Back to the Future in Nepal
by Abbie Zamcheck
During Election Day in Iraq, a high turnout finally seemed to lift hopes for peace and democracy one step off the ground. Two days later in Nepal—a country with a knack for defying global trends—these prospects came crashing down.
On Tuesday, February 1, King Gyanendra of Nepal sacked the government. Under his authority, the prime minister and other party leaders under house arrest. Civil rights were suspended, and hundreds of political leaders, journalists and activists were imprisoned. Flights bound for Nepal were turned back midair. In an announcement that day on state run television, the king said that his new assumption of power was the best way to restore peace and democracy in Nepal. Most others called it a coup. And in the days that followed, Kathmandu, the country’s center of political and economic power, seemed as remote and isolated as the rural strongholds of the country’s Maoist insurgency.
Nepalese Maoists, when justifying their violent tactics, frequently cite Mao’s statement that “a revolution is not a dinner party.” Neither, apparently, is a royal coup. Following the declaration of a state of emergency, phone and internet connections were cut, silencing much communication to the outside world. Normal sources of news for Nepal simply disappeared. One of the more popular online sources of information from Nepal, nepalnews.com, was ripped from the web almost immediately following the action.
In one part of the country, students threw rocks at soldiers, who in turn shot at them. Most of Nepal, though, seems to have been under an efficient lockdown. The streets were silent except for passing army regiments. All demonstrations and public criticism of the king were banned for at least six months.
On February 8, phone and internet connections were restored. A new, state sanctioned version of nepalnews.com appeared that day, with this statement from its publisher: “We sincerely hope that the recent developments will lead to peace and security in the country.” The website, in a new get-up, would operate within the sphere of the state of emergency declared in the country and in accordance with various directives issued by the government. We would like our readers to take note of this.” Media in Nepal appears to have a gun pointed at its temple, in a very literal sense. In the days after the king’s seizure of power, soldiers occupied newsrooms and broadcast stations, enforcing the ban on dissent. Since then they have left, but only after promising journalists that they should expect to be “disappeared for several hours” if they don’t self-censor.
This is the second time in three years that the king has dissolved the government. Never, though, in the four years of King Gyanendra’s rule, has his power been so absolute, and hopes for a democratic Nepal seemed so remote. The act is also viewed by many as a high stakes gamble by the king, who now is solely responsible for everything that happens in Nepal. If he doesn’t succeed, he may lose his throne. While Gyanendra is one of the most unpopular kings in Nepal’s history, however, many Nepalese are enthusiastic about his new powers. It is corrupt elected politicians who receive much of the blame for the eruption of the Maoist insurgency in 1996. More recently, some regard the stalled peace process as the fault of Prime Minister Deuba and the competing political parties. The sentiments of the pro-monarchists are reflected in the words of Ranjit Rauniyar, a writer for the Asian Wall Street Journal. He states:
What we have in Nepal today can be likened to a circus run amok, where all the clowns are putting on their own acts without any concern for the show as a whole. Now that the king has chosen to take over as circus master, the responsibility will rest on his shoulders to bring the performance together in what may be the last chance to save Nepal from complete ruin.
No longer burdened by political opposition, as the argument goes, Gyanendra’s military will have free reign to quash the nine-year-old Maoist insurgency. Many Nepalese are desperate for peace, and loathe the instability which they believe the rival political parties have only perpetuated. But there is no assurance that the king will succeed.
While there is much support for the king’s move, it’s important not to forget that this is the only opinion allowed now from Nepal’s newspapers and statesmen. Many view the king as the biggest clown in Nepal, whose preference for staging elaborate ceremony and sacrifices is severely out of place in a time of intense poverty and instability. The king is also criticized for deliberately weakening the power of Prime Minister Deuba and the rest of the government, and thus setting the stage for their failures. And many in Nepal long ago concluded that an absolute king is not the solution to their country’s problems. Nepal today is reminiscent of Nepal during the Panchayat period, which began in 1959 after King Mahendra seized power from the first democratically elected government in Nepal. Under the Panchayat system, dissent was also strongly curtailed, and political parties were banned. Only the country’s elite had political representation. This led to a severe neglect of the countryside that continues to this day. But now, the king’s latest act may not only further alienate much of Nepal’s citizenry—not including those already involved in armed uprising against the government—but also at least one of the country’s most powerful neighbors.
Nepal is geographically straddled between two giants—India and China. Subsequently, there is international influence on almost every dimension of Nepalese politics. This has been true from the start. Back in the 18th century, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of Nepal and of Gyanendra’s dynasty, famously called his kingdom “a yam between two boulders,” and observed that Nepal’s survival rested on a balanced relationship with both powers. More recently, Nepal has courted its neighbors in opposing the Maoist insurgency. Both China and India have, for the most part, been eager to help Nepal quell the instability. But this latest chapter in Nepal’s history seems to have put Nepal more in China’s camp.
India has long been an influential supporter of democracy in Nepal. In 1950, the Nepalese Congress Party, founded in India, led massive protests in Kathmandu, which resulted in the abolition of the Rana court regime and the establishment of multi-party democracy in the country. Until recently, India provided a steady stream of military aid to Nepal. Indian officials often predicted their forces might have to intervene in Nepal if the Maoists became too powerful, something that the rebels have long predicted in official statements. But the king’s recent seizure of power has been met by severe criticism from India. There has been no similar response from China.
Three days before the king seized power, Gyanendra made international headlines by shutting down the Dalai Lama’s offices in Kathmandu, a move widely regarded as a way to appease the Chinese government. Long a refuge for Tibetan dissidents to the Chinese occupation, Nepal and China’s relationship has improved in recent years. China, worried about instability on its borders as a result of the Maoist insurgency, has supported Nepal’s efforts to fight the rebels—China officially criticizes the rebels as false disciples of Mao. It seems like its support is paying off. In addition, Nepal’s army is also the recipient of millions of dollars in US aid. The Bush administration has usually explained its support for Nepal as part of the war on terror. After the king suspended the government three years ago, the US issued statements which urged Nepal to “solve its problems democratically.” Meanwhile, the military aid continued. The Royal Nepalese Army, true to its name, has always been under the control of Nepal’s monarchs. But now, it’s hard to ignore the true face of power in Nepal. Whether US policy towards Nepal will change remains to be seen.
Ultimately, however, the king’s performance in addressing the Nepal’s pressing domestic issues will be the real test of Gyanendra grab for power. If he can stem Nepal’s corrupt government, promote economic growth, and successfully combat Maoist rebels, then it is possible that his dramatic seizure of governmental power could be justified by the Nepalese people. If not, his suppression of free press and civil rights may doom his monarchy to revolution and overthrow. Thus, only time will tell whether this is the start of a full restoration of the monarchy, or if it is instead Gyanendra’s last stand.
Abbie Zamcheck (2007) is a second year student at Brandeis University majoring in Politics and East Asian Studies.