- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

In Nepal, a 238-year-old monarchy of the Shah dynasty appears to be on the verge of collapse as King Gyanendra faces a popular uprising demanding democracy in the Himalayan country.

Normal life in the capital, Katmandu, and other major urban centers has been impossible since April 6, when the royal regime began imposing daily curfews to suppress a general strike called by a seven-party coalition demanding abolition of the monarchy.

As hundreds of thousands of people continued to defy the curfew, Gyanendra yesterday announced that “executive power” would be “returned to the people.”

In a nationally broadcast speech, the king called on the opposition to nominate a prime minister with the objective of conducting the elections for representative bodies.

But the king has stopped short of accepting a key opposition demand: to create a national assembly that would write a new constitution.

A leader of the Nepali Congress and the spokesman of the opposition coalition, Krishna Prasad Sitaula, rejected the king’s offer: “It is not enough and protests against [the king] will continue.”

In Washington, the State Department welcomed the king’s announcement and urged him to follow up on his promise.

“We expect the king to live up to his words and allow the parties to form a government,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Neighboring India also welcomed the king’s pledge to hand over power. “This action … should now pave the way for the restoration of political stability and economic recovery of the country,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Pradeep Nepal, spokesman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist- UML), said, “The king has not touched the issues raised by the seven-party alliance.”

Minendra Rijal of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) said “anything less” than the elections to a national assembly was “now unacceptable.”

Gyanendra seized power in February 2005.

The opposition alliance is seeking the restoration of the dissolved parliament, an all-party government, peace negotiations with the Maoist rebels and the election to an assembly to write a new constitution.

The demonstrators in the street continued to chant slogans against Gyanendra, calling him a thief and a murderer and telling him to leave the country even after his announcement yesterday.

The announcement was issued in the evening as daily protests subsided.

Professor S.D. Muni, a leading scholar on Nepal at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, called the king’s statement “too little too late.”

“It is just one of his games,” Mr. Muni said.

Gyanendra made his announcement after his regime faced international condemnation and pressure from neighboring India, the United States, Britain the European Community, the United Nations, Amnesty International and others for its suppressive tactics against the peaceful demonstrators.

Two weeks of peaceful protests was met with “zero tolerance policy.”

The death toll from two weeks of demonstrations rose to 14 yesterday, after the death of a protester shot by police on Thursday, the Associated Press reported yesterday from Katmandu.

Home Minister Kamal Thapa, a royalist, has dubbed the strike a “Maoist terrorist-inspired sabotage movement,” and moved against the demonstrators as royal police fired tear gas and live bullets.

The opposition alliance has rejected the regime’s charges that the movement was Maoist-inspired, while Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai made clear that the opposition coalition had their full support.

Witnesses said anti-monarchy demonstrations have spread throughout Nepal like wildfire, with professionals such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers and government employees joining students and human-rights advocates.

Today will be a test of whether the king’s announcement will stop the protests.

The curfews and demonstrations have hit the economy hard. Prices for food and other necessities have risen by up to 300 percent for lack of supply.

Private banks are closed. Public officials have deserted their offices, where protesters have defaced signs marked “His Majesty’s Government,” replacing them with others proclaiming “Nepal Government.”

The protesters have defied all traditions of respect traditionally shown to the king, who is revered by many as the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Analysts say the street slogans calling Gyanendra a “thief” and demanding that he leave the country are clear evidence that the monarchy has lost popular support.

The U.S. Embassy in Katmandu has announced reduction of its activities, closing the Consular Section and American Center Library until further notice.

It also canceled a visit scheduled for April 12 to 14 by an eight-member delegation from Congress.

Brajesh Mishra, India’s former national security adviser and an influential member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been supportive of the Hindu monarchy in Nepal, came out against Gyanendra in a blunt April 10 statement saying: “You’re digging the grave of the monarchy. You need to step back for the sake of your heirs and for the sake of your country.”

Responding to Gyanendra’s earlier call for a parliamentary elections, Maoist leader Prachanda said: “There is no alternative to the establishment of a Democratic Republic of Nepal by sweeping off the rule of the monarchy.”

The Maoist rebels, who have waged an insurgency for the past decade, did not respond yesterday.

On Sunday, the opposition alliance urged international donors to stop financing Nepal’s government, and called for an international boycott of goods manufactured by companies in which the royal family has a stake.

Pressure to end Nepal’s monarchy began with the start of the Maoist insurgency in 1996. A decade later, the coordinated seven-party alliance and its cooperation with the Maoist movement have pushed the monarchy to the brink.

The Maoists say they are now committed to multiparty democracy, and the opposition coalition has concluded that the Maoist agenda is not incompatible with multiparty democracy.

The king does not want elections for a constitutional assembly, fearing it would abolish the monarchy.

Even if such an assembly were to retain the monarchy, the king in all likelihood would be powerless, a situation not acceptable to a Hindu monarch who receives an absolute right to rule from religious texts.

Maoist leaders have warned leaders of the seven-party opposition not to fall in a “royal trap” and alerted their own cadres to continue their assault until a republic of Nepal is established.

Concern mounts that protesters could converge in front of the royal palace any day, where the royal police could fire on them indiscriminately.

If that happens, analysts say, the Maoists probably would enter Katmandu and full-scale urban warfare would follow.

Chitra Tiwari can be reached by e-mail at cktiwari@verizon.net.

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