Ignoring Democracy in Nepal

For the past two weeks, the streets of Nepal have filled with militant demonstrators demanding democracy. A transportation stoppage halted most passenger traffic and deliveries into the capital of Kathmandu. Food and other basics are in short supply.

Travel agents and employees even held a rally in the tourist district of Kathmandu to protest the King's policies and the wrecking of the tourism industry. The government periodically shuts down all cell phone service in an effort to disrupt the planning of demonstrations.

The anger at King Gyanendra's dictatorship runs so deep, it is surprising even top opposition leaders. In numerous interviews, those leaders condemned the king's policies but few thought he could be toppled anytime soon.

Chakra Bastola, a top leader of the Nepali Congress Party who was interviewed before the general strike began, said the king will likely stay in power for a while. The king "could always be tempted to be harsher and stay put," he said.

But the general strike that has mobilized so many may just prove that Bastola and other leaders are being too pessimistic.

The general strike and transport stoppage was supported jointly by the seven major parliamentary parties and the Maoist guerrillas. The guerrillas even called a military ceasefire in the Kathmandu area so as not to give the government an excuse to shoot unarmed demonstrators by claiming they were "guerrilla infiltrators."

That didn't stop the police and army from firing on demonstrators, killing many, injuring hundreds and jailing over 3,000. For several days, the government clamped a total daytime curfew on Kathmandu. The streets were eerily empty, with military and police checkpoints posted throughout the city. Yet, at the appointed time, thousands of demonstrators came out of their homes. For the moment, all the opposition forces are united in calling for the king to give up power -- a radical shift considering that, for the past two centuries, the kings of Nepal have been considered gods. The call constitutes a major policy shift for mainstream political parties, but it is pressure from ordinary Nepalis that is fueling the movement.

"A lot of youth are for a republic," said Sujata Koirala, another top leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest parliamentary party. The interview took place inside a police station because she had just been arrested for leading a nonviolent demonstration. "If the king goes on like this, I think there will be no king in Nepal."

Nepal's kings haven't been acting very godly lately. In June 2001, according to official accounts, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered 11 members of the royal family, including the king. The crown prince then committed suicide. The murdered king's brother, Gyanendra, then took power.

Five months later King Gyanendra got rid of the parliament and appointed a cabinet. People had become disgusted with the corrupt and power-hungry parliamentary parties, so the king had some popular backing for his dissolution of parliament. But in February 2005, King Gyanendra arrested some of his handpicked ministers and seized absolute power in alliance with the military.

The government banned all news from FM radio stations, the most popular and progressive media in the country. Uniformed military officers sat in every print and broadcast newsroom to censor the news. While the officers left the newsroom after a few months, the official censorship decree remains on the books, and journalists engage in substantial self-censorship.

Ian Martin, head of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Nepal, says human rights abuses are widespread. Political detainees and common criminals are regularly tortured. "I'm afraid torture is systematic, routine and widespread," he told me in an interview.

I scheduled an interview with one of Nepal's leading journalists, Kanak Dixit. When I arrived at the offices of his Himal South Asia magazine, his secretary told me he had been unavoidably detained. I was incensed but soon discovered that Dixit had a legitimate excuse. He had indeed been detained -- by the police, so I went to a downtown police station.

About 20 of Nepal's top journalists had been arrested for holding a nonviolent rally to protest the arrest of other journalists earlier that day. This is akin to having Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Seymour Hersh all detained in the same police courtyard.

As an indication of how the political winds are shifting, police allowed the journalists to keep their cell phones and file their stories from the police station. As Dixit told me, the police know the king may fall, and they don't want to antagonize major reporters. As if to confirm that, all the journalists were released the next day.

I pulled Dixit aside and asked him some questions about the newfound political solidarity in Nepal. Late last year the parliamentary parties and Maoist guerrillas signed a 12-point agreement calling for restoration of parliament, quick elections, and forming a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

The Maoists went underground 10 years ago to start a people's war, modeled on the successes of Mao Zedong. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) considers present-day China as having sold out its revolution. Other Maoist parties around the world, such as the Shining Path in Peru, have failed miserably. So the Nepalese Maoists are rethinking their strategy.

Six months ago the Maoists assessed that they couldn't win immediate state power, and even if they did, they would face a hostile India and China on their borders. So they're trying to negotiate a return to legal activity, much like the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland or Basque separatists in Spain.

"They decided to come in for a safe landing," said Dixit. "They've decided to accept multiparty competitive politics."

Dixit says if the Maoists became a legal political party, they would be the third largest political force in the country. Others say they could pull as much as half the parliamentary vote. Because the party remains outlawed, it is impossible to know.

So far the king has refused to negotiate with the Maoists, and they continue their armed struggle, recently downing a military helicopter for the first time. Because they control wide swaths of the countryside, an immediate military defeat of the Maoists is unlikely.

Dixit says the entire pro-democracy movement must unite against the king as a first step towards negotiating with the Maoists to end the armed insurgency. Said Dixit, "We must dialogue with them (Maoists) and see how we can bring them in from the cold."

The Bush administration disagrees with that view and strongly condemns the 12-point agreement between the political parties and the Maoists. U.S. Ambassador to Nepal James Moriarty wrote in the Wall Street Journal-Asia, "While proclaiming themselves champions of democracy, peace and prosperity, they (the parties) find themselves in 'partnership' with a movement that settles arguments with a gun." Nepalis note the irony of the U.S.'s condemning anyone for using guns to settle arguments.

The U.S. Embassy in Nepal issued only a two-paragraph statement condemning the government human rights violations of the past few weeks, and called for the king to negotiate with the political parties. Meanwhile the United States continues to supply the Nepali Army with "non-lethal" supplies and train its soldiers.

Washington would prefer that the political parties form an alliance with the king to crush the Maoists. Nepal sits between China and India, two major strategic concerns for Washington. Certain to oppose a leftist government in Nepal -- whether it came to power through people's war or fair elections -- the United States has ramped up the anti-communist rhetoric familiar to veterans of the Cold War. "The U.S. attitude has been to scaremonger," said Dixit.

The next few weeks are critical for the democracy movement in Nepal. Some cracks are showing in his once solid backing from the army and police and the king is rapidly losing popular support -- even among the country's wealthy elite. But these last few weeks of turmoil may, in hindsight, be seen as the beginning of a massive, popular movement that finally toppled the king's power and restored democracy to Nepal.


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