- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

Three weeks after the resignation of Surya Bahadur Thapa, Nepal’s King Gyanendra has not named a new prime minister.

The May 7 resignation of Mr. Thapa after 11 months in office had raised hopes of an end to the country’s long-running political impasse, but brinkmanship by the king, the political parties and Maoist insurgents is pushing Nepal toward anarchy.

Mr. Thapa’s resignation followed often violent antimonarchy demonstrations since April 1 organized by the five parliamentary parties, which demanded restoration of the dissolved parliament and formation of an all-party government.

Then, a May 5-6 meeting in Katmandu of 20 donor countries and six international agencies called the Nepal Development Forum (NDF) pressed Gyanendra for democratic reforms and negotiations with the Maoists as a condition for $1.6 billion in development aid over three years.

A joint statement at the end of the NDF meeting said the money was offered because of the urgency of aid “to the people in rural and deprived areas.” It also stressed “the urgent need to have the democratic process restored, the conflict resolved and human rights respected.”

Early this month, Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal (“Prachanda”) and Baburam Bhattarai congratulated the young people and students spearheading the demonstrations and urged them and members of the five-party alliance to join a united front with the Maoists against the monarchy to fight for a democratic republic, promising that the Maoist party would participate in politics in the new republic.

Faced with the antimonarchy agitation, pressure from the donor countries, and the possibility of a united front seeking a republic, Gyanendra within hours began consultations with retired pro-monarchy politicians about a potential course of action.

These consultations led to the departure of the prime minister, who said, “I hope my resignation will pave the way for building a national consensus and help establish lasting peace in the country.”

As they accepted Mr. Thapa’s resignation, palace officials quoted the king as saying the next government should include all sides under the leadership of a person with a “clean image” who can restore peace and prepare parliamentary elections before mid-April 2005.

Gyanendra invited political elders for private meetings before announcing a new prime minister, and former Prime Ministers Kirti Nidhi Bista, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, Marich Man Shrestha and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai met separately with the king.

However, the leaders of the five-party alliance — Girija Prasad Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress party and a former prime minister; Madhav Kumar Nepal, general secretary of Unified Marxist and Leninist Party, and Narayan Man Bijukchhe, chairman of the Workers and Peasants Party — sensing an attempt to divide and rule, refused to meet the king individually and insisted on a joint audience.

Gyanendra also sought the opinion of more than 300 members of varied professional and civic associations, who were invited for luncheon at the Gokarna Royal Resort.

While the king was holding meetings, the results of the Indian elections that displaced the Hindu nationalists — the patrons of Nepali royalty in India — appear to have forced Gyanendra to invite the leaders of the five-party alliance for a May 19 meeting at Nagarjun Royal Resort.

It ended inconclusively, however, as the king reportedly told the five leaders not to force him to go beyond “constitutional norms” by demanding restoration of the dissolved parliament.

The five-party alliance leaders have publicly warned that the effort to limit the king’s power could turn into a movement to abolish the monarchy unless the king agrees to a titular role as head of state. The parties have shown no intention of ending street protests.

Monarchists claim the agitating political parties have no public support. A former army chief, Gen. Satchit Shamsher Rana, told the BBC Nepali-language program on May 16 that the protesters are a “rent-a-crowd,” hired at $2.75 to $3.42 a head per day.

The five parties have an 18-point “road map,” three points of which would limit the king’s power and are unacceptable to Gyanendra. This plan seeks to limit royal titles to three individuals — the king, queen and crown prince — to make royal expenses transparent, and to put the army under parliament’s control.

While the party leaders seek to tame the king, young people and students have an entirely different agenda. They have conducted campuswide referendums at dozens of colleges and universities, where students were asked to pick one of three choices: a republic, a constitutional monarchy or an absolute monarchy. More than 95 percent of students reportedly voted for a republic.

The messages from these campus referendums and the rural-based Maoist insurgency leave nothing to interpret, yet neither the active monarchists nor the so-called constitutional monarchists seem willing to make a deal to cut further losses.

Analysts say the “ego trip” of both the king and party leaders has provided an opportunity for the Maoist insurgents to spread their cause and expand their political and military organization.

The Maoists seem bolder than ever. They have imposed blockades on several district headquarters, forcing the government to airlift food to the army and police. The national highways, formerly believed to be under government control, have become battlegrounds as the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) is deployed to clear rebel restrictions on vehicular traffic.

Maoist-imposed intermittent highway blockades and countrywide shutdowns since the beginning of May, in support of antimonarchy protests organized by the five-party alliance, have reportedly affected economic life in the cities as daily essentials run out and prices rise sharply.

On May 16, European donor agencies stopped all their activities, including the food-for-work program, in five western districts of Nepal, citing difficulties in administering the programs due to Maoist threats. Media reports say more than 55,000 people will suffer from the withdrawal of the food-for-work program.

Rebel sources say donor agencies with humanitarian programs are welcome in their areas, but need permission from the Maoist regional governments and must pay “revolutionary taxes.”

The United States and India, which both back the royal regime, have emphasized a piecemeal approach that involves unity between the “constructive” king and the “constitutional monarchists” in the first phase, followed by dialogue between the unified monarchists and the Maoists.

Donald Camp, the deputy assistant secretary of state who headed the U.S. delegation to the Nepal Development Forum early this month, hoped that “after the rapport between the king and the political party leaders, a united force could be created to deal with the Maoist rebels.”

Analysts, however, are skeptical of the success of this approach. They point out that despite the unity between the king and parties, the first cease-fire and negotiations with the Maoists in November 2001 broke down, leading to the imposition of the emergency and deployment of the Royal Nepali Army against the guerrillas.

After two-and-a-half years of military operations aimed at disarming the Maoist guerrillas, RNA platoons and companies have been disarmed by the Maoists in several encounters, adding modern weapons to the rebel armory.

The rebels seem to have a two-pronged strategy: preparing for a centralized armed offensive while seeking a united front with antimonarchists to mount an urban uprising.

Media reports suggest that the Maoists, following the lead of the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, have begun a recruiting drive with the slogan “one family, one militia member,” to hasten their “strategic offensive” — the final phase before victory in Mao Tse-tung’s theory of People’s War.

While the king and parties have failed to come to terms despite encouragement from Washington, London and New Delhi, Maoist leader Prachanda warned on May 16 that Nepal cannot attain peace through a piecemeal approach that minimizes the Maoist party. He urged the parliamentary parties not to fall into the trap prepared by the monarchists and their international backers.

He called for a dialogue among the parties, the king, the civil society and his own Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist, under the aegis of the United Nations, to pave the way for an interim government and a new constitution.

Analysts, however, see hurdles to the possibility of U.N.-mediated peace talks, because the royal regime is unlikely to request third-party mediation as long as it gets military assistance from Washington, London and New Delhi.

The United States clearly supports strengthening the royal regime. India, whose diplomats privately express dislike of increasing foreign involvement in Nepal, including that of the United States, is not likely to encourage a U.N. presence in Nepal that would diminish its own regional hegemony.

The latest changing of the guard in New Delhi from Hindu nationalists to secular forces led by the Congress party, with the support of communist parties, could alter the political equation in Nepal. It is well known that the Congress party has been at odds with Nepal’s royal family since about 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister.

Moreover, as the key to the survival of a Congress party government lies with the communist parties of India, the parliamentary parties in Nepal are likely to find vocal friends in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

Furthermore, the secular leadership in New Delhi is not likely to appreciate Gyanendra’s ties to Hindu nationalists in India who had supported him.

While India’s distaste for the Maoists is likely to continue, due to New Delhi’s concern about potential fallout from Maoist gains in Nepal into India’s own Naxalite insurgency belt, the Congress-led government may not support the U.S. perception of Nepal’s Maoist party as a terrorist outfit.

The coolness of the Congress party and Indian communists toward the United States and their historic preference for Russia and China could reorient Indian policies toward Nepal by seeking to keep non-regional powers, including the United States, away from the Himalayas.

Analysts say the Nepali royal regime’s counterinsurgency operations, which tie into Washington’s “war on terrorism,” have already failed to achieve results. All parties in the conflict, including foreign sponsors of the royal regime, say there is no military solution. Still, the so-called low-intensity conflict, which has already taken the lives of more than 10,000 Nepalis, shows no sign of peaceful resolution.

Meanwhile, Gyanendra continues his search for “Mr. Clean” to be his prime minister, while agitating parties and Maoist rebels appear to be seeking a different “Mr. Clean” to replace the monarch as Nepal’s head of state.

Chitra Tiwari, formerly a lecturer of political science at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, is a Washington-based free-lance analyst of international affairs specializing in South Asia. He can be reached by e-mail at cktiwari@verizon.net.

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