A New Nepal is Born
27 May, 2006
By Amir Latif
A new Nepal is born. Till one and a half months ago, Nepal was known by Mount Everest, but now it has a new identification- a democratic Nepal.
The day the parliament restored by people power declared itself supreme and decided to save the monarchy from a king who nearly took it down with him.
In one razor sharp resolution, which undoubtedly can be described as a glimmer of hope for democratic forces of those countries struggling against military dictatorships and monarchies there, the parliament cut off powers and privileges enjoyed by kings of the Shah dynasty for the last 237 years.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in a speech to the parliament last week delivered a warning to extremists of the left and right: ?The whole nation will rise up against anyone who works against this historic proclamation,? Koirala declared before asking newly elected Speaker of the parliament, Subash Nembang to continue. As Nembang said, all powers of the king will now be handed to the people, the table thumping from the MPs was deafening.
The short interval between April 6 and 24 , 2006 will go down as a revolutionary moment in Nepal's history, during which its people brought a supremely arrogant autocratic monarch to his knees through the sheer moral-political force of their collective action. Perhaps, never before in South Asia's recent history have so many people been so rapidly politicised and
radicalised as they were in wave after wave of agitation in Nepal. Particularly noteworthy was the post-April 21 period, when King Gyanendra played what he probably thought was his trump card: the offer to appoint a nominally democratic toady government.
Rather than defuse popular discontent, this further inflamed it, forcing Gyanendra to reconvene Parliament respecting "the wishes" of the "Jan Andolan", and to acknowledge that "state power and sovereignty are inherent in the people".
Ultimately, all concerned saw the writing on the wall: the United States, which had been egging Gyanendra to make concessions to the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) only to divide it from the Maoists; India, which vacillated at the crucial moment after taking a good stand; and above all, the Nepali people, who decided the King's time is up.
It is of no mean import that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) chief chose to distance himself from the King and reportedly advised him to sue for peace on April 23-24. Lt. Gen. Pyarjang Thapa could not have but known that among the young people thronging Kathmandu's streets were countless relatives of his Army's own rank and file.
Identifying the Army brass too openly with the monarch would risk splitting the force horizontally. In short, even the most conservative monarchist elements concluded that it would be impossible to split the SPA-Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) bloc.
Behind all these classic signs of profound, radical change - one is tempted to call it revolution - lay one clearly identifiable force: the people of Nepal, in flesh and blood, who suddenly transformed themselves from subjects to citizens and gave themselves rights. It is impossible not to feel proud of the Nepali people and share their joy as the Pratinidhi Sabha reconvenes after four years to pave the way for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly.
This agenda was subverted twice, in the late 1950s and in 1990, thanks to the cussedness of the monarchy and the willingness of mainstream parties to collaborate with it. Now, a Constitutional Assembly is likely to materialise soon. Not only are the SPA and the CPN(M), committed to this through the 12-point agreement of last November but they are being watched by a vigilant public that has drawn great energy and confidence from the 19-day mobilisation, which witnessed the birth of its power.
Broadly, three factors explain this changed situation.
First, Gyanendra's coup of 2002 and his putsch of February 2005 made a grotesque mockery of the idea that the Palace would guarantee political stability in Nepal. The "twin pillars" - "Constitutional monarchy" and "multi-party democracy" - for long a convenient façade for supporting the Palace, collapsed under Gyandendra's horrendous bad governance, marked by disastrous economic policies, cronyism, blatant interference in numerous Ministries, collapse of public services, including the police in half the country, muzzling of the media, and ruthless suppression of fundamental rights.
Second, the people's experience of parliamentary democracy post-1990 was on the whole positive and empowering - despite the system's many flaws, opportunism of the main parties, and their embarrassing record in power. There was a major improvement in social indicators - literacy rose from 36 per cent to almost two-thirds, health-services provision quadrupled, life expectancy rose by about 10 years, and access to drinking water increased 74 per cent. Nepal also witnessed fairly impressive
infrastructure growth, with electrification increasing four-fold and total road length doubling.
Even more important, after 1990, development spread to the traditionally backward areas outside the Kathmandu Valley, which had hitherto concentrated all power in Nepal. Subaltern ethnic and tribal groups (Janajatis), religious minorities, and women, experienced an improvement in living standards and access to services. All this established the substantive relevance of democracy for the people. It enfranchised and politicised the disadvantaged strata. A 2003 survey by Tribhuvan University said that for 62 per cent of Nepalis, "democracy is always preferable" to other forms of government while 78 per cent favoured either a limited monarchy or its abolition. A more recent survey says 55 per cent prefer a republic and 42.5 per cent a ceremonial monarchy. Only 2.5 per cent want traditional monarchy. The King's direct, draconian, rule was seen as negation of this, an obstacle to social progress, and an assault on democracy. The Nepalis took to the streets.
Third, there was a major change in the stances of the SPA and the Maoists, with their strong rural poor base. The parties were excluded from power and got alienated from the Palace. The Maoists radically rethought their strategy. Their ideologue Baburam Bhattarai propounded a new, healthy, thesis: in the 21st century, one cannot base a viable political strategy on armed struggle alone nor use controversial tactics - revolutionary violence - which Nepal's two big neighbours, India and China, oppose.
The Maoists took the bold step of committing themselves to moving "in a peaceful new political current," to institutionalising a "competitive multi-party system, civil and fundamental rights, human rights and the rule of the law," and to disarming themselves under the auspices of the United Nations or a "credible" third party. The SPA-Maoists' interaction with Nepali civil society groups, and with Indian parties, with whom they have always had fraternal ties, was a crucial input. The Congress, the CPI, the CPI(M), and former Socialists, played a catalysing role in the 12-point agreement. Under their pressure, the till-then-vacillating Indian government facilitated meetings between the SPA and the Maoists on Indian soil.
This paved the way for the successful boycott of local body elections last February and an agreement to launch a mass agitation beginning April 6. The agitation got increasingly radicalised as the Palace unleashed savage repression, with mass arrests, gagging of the press and community radio (in which Nepal is a world leader), curfews, and shoot-to-kill orders. This has culminated in an achievement that is historic by any yardstick.
Nepal's democracy movement holds major lessons for all of South Asia. It reveals the potential of our peoples for a determined struggle against despotic rule and for justice. It reassures us that no amount of brute force can suppress the popular urge for responsive government and self-empowerment. It gives the lie to the idea that "fatalistic" South Asians, especially the poor and dispossessed, will tolerate any amount of oppression without resistance.
The movement's triumph also shows that New Delhi was wrong to align itself for long months with the U.S. and Britain, supply arms to the RNA, and vacillate at a critical juncture, as it did on April 21-22, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh disastrously welcomed the King's ploy to perpetuate his rule.
Though, the democracy movement in Nepal has succeeded, its greatest challenge still stands before it: getting the Maoist rebels to give up their decade-long insurgency and join the political process.
The Maoists have announced a unilateral, three-month ceasefire, saying in a statement that it is aimed at helping the "ongoing 'people's struggle' for a constituent assembly."
While the ceasefire is emphatically not an end to their fight against the government, Khanal warned that if the Maoists hold fast to violence, they threaten themselves with isolation.
The parliament is expected to vote on holding elections for an assembly to draft a new constitution. Such a vote would achieve a major goal for the Maoists and the seven-party opposition alliance that led nearly three weeks of protests against King Gyanendra, which ended with the king agreeing to hand power over to a prime minister selected by the opposition and to
reinstate the elected parliament.
But the path toward a new constitution, which is likely to limit or abolish the king's political role, will most certainly be a rocky one. "The biggest issue will be the future armament or disarmament of the Maoists," said Ram Sharan Mahat, former foreign minister and spokesman for the Nepali Congress Party, the largest party in the opposition alliance. "There can be no free and fair elections if these people possess weapons." It is highly questionable whether the Maoist rebels, who have an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 fighters in their ranks, would allow themselves to be disarmed before an election. They are already demanding that the constitutional assembly be elected "without conditions," which doesn't include giving up their
weapons. The rebels, who are seeking to establish a communist republic in Nepal, control about 70 per cent of the Himalayan kingdom through a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people, and their political style is anything but democratic.
Their leader, Prachanda, is considered an iron-willed champion of the armed struggle, and fears abound that the Maoists would use violence to force the election of their representatives into the constitutional assembly. And any constitution written with substantial representation from the Maoists would not be met with applause from either the democracy movement within Nepal, powerful neighbour India or the West.
However, the Maoists have offered to allow observers from a neutral country to monitor their territory in the pre-election period. It remains unclear what country would be prepared to dispatch observers to Nepal or how effective such monitoring would be in the largely inaccessible terrain of the Himalayan state.
In addition, a relinquishment of their weapons, with which the Maoists have spread fear and terror, would leave them defenceless and prone to revenge attacks, said Dev Raj Dahal of the Kathmandu office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German organization encouraging the growth of democratic institutions in Nepal.
Should it unexpectedly come to a disarmament, it would certainly be a drawn-out and complicated process, and the reintroduction of the rebels into society and a civilian future for them would also have to be achieved.
Many regional Maoist commanders would likely balk at having to exchange their powerful positions for low-paid civilian posts.
"The only strength of the Maoists is their military might," Mahat said. "They will not simply give it up."
Jhala Nath Khanal, a leader in the Communist Party as well as the seven-party opposition alliance, said he also does not believe a quick solution for Nepal's political problems was likely.
He said he expected a "challenging time" and a "difficult task" that could only be solved through dialogue. "We are ready to listen," he said. "We are ready to recognize the Maoists as a political power."
It has become "very lonely" around Gyanendra, Mahat said, adding, "When the king is ready to play a purely ceremonial role, then he could still have a future." Khanal agreed, saying that one thing is clear in Nepal's ambiguous future: "The king will no longer have any power?.