- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Eight months after the royal takeover of Nepal’s government, King Gyanendra appointed Surya Bahadur Thapa, 75, at midweek as the new prime minister, defying opposition demands and setting the stage for fresh political turmoil.

Mr. Thapa’s appointment on Wednesday followed the resignation of Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who was hand-picked by the monarch after he dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba last Oct. 4. Mr. Thapa was sworn in on Thursday, but sources in Katmandu said formation of a new Cabinet would be delayed because the five main political parties refused to join his government.

On Wednesday, Mr. Thapa told reporters that Nepal urgently needs an all-party government based on a national consensus.

The five opposition parties include two major ones — the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Unified Marxist and Leninist (UML) — which wanted UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal as prime minister.

Both Mr. Thapa and Mr. Chand had served as prime ministers under the absolute monarchy of 1960 to 1990 and are founding fathers of the rightist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). Mr. Chand’s recent tenure had been marked by protests organized by centrist parliamentary parties demanding restoration of the dissolved parliament and formation of an all-party government.

King Gyanendra, who ascended the throne after the palace massacre two years ago of his brother, King Birendra — a popular and relatively liberal monarch — has come under severe pressure from parties calling for him to return power to the parliament, and Maoists demanding his outright abdication.

Mr. Chand’s resignation came as Nepal celebrated the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide in the feat, the late Tenzing Norgay.

Media reports from Nepal indicate growing political confusion casting a shadow on the peace process initiated after the Jan. 29 cease-fire between the government and Maoist rebels.

Maoists have said the government transition from Mr. Chand to Mr. Thapa would delay the peace process, but that they would not walk away from ongoing talks.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, spokesman and a member of the Maoist negotiating team said in a statement: “We will not run away from talks. We will wait, and watch and see the honesty of the next government for talks.”

The Maoists, however, smell a conspiracy in the king’s change of government and see it as an attempt to derail the peace process. The chairman of the Maoist party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as “Prachanda,” said in statement that his party and people will not tolerate such plots.

Political analysts in Nepal are of the opinion that King Gyanendra decided to change the political guard in Katmandu to diffuse growing anti-monarchical sentiment. All political parties in the dissolved parliament except the right-wing RPP refused to support the king’s Oct. 4 royal takeover, branding it unconstitutional; they demanded restoration of the dissolved parliament and formation of an all-party government.

The broad-based campaign, widely supported by students, was increasingly turning violent and issuing anti-king slogans. The government responded with police force, beating demonstrators and injuring several high-ranking leaders of the NC and UML parties.

Political observers, however, are not ready to accept the opinion that King Gyanendra’s changing of the government was solely because of party agitation in the streets. They point to the second round of government-Maoist negotiations, in which the government agreed to restrict the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) to within three miles of its bases.

The decision provoked a sharp reaction from the RNA, and the government was criticized by prominent figures, including former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, for demoralizing the armed forces by giving in too much to the Maoists.

One government negotiator, Ramesh Nath Pandey, told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview that confining the army to a three-mile radius was only a “Maoist proposal, but not a [government] decision.” Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai quickly branded Mr. Pandey a liar and sought his removal from the negotiations.

Although it is hard to believe that government negotiators decided to limit the movement of soldiers to within three miles of their bases without the concurrence of the king, political observers believe that King Gyanendra found Prime Minister Chand a convenient scapegoat and dismissed him to satisfy angry generals, who in recent days received U.S. military aid and advice.

In less than eight months, the king’s attempt at running the country through a nonparty government and thereby resolve the issues of Maoist insurgency has proven unsuccessful. Denying the legitimacy of his actions, the political parties continued to agitate for a return to the situation before Oct. 4, while the Maoists succeeded in demoralizing the armed forces.

The status of Mr. Thapa is unlikely to be different from Mr. Chand’s, as he too was appointed by the king. By governing according to the king’s whims, the new prime minister also risks losing legitimacy and arriving at the same dead end.

The Maoists, who have quietly observed the anti-monarchy demonstrations in Nepal’s urban areas, have reasons to smile: A weak state, an unpopular king, a failed constitution, dysfunctional bureaucracy, political parties in disarray and the willingness of the elites to cling to power with foreign help are making the Maoists an alternative force.

In fact, the Maoists, whose political position in the towns and cities now appears to be stronger than before, have already given hints of an urban uprising. Analysts say opposition parties, humiliated and angry over King Gyanendra’s rejection of UML leader Madhav Nepal as prime minister, now have a choice: Surrender to the king or join the Maoists to uproot the monarchy.

The euphoria and optimism of peace in Nepal appears to be dissipating.

Chitra Tiwari, a Washington-based free-lance analyst of international affairs, is a former lecturer of political science at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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