Towards a showdown in Kathmandu

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

Recovering lost strength, Nepal's political parties take to the streets demanding the restoration of democracy. But the monarchy is trying for a tighter grip on power and the Maoists are pushing for republicanism.

in Kathmandu

ON April 10, the daily swell of demonstrators on the streets of Kathmandu grew as members of the five-party alliance that is leading the agitation were joined, for the first time, by the politically conscious professional elite of the capital, in what appears to be a replay of the 1990 Jana Andolan that ushered in multi-party democracy in Nepal.

They were defying the prohibitory orders to continue the agitation against the constitutional monarch's seizure of power and the undermining of democracy.

In the past couple of months, Nepal's drift into a deepening crisis has moved into top gear with the three political forces - the King, the political parties and the Maoists - pulling in three different directions, but the difference being that the balance among them is shifting thanks to the snowballing street agitation organised by the political parties, until recently considered a sideshow in what was a polarised conflict between the Monarchy-Royal Nepal Army (RNA) combine and the Maoists. In recent weeks, it is the momentum of the democratic politics of street protests that is driving a more radical and militant politics that the political leadership is hard-pressed to contain and keep within the compromise bounds of constitutional monarchy.

"I'm not supporting the political parties, I've come out in support of the principle of democracy because I feel this is a crucial historic moment for those of us who believe in democracy," explained Rohit Nepal, director of a well-known non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"I don't believe in the political parties completely but the fact remains that they are leading this movement. Among the three forces in the country... the parliamentary faction is better than the King, and the Maoists have guns. In these times we need to support a peaceful movement," Manjushree Thapa, the author of The Tutor of History (the first novel published by Penguin in Nepal), said before riot police rained lathi blows on her skull.

Ram Pradhan, Editor of Himalayan Times, a daily newspaper, describes the mounting uneasiness that is driving sections of the cocooned Kathmandu elite to join the street agitations thus: "If something is not done quickly enough to check the widening gulf between the Palace and the political parties, things could indeed reach a point of no return."

Even American policy-makers who tended to view the Nepal crisis through the optic of "war against terrorism", thus backing the King and the RNA as the bulwark against the Maoists overrunning Nepal, are readjusting their focus. "Washington, for now, is more worried about the implications of what is happening on the streets of Kathmandu," a senior United States policy-maker told this writer. It appears that the U.S. is beginning to take more seriously the imperative of supporting the democratic political forces. A visiting team of U.S. Congressmen met a few important political leaders in Kathmandu to reassure themselves that reconciliation between the two constitutional forces was still possible. However, the more the RNA is strengthened against the Maoists, the more entrenched is the position of the King in the power play.

Shyam Srestha, editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan, cautions that the street agitation has yet to reach that decisive moment. According to him, the trend towards republican radicalisation and militancy is growing and will increase if the state continues to suppress democratic protest. The extension by ordinance of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Act, 2002, which provides for 90 days preventive detention, portends more arbitrary arrests, disappearances, custodial violence and extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned of an alarming human rights situation. "However, the lower middle class is yet to be drawn into the agitation and the contagion is yet to spread to other districts and urban centres," Srestha said. "There is no sense of do or die," Rohit Nepal said.

On April 10, a week after the launch of the latest phase of the agitation, the daily afternoon ritual of demonstrations at Ratna Park, near the Palace, saw militant students and young party workers hurling stones at the armed police.

On April 9 the government declared much of Kathmandu "riot-prone" but hundreds of people, including top political leaders such as Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader Madhav Nepal, who was arrested along with 500 demonstrators, violated the orders. Within half an hour the police broke through the human chain protecting senior leaders Sushil Koirala and Lilamani Pokhrel and whisked them away in waiting vans and trucks, provoking young supporters to hurl stones and bricks, one of which struck a Deputy Superintendent of Police, Sarveshwar Khanal, below his right eye. The police reportedly tried to use tear gas shells to disperse the students but they reassembled. The standoff continued for two hours with students shouting anti-monarchy slogans and hurling brickbats, setting up barricades, burning tyres and taunting the police to come after them. "This stretch of Bagh Bazar is the centre point of the struggle here," a student leader proudly asserted. The warren of streets ands shops afforded many escape roots for the students. People's support was discernible from their willingness to come forward and give water to relieve the tear gas effect. Nepali Congress leader Arjun Narasingh, who is nursing a fractured arm, reiterated the party's commitment to constitutional monarchy, hopeful that the King would take the initiative to arrive at a compromise. But the rift is fast becoming irreconcilable.

Moreover, the King's determination to rule is no secret. On October 4, 2002, he dismissed Parliament and took over power as the guardian of the Constitution that he had, in the process, rendered defunct. Notwithstanding his divide-and-rule games with the ever-hopeful political leaders, the royal propagandists had been whispering loudly the King's growing unhappiness with the political parties. Finally, at a civic reception at Nepalgunj, amidst multiple rings of security and hovering helicopter gunships, the King trashed the political parties and voiced his desire to be a constructive monarch. Asserting his new role as a constructive monarch, the King issued a 10-point directive to the government to undertake programmes for the welfare of the people of the western region. A few weeks later at a civic reception in Pokhra, he announced the holding of elections within a year, but the move was rejected as a ruse to extend his rule. Arjun Narsingh remarked: "When we have a security situation where armed Maoists in broad daylight parade at will, political workers have fled to the district headquarters or Kathmandu, and more than 200,000 people have migrated, elections will only create more problems." He accused the King of eroding the gains of the 1990 pro-democracy movement in order to restore a despotic monarchy. The decree to allocate to the Palace 142 million Nepali rupees to finance the purchase of three new luxury cars and a string of civic receptions at a time when the country was being bled dry has provoked wide criticism in the media. UML leader K.P. Oli described the allocation as "ill-timed".

Support for the agitation has come from the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Prachanda. However, the alliance has ruled out any unity with the Maoists unless there is a consensus on unity of purpose and means. The bottom line for the Maoists is the setting up of an elected constituent Assembly that is expected to deliver a republican polity for Nepal. The Nepali Congress and the UML are still clinging to the constitutional monarchy frame although they have increasingly voiced the opinion, as UML leader Madhav Nepal did, that "it's the King who is sowing the seeds of a republic". Jhala Nath Khanal, also of the UML, was equally blunt: "It is high time the King talked to the rebels." Evidently, the initiative is still seen to rest with the King. After Madhav Nepal's Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh, India) meeting with the Maoist leadership, channels of direct communication have not existed. "How can we trust them when they attack our party workers?" asks Arjun Narasingh. Prachanda promptly replied: "Workers should refrain from spying for feudal forces." While Prachanda appeals for a united struggle, he insists that "there is no alternative to military struggle as the feudal forces have time and again fallen back in finding a peaceful solution".

DEVASTATING armed attacks by the Maoists in March at Bhojpur and Beni Bazar have demonstrated their continuing capacity to launch mass strikes. In Bhojpur 32 security personnel were killed. In Beni, according to the Maoist FM radio, only 50 Maoists were killed although Army sources put the toll at 500. The toll on the side of the security forces has been steadily rising from the initial figure of 51. In Beni the Maoists fired mortars. According to the Nepal Red Cross, some 30 civilians were killed largely, in strafing by attack helicopters. The Maoists unilaterally released 37 people taken hostage at Beni, including the District Officer and the Superintendent of Police. Home Minister Kamal Thapa has ruled out any negotiations for ceasefire with the Maoists. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan and the U.S. government spokesperson Richard Boucher appealed for peace. But the government remains committed to a strategy of militarily "cutting them (Maoists) down to size before any negotiations can take place". Thapa is confident that the ongoing military operations will control Maoist activities and, on the basis of the optimism, visiting U.S. generals were led to believe that the Maoists were getting "weaker" and their military capacity was getting degraded. Bhojpur and Beni proved the theory wrong.

The RNA's modernising and rearming spree has not been able to shift the strategic equilibrium to its advantage. The boast of the RNA's transformation from a ceremonial to a modern fighting force has still to be demonstrated. Some 200,000 M-16 rifles and the Indian INSAS guns are in the pipeline, as also two Indian attack helicopters. Discussions have begun on the possible supply of U.S. transport helicopters. All this has resulted in a quantum leap in the level of destructive violence in the civil war, with the Maoists having taken away sophisticated weapons during their raids. Moreover, access to human intelligence remains a critical issue and is undermined by the RNA's human rights record. The RNA has grown to a 70,000-strong force but it remains reactive and overstretched with 30-40 per cent of the force locked in the defence of the valley and providing security to the King. The Maoists have enforced extended bandhs and economic blockades, virtually bringing to a halt all movement on the main highway for three weeks. The Maoist strategy of economic encirclement eased only after public protests, says Shyam Sreshtha.

However, the recent arrest in India of three top Maoist leaders, Matrika Prasad Yadav, Suresh Ali Magar and the No.2 in the party, Mohan Vaidya, has exposed the vulnerability of the sanctuary on the Indian side of the border. While Yadav and Magar were handed over to the Nepal authorities, Vaidya, who was arrested on March 28 in Siliguri in West Bengal, has been charged with waging war against India. The initial reaction to the arrest of Matrika Yadav and Suresh Magar was low key with Prachanda asserting that "by kidnapping a popular Terai leader and a member of the janajati (indigenous people), Indian rulers have distanced themselves from the Nepali people. Baburam Bhattarai, hit out at the "nexus" between the monarch and India based on the trading away of Nepal's water resources. Maoist cadre struck at 18 water tankers with Indian registration plates and roughed up the Indian crew. It has reinforced the demand by State governments on the Indian side of the border for greater border control to counter the challenge of the growing cross-border cooperation between Naxalites and co-ethnic groups. There is a huge Nepali diaspora in the five Indian States that are contiguous with the border.

"Whether the Maoist leadership is now disassociating itself from the attack by cadre, or is being conciliatory or confrontationist, is not important. What is significant is our interest. And that is, that we cannot allow the state to collapse and allow the Maoists to overrun it," an Indian policy-maker told Frontline. That predicates India bolstering the strength of the RNA and consequently the King in his increasingly anti-democratic stance.

In Kathmandu, the international community is divided, almost physically, with those on the Kathmandu side of the Bagmati bridge - the Indian, U.S. and British embassies - on one side, and the European and U.N. representatives, based largely in Patan, on the other. The U.N. and the European Union have been pushing for peace talks and criticising the overly military approach of the three forces. "Ask the E.U. and the others, do they want us to withdraw support and let the Maoist make a clean sweep of Nepal?" a highly placed Indian source said. They can make these brave statements because they are 3,000 miles away. They won't have to face the influx of hundreds of people. We don't have the luxury of distance," he said.

Political analysts in Kathmandu wonder at the way the King has been able, wittingly or unwittingly, to manipulate the international community. The King knows that New Delhi and Washington see the monarchy as the symbol of stability and identity and the RNA as the means to contain the Maoists. Consequently, India agreed to bail out the RNA in the matter of its deteriorating human rights record, at the meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The problem is that you strengthen the RNA and you strengthen the King in Nepal's power-play. Narayanhiti Palace has also been able to exploit India's determination to be the top player. U.S. sources here protest that "we're not here for the long-term and budgetary constraints will whittle down our commitments". However, the high-profile activities of the U.S. Ambassador (flying in a U.S. military plane to Bhojpur) and the regular visits in C-130 aircraft of U.S. military trainers, tell another story.

Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran's reiteration of support for the twin constitutional features of Nepal - the monarchy and multi-party democracy - has, however, been favourably remarked upon by the media but apparently not where it matters. While all eyes are on the street agitation, the Indian embassy is worried about the economic squeeze as the spate of blockades and bandhs begin to bite into the bubble economy of the Kathmandu valley. With the Maoist having penetrated the Terai, Nepal `s agricultural base and the major trade-transit links, economic pressures could induce a surge of disaffection.

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