the fact that his parents would not let him marry the woman of his choice, machine-gunned nine of his relatives including the king, the queen, and his only brother and sister in 2001 and then killed himself. The late king’s brother Gyanendra, a widely disliked man who had never expected to ascend the throne, became king and failed at almost everything he tried, including most importantly the suppression of the Maoist rebellion.

In 2005, in desperation, King Gyanendra mounted a royal coup and resumed absolute rule, but he was forced to surrender his control of the government and the army by massive popular protests in 2006. It was at this point that the Maoists came in from the hills. They agreed to join an interim government with the established political parties, and to abide by the results of a democratic election. Their only non-negotiable demand was an end to the monarchy — and the other parties agreed to that, although it hasn’t happened yet.

So the shooting stopped, the bulk of the Maoist fighters gathered in camps to await incorporation into the army, and last week, after various delays, the promised election was finally held. Local political pundits, foreign diplomats and the large foreign aid community all expected the Maoists to do moderately well, but nobody thought they would actually win. It looks like they have.

They have promised to join a coalition government with the other parties regardless of the election’s outcome, and because of the complex voting system they may not get an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. They will almost certainly win a majority of the 240 winner-takes-all constituencies whose results will be known by the end of the week, but 335 other seats are decided by proportional representation and will take longer to decide.

One imponderable is the third of Nepal’s 29 million people who live in the Terai, the plains on the country’s southern fringe. They are in the midst of a powerful political backlash against the highlanders who traditionally monopolised all official positions — and even the Maoists are mostly highlanders. To complicate matters further, half of the proportional seats are set aside for untouchables or for “oppressed and indigenous peoples.” (Sixty different ethnic minorities make up a third of the population.) But the Maoists have special appeal for the excluded and downtrodden, so they will probably get their majority. What then?

The Maoist founder and leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, formerly known as Comrade Prachandra (“the fierce one”), now says that democracy is not “an alternative to armed struggle but a logical conclusion.” He even follows the Chinese Communist line that creating wealth is the priority, promising to raise annual per capita income in Nepal from $300 to $3,000 in ten years, and he accepts that this requires the “capitalist mode of production.”

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this month, Prachandra insisted that his conversion from “people’s war” to the ballot box was permanent. “Look at all the great revolutions and counter-revolutions in the last century. We came to the conclusion that multi-party competition is a must for a vibrant society, even a vibrant socialist society.” There’s a reasonably good chance that he really means it, but old habits die hard.

Nepal is picturesque, but it has always been a desperately poor and grotesquely unfair society where most people led lives of grim misery. It certainly needs a social and economic transformation, and it was unlikely that the existing political parties, drawn from the same narrow elite who have dominated the country for centuries, were ever going to bring that about. So the poor majority have voted for the only group in sight that seriously wanted to make that transformation happen.

They did not vote for Pol Pot and Year Zero, for tyranny and genocide. We will find out in due course if they have chosen well.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“They have…What then?”)

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.


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

King of Nepal

3 February 2005

The Stupid King of Nepal

By Gwynne Dyer

Most countries got rid of their kings in the end, and the rest took away most of their powers, because inbred young men whose main talents (if any) lie in manly outdoor pursuits like jousting, polo or falconry tend to be particularly bad at running countries. King Gyanendra of Nepal isn’t young any more, but otherwise he fits the profile perfectly.

Gyanendra never expected to be king at all., He inherited the job in 2001 when almost all the entire Nepalese royal family, including his brother King Birendra, was massacred by Crown Prince Dipendra, who was high on drink, drugs and the allura of automatic weapons at the time. Gyanendra has been trying to take back his late brother’s surrender of absolute power in 1990 ever since, and on February 1 he made his move.

He had already fired four prime ministers in three years, but now he has shut the whole democratic system down. He put all the senior politicians under house arrest and jailed hundreds of other prominent people, he suspended freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press (there are now army officers in every newspaper office and radio studio), and he took direct personal control of Nepal on the pretext that only he could save it from the Maoists.

Bad luck for the 27 million Nepalese, but this “royal coup” has implications that reach well beyond Nepal’s borders, for the Maoists are real. They are a ruthless guerilla army that already controls fifteen or twenty of Nepal’s 75 districts and has a powerful presence in most of the others, and they talk much like the Khmer Rouge fanatics who carried out the Cambodian genocide. They have little trouble in selling their ideas to wretchedly poor Nepalese peasants trying to scratch a living from the overcrowded lower slopes of the Himalayas.

They were winning already, but now they are going to start winning a lot faster. Gyanendra’s government has lost its legitimacy, he is not personally popular, and he has never displayed any notable political or military talent. His coup is a Godsend for the Maoists, and they will exploit it vigorously. This has serious implications for the two rising great powers of our time, India and China.

The Maoists of Nepal know that they will not really be marching into Kathmandu in triumph any time soon, because India will intervene militarily, if necessary, to stop them. It would do so because it has its own Maoist problem: groups of Maoist rebels have established strong ideological bases right across the “tribal belt” of India, where poverty-stricken and despised ethnic minorities are oppressed both by feudal landlords and by upper-caste Hindus generally.

It’s the same sort of catastrophic social and economic environment that spawned Sendero Luminoso in highland Peru, the Khmer Rouge in north-eastern Cambodia, and the current crop of Maoists in Nepal. No Indians whatever were killed last year by Islamist terrorists except in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, but over five hundred Indians were killed by Maoists.

Since the Maoists of Nepal know that India is vulnerable on this front and fear an Indian intervention in Nepal, they will do whatever they can to help India’s Maoists grow into a bigger threat. It probably isn’t much: Maoism is a pretty marginal phenomenon in the more modern parts of the world. But lf India does end up intervening in Nepal it will have a huge negative impact on China, which is highly sensitive about its disputed Tibetan border with India.

The two countries even fought a brief war over that disputed border in 1962, and although Chinese forces withdrew voluntarily from the disputed territories afterwards the fear that China might again become an enemy was India’s main incentive for developing its own nuclear weapons. But the central half of what would otherwise be an extremely long India-China border is occupied by Nepal, which acts as a gigantic buffer zone. Beijing would find it hard to stay calm if Indian forces moved into that buffer zone in strength.

It’s also certain that some cynical Indian ultra-nationalists, noting that Mao was Chinese, would claim that China was somehow behind the Maoists who are stirring up “our Nepalese” — in democracies as in ecology, every imaginable niche is filled. The truth, of course, is that genuine Maoists in Nepal and everywhere else despise the present Chinese regime, which they see as having sold out to capitalism, but it could be enough to fuel Indian popular outrage against China.

We’re not talking about another Sino-Indian war here; just about mutual threat perceptions. What is at stake is how the relationship between the two giant Asian neighbours evolves as they grow over the next generation or so to match the United States in wealth and power. Their relationship for the past generation has been reasonably civil, and there’s no good reason that it shouldn’t remain so as they come into their inheritance of great power. But there’s no guarantee that it will, either, and a long and messy Indian military intervention in Nepal could send it spinning down a very different path.

That is why India (and also the US and Britain, chief purveyors of arms to the Nepalese government) should act now to force the stupid king to step back and restore the democratic constitutional order. No matter how incompetent democratic politicians are (and Nepal’s do not lead the class), it is only they who have the legitimacy to resist the Maoists successfully.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“It’s the same…Maoists”; and “It’s also…China”)

Victory in the War on Terror

2 September 2004

Victory in the War on Terror

By Gwynne Dyer

“With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win,” said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in Tennessee on 31 August. “The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable,” repeated his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards. That is utter drivel, and they must privately know it, but truth generally loses to calculated lies in politics.

This outburst of bravado was prompted by President George W. Bush’s brief brush with the truth about terrorism the previous weekend, when he told an interviewer that he did not really think you can win the war on terror, but that conditions could be changed in ways that would make terrorists less acceptable in certain parts of the world. For a moment there, you glimpsed a functioning intellect at work. Such honesty rarely goes unpunished in politics.

This heroic attempt to grapple with reality was a welcome departure from Mr Bush’s usual style — “I have a clear vision of how to win the war on terror and bring peace to the world,” he was claiming as recently as 30 August — and so his opponents pounced on it at once. “What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against Communism?” asked John Edwards, in one of the least credible displays of indignation in American history.

Mr Bush promptly fled back to the safe terrain of hypocrisy and patriotic lies. “We meet today in a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win,” he told a veterans’ conference in Nashville on 1 September. But it is not “a time of war” for the United States, and it cannot “win.”.

Some 140,000 young American soldiers are trapped in a neo-colonial war in Iraq (where there were no terrorists until the US invasion), but their casualties are typical of colonial wars: fewer than one percent killed a year. As for the three hundred million Americans at home, exactly as many of them have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 as have been killed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the same period. None.

The rhetoric of a “war on terror” have been useful to the Bush administration, and terrorism now bulks inordinately large in any media where the agenda is set by American perspectives. On the front page of the International Herald Tribune that carried the story on Mr Bush’s return to political orthodoxy on terrorism, four of the other five stories were also about terrorism: “Twin bus bombs kill 16 in Israel,” “Blast leaves 8 dead in Moscow subway,” “12 Nepal hostages slain in Iraq,” and “French hold hectic talks on captives.”

In other words, thirty-six of the quarter-million people who died on this planet on the 31st of August were killed by terrorists: close to one in eight thousand. No wonder the IHT headlined its front page “A Deadly Day of Terror.” Although it would have been on firmer statistical ground if it had substituted the headline “A Deadly Day for Swimming” or even “A Deadly Day for Falling Off Ladders.”

Actually, more than 36 people were killed by “terrorists” on 31 August — perhaps as many as fifty or sixty. The rest were just killed in wars that the United States is not all that interested in: in Nepal, in Peru, in Burundi, and in other out-of-the-way countries where the local guerrillas are not Muslims and have no imaginable links with the terrorists who attacked the United States.

Governments that are fighting Muslim rebels, like the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories or the Chechens in Russia, have had more success in tying their local counter-insurgency struggles to the US “war on terror,” but that only means that Washington doesn’t criticise their human rights violations so much. The only terrorists that the United States government really worries about — and this would be equally true under a Kerry administration — are terrorists who attack Americans. There aren’t that many of them, and they aren’t that dangerous.

George W. Bush spoke the truth, briefly, at the end of August, when he said that the “war on terror” cannot be won. It cannot be won OR lost, because it is only a metaphor, not an actual war. It is like the “war on crime,” another metaphor. Nobody ever expected that the “war on crime” would one day end in a surrender ceremony where all the criminals come out with their hands up, and afterwards there is no more crime. It is a STATISTICAL operation, and success is measured by how successful you are in getting the crime RATE down. Same goes for terrorism.

You could do worse than to listen to Stella Rimington, the former director of MI5, Britain’s intelligence agency for domestic operations: “I’m afraid that terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11 and it will be around for a long time. I was very surprised by the announcement of a war on terrorism because terrorism has been around for thirty-five years…[and it] will be around while there are people with grievances. There are things we can to improve the situation, but there will always be terrorism. One can be misled by talking about a war, as though in some way you can defeat it.” As Mr Bush said before his handlers got the muzzle back on.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Actually…dangerous”)