ROYAL COUP

Print edition : February 25, 2005

King Gyanendra delivers a body blow to Nepal's fledgling democracy by enforcing direct royal rule and declaring a state of emergency.

recently in Kathmandu

NEPAL'S King Gyanendra has resorted to the "final option" - direct royal rule enforced by the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). Knocked out in the process was the political parties and the institution of multi-party democracy. Above all, the King's move will pave the way for a confrontation between the two autocratic forces, the monarchy and the Maoists. At stake is the survival of the monarchy and even Nepal as an independent country.

Armed Police personnel near the palace of King Gyanendra in Kathmandu on February 6.-ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

On February 1, the 11th King of the Shah dynasty sacked the Council of Ministers led by Sher Bahadur Deuba and, as per Article 27(3) of the Constitution, took over state authority for three years. Invoking the Constitution, and the commitment to defend multi-party democracy and preserve the "sovereignty vested in the people", he imposed a state of emergency in the country. The King accused Deuba of failing to persuade the Maoists to agree to a January 13 deadline for peace talks and to prepare the ground for general elections in the country. He announced his decision in a speech broadcast on state-owned television.

On February 2, a 10-member Cabinet led by the King assumed charge. The new government has promised to reach out to the Maoist rebels, who have been leading an insurgency against the state since 1996.

NEWSPAPER reports on February 1 had indicated that the King was planning something. The evening before he had summoned Deuba and the chiefs of the RNA, the Armed Police and the police to the Palace. Those who were at a concert of the flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia had remarked about Deuba's sudden exit from the venue.

On October 4, 2002, he had invoked the Constitution to sack Deuba as Prime Minister for "incompetence" and initiated a cycle of nominated governments. In June 2004, he reappointed Deuba in place of Surya Bahadur Thapa. This time round, however, the King took direct control, declared a state of emergency in which fundamental rights were suspended and imposed a kind of martial law. (Nepal's 1990 Constitution does not provide for martial law.) Ironically, no curfew was imposed, and no political party or organisation was banned. But a sense of internal siege spread fear.

Invoking Article 115 of the Constitution, the King suspended the fundamental rights of Nepali citizens, including the freedom of opinion and expression, and the freedom of the press and publications, and the right to information, the right to constitutional remedy and the right to property. The remedy of habeas corpus, ineffective even before the declaration of the emergency, was left untouched.

This is the second time that a state of emergency is declared in Nepal in less than four years. The first emergency lasted nine months (2001-2002) and was characterised by a draconian regime of preventive detentions, `disappearances', extra-judicial killings and restrictions on the media. It had earned Nepal the notorious distinction of topping the list of involuntary disappearances put out by Amnesty International. Reporters sans frontieres criticised the earlier Deuba government (during the first emergency) for having turned Nepal into the largest prison for journalists. However, the current emergency seems to portend an even more severe clampdown. The terror is more palpable because of the continuing communication blackout and the unprecedented structures of control and surveillance put in place. Rumours of mass arrests and helicopter gunships mowing down protesting students are sweeping the valley.

Under the Print and Publication Act, the government has banned for six months "any interview, article, news, notice, view or personal opinion that goes against the letter and spirit of the royal proclamation". The first to disappear from the newsstand was the weekly Budhwar (close to the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist). Half an hour before the proclamation came, 20 RNA soldiers marched into the office of Kantipur, Kathmandu's leading newspaper and television network, and stopped its operations. Since then some 35 publications have joined the list of banned ones. Soldiers are now camped on the premises of the independent radio station Sagarmatha, and Nepal's network of vibrant FM stations are broadcasting only music.

Mid-way through the royal proclamation, telecommunication lines went dead. Nepalis were cut off from each other and the outside world. Indian news channels available on the cable television networks had barely announced the royal takeover when they went off the air. The controversial India-based channel, Nepal 1, was the first to disappear. Soldiers went into the office of the country's leading Internet service provider and suspended its services. The Army's Signal Corps disconnected all the transponder satellite links. Even the Amadeus satellite link serving commercial airline connectivity was shut down. The international airport was sealed.

King Gyanendra-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/AFP

Tara Nath Dahal, president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, who had dodged the soldiers who had come calling at his house at night, was picked up outside the United Nations office. Many people fear that they are on the Army's arrest `lists' have approached the local U.N. office for protection. This correspondent's efforts to contact some well-known civil society `dissidents' revealed that many were no longer at home. The office of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which had emerged as the frontline for challenging the abuse of authority and holding the security forces and the Maoists accountable for mounting human rights abuses, looked forlorn. Its warren-like rooms were practically empty with only one member, Sushil Pyakurel, present.

EXPECTEDLY, among those arrested first were the top political leaders - Girija Prasad Koirala and Sushil Koirala (Nepali Congress), Madhav Kumar Nepal (CPN-UML), S.B. Deuba and Pradeep Giri (Nepali Congress-Democratic) and Surya Bahadur Thapa (Rashtriya Prajatantra Party). They were held under house arrest and were largely incommunicado. Sindhu Nath Pyakurel, head of the human rights cell of the Nepal Bar Association, was among the first to be arrested. Some others like Jhala Nath Khanal of the CPN-UML managed to go underground before the crackdown.

In an effort to test the limits of the restrictions, Nepali Congress (Democratic) activists tried to hold a meeting at their party headquarters. Security forces broke up the meeting, roughed up party activists and journalists, and locked the office. Party leader Prakash Mahat was arrested. Nepali Congress and CPN-UML offices too were sealed.

With communication networks down and party leaders under arrest, the tradition of centralised party command seems to have hollowed out the capacity of cadre to revive the street agitations that used to bring Kathmandu to a halt. Following the King's first experiment at setting aside multi-party democracy in October 2002, a broad five-party front had mobilised their student cadre to mount a sustained agitation against the `regression' of the King. In fact, its radical `republican' swing prompted the political leaders to rein in the students. Its back was broken by the political co-optation of the CPN-UML into the Deuba government. If they are able to galvanise their cadre the new crackdown could salvage the plummeting popularity of the parties.

Initially, within a couple hours of the King's takeover, there appeared to be the familiar signs of brewing street agitations. Black smoke billowed out from the direction of Patan's Multi-Campus - the site of many pitched battles between the police and students. But the protests fizzled out as soon as they began with the police and the paramilitary, this time backed by the Army, moving in. Reports of resistance came from the district headquarters of Pokhra, Nepalgunj, Gulmi and Palpa. In Pokhra, according to the NHRC, the security forces broke into a campus and picked up 59 students. News reports indicated that they were blindfolded, thrashed and released the next day with death threats.

Ousted Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Reports from some other centres spoke of people welcoming the King's move. For instance, in Dang district's Gorahi township, the target of a devastating attack by the Maoists in November 2001 that precipitated RNA involvement and the first emergency, not only is there no resistance but the people are happy. In Kathmandu, a quote in the daily Rajdhani echoed a sentiment widely expressed: "It could not have gone on, somebody had to take this step." The paper added that the move, however, was fraught with danger.

There is little sympathy for the political leaders, who are judged as self-seeking and corrupt. In 14 years of multi-party democracy, Nepal has had 13 governments that have failed to make an impact on the lives of the vast majority of the country's 24 million people. The Maoist insurgency is itself a result of that failure. Although the King's attack on the parties in the royal proclamation reflects his deep personal antipathy towards the political leaders, the charges of "tussle for power and abuse of authority... in fulfilling personal and communal interests" strike a chord with the public. The tabloid press is already setting the stage for show trials of corrupt politicians in the public maidan, Tundikhel. The inclusion of the right to property in the suspension of fundamental rights probably is aimed at the wealth allegedly held by the politicians. The objective appears to be to discredit them publicly.

THE outspokenly critical response of the international community is likely to embolden the resistance to the King's move. India, the United States and the United Kingdom have categorically denounced the royal takeover. The Bush administration, which was backing the King and arming the RNA in the battle against a "terrorist group", said it was "deeply troubled" by the developments in Nepal and described the King's action as "undermining the Nepali struggle with the Maoist insurgency". Britain went a step further and suggested that it would review its assistance to Nepal. India, which has made common cause with Nepal in the fight against the common threat of leftwing extremism, said the King's move had "violated" the basis of the stability of Nepal founded on the twin pillars of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh subsequently pulled out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka, citing poor security conditions in the Bangladeshi capital and the recent developments in Nepal. The new Indian Army chief, General Joginder Jaswant Singh, dropped his plans to visit Nepal. Japan, Nepal's largest aid donor, called for the restoration of democracy and the release of the detained leaders.

Apparently, the international reaction was harsh because the King had gone against the assurances he had given to the representatives of major countries. A month ago, elite circles in Kathmandu were abuzz with rumours of an imminent royal takeover. At a meeting with the King, a highly influential former Army chief and the current chief of the Army, Pyar Jung Thapa, had urged him to take over power. At that time the King called upon his political advisers to consider the likely negative international reaction. More than 60 per cent of Nepal's development budget is aid-dependent. The RNA too is dependent on U.S. and Indian assistance for arms and equipment. U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty had got an inkling of the move and had advised the King against it. Subsequently, representatives of the major countries were reassured that the existing system would not be upset.

WHAT prompted the King to go ahead with the `final option'? In the February 1 proclamation, the King cites Deuba's failure to prepare for elections in April. However, the consensus in the country was that elections were pointless given the Maoists' control over practically the whole countryside except for the Kathmandu valley and the headquarters of districts.

Just days before the royal coup, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbor had visited Nepal and castigated the security forces and the Maoists for gross human rights violations. Louise Arbor, who was associated with the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, warned there could be no immunity for soldiers found guilty of human rights abuses. She stung the RNA by threatening to jeopardise its participation in future peace-keeping operations given its human rights record. Although Brigadier-General Dipak Gurung clarified that it was Nepal that was cutting back on supplying peace-keeping troops, it was clear that the Army was angry. Also evident was the likelihood that in March, at the Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, Nepal would be asked to implement a series of accountability mechanisms that would affect the RNA's functioning directly. Last time India and the U.S. had lobbied to prevent Nepal from being singled out for reprimand.

Maoist rebels in the village of Kholagaun, in the rebel heartland. A file picture.-ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

However, recent events indicated a rethink in U.S. policy towards Nepal. The U.S.' Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005, mentioned: "Funds appropriated under the heading Foreign Military Financing programme may be made available for assistance to Nepal if the Secretary of State reports to the committee on appropriations that the Government of Nepal is making progress in complying with habeas corpus and cooperating with NHRC." Ironically, three days before the royal takeover, the RNA made public news of the court martial of a Major held responsible for the murder of 19 unarmed Maoists in Army custody during the ceasefire negotiations. The Major, who is hailed as a hero in the RNA for destroying the Maoists' eastern leadership, was discharged and given two years' imprisonment.

Meanwhile, an E.U. team that visited the country in December 2004 emphasised the need for restoring multi-party democracy and protection of human rights. Damaging reports by Human Rights Watch and Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict only deepened concern about human rights violations in Nepal.

Did the RNA renew its pressure on the King, who needs its backing to rule, to act? What is evident is that the Army is everywhere. A media proprietor observed: "One call from the Communications Secretary and we would have shut down shop. There was no need to send in the Army to our offices and have them camp there." The editor of a major publication group, who rang up the Palace Press Secretary, was told: "I can't do anything. You have to deal with the Army."

The proclamation refers to the intimate relationship between the "King and the people". But Nepal's is a distant monarchy and a fragile one after the Palace massacre in which King Birendra and his family were wiped out by the then Crown Prince who then killed himself.

The survival of the monarchy will depend upon King Gyanendra's ability to deal with the Maoist challenge and restore peace. But his address to the nation contained no political appeal to the Maoists to come for talks. Instead he repeatedly referred to them as criminals and terrorists. "The crimes will be dealt with firmly in accordance with the law," he said. It seems it is the military option that will be used to weaken the Maoists in order to force them to come to the negotiating table.

Maoist leader Prachanda said that he would speak only to the real ruler of the "old state" and not his proxies. The King is now in control. But the Maoists too are determined to pursue the military line, as stated at the conclusion of the plenum of their central committee last year. Their "strategic offensive" is to take the war to a new plane. February 13 marks the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the "people's war" and there is every likelihood of a renewed spiral of escalating violence.

Neither the Maoists nor the RNA have so far been able to shift the strategic stalemate in a conflict that now pits the monarchy and the Maoists face to face. What could strategically shift the balance could be the fence-sitting "political parties". `Prachanda' has asked all the political parties and civil society to join hands to overthrow "feudal autocracy".

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