- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

Nearly a month after Nepal’s King Gyanendra capitulated to a popular uprising by agreeing to yield power to a seven-party coalition government, representatives of the coalition began formal talks yesterday with Maoist rebels in hopes of ending the nation’s 10-year civil war.

The negotiations followed a declaration by Nepal’s assembly last week that stripped the monarch of powers that he and his ancestors had held since 1768.

The proclamation renamed “His Majesty’s Government of Nepal” the Government of Nepal, declared the country a secular state, scrapped the monarch’s title as Supreme Commander-in-Chief, renamed the Royal Nepalese Army “the Nepali Army” and brought all security organizations under parliament’s control.

It also scrapped the Privy Council, the royal palace secretariat, the tax-free status of the royal family and other special privileges. The king also became liable to trial in court for unconstitutional or illegal activities.

Nepalese government negotiators emerged from their first round of peace talks with Maoist rebel leaders yesterday promising an early push for a new constitution.

Maoists promised to end extortion as part of a 25-point code of conduct agreed at the first formal talks between the two sides in three years.

“I am more hopeful and confident than before,” said Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the head of the Maoists delegation after six hours of discussions to prepare the ground for substantive talks to be held at a later unspecified date.

Nepalese view the Parliamentary Proclamation as a historic document comparable to Britain’s Magna Carta and the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Gyanendra ascended the throne of Nepal following the June 1, 2001, palace massacre in which the entire family of the previous king, Birendra, was gunned down. An official inquiry blamed Crown Prince Deependra, who reportedly also shot himself that night.

The late King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, then assumed the throne and moved to control the Maoist insurgency that had been spreading like wildfire since 1996.

Gyanendra fired the elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, in October 2002, calling him “incompetent,” and on Feb 1, 2005, he unleashed the army to fight a two-pronged war — suppressing Nepal’s political parties in the cities, and hunting the Maoist guerrillas elsewhere.

Analysts say he assumed that friendly countries, particularly India and the United States, would support his fight against Maoist “terrorists” as an extension of President Bush’s “war on terror” and thereby force the democratic political parties to rally behind him. This was a miscalculation: India, the United States and the European community punished him by refusing to supply arms and ammunition needed for the royal army, and advised the king to restore democracy, unite with the democratic parties and deal collectively with the Maoist insurgency.

Gyanendra, however, did not believe that associating himself with the political parties would help suppress the Maoists because of the history of corruption, infighting and mismanagement the parties had left. Moreover, the monarchists had seen the weakness of political parties, which could hardly mobilize a few thousand supporters for public demonstrations.

Dramatic change

The situation in Nepal has changed dramatically since the seven-party alliance (SPA) and the Maoists reached a 12-point understanding last November, in which both agreed to act together against the autocratic monarch. Both sides agreed to accept a Maoist demand for election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, in exchange for a Maoist commitment to participate in multiparty politics.

The SPA called for a four-day nationwide strike, with full backing from the Maoists, beginning April 6. The royal regime left no stone unturned to block this demonstration, calling it sabotage by the Maoist “terrorists.”

By April 9, as the Maoists told their unarmed cadres, sympathizers and supporters to join the peaceful demonstration, its size swelled throughout Nepal. By April 24, an estimated 6 million Nepalis were in the streets demanding abolition of the monarchy, and news reports estimated there were more than a million demonstrators in the streets of Katmandu alone. Fears were expressed they might seize the royal palace, repeating the events of the Bastille — a fortress in the center of Paris seized by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789, starting the French Revolution that toppled the monarchy.

Faced with disaster if the Maoists took over, Gyanendra finally listened to Indian and American emissaries and addressed the nation near midnight on April 24. He agreed to yield all sovereign and executive powers to the people, reinstated the parliament dissolved in October 2002 and called on the SPA to form the new government.

Analysts say Gyanendra gambled with a dream and confidence that he would emerge as a “constructive monarch to be seen and heard by the people” but ended up losing everything except his title as “Shree Panch Maharajadhiraj” — His Majesty the King.

The SPA quickly welcomed the reinstatement of parliament and unanimously elected Girija Prasad Koirala, 84, the president of the Nepali Congress party and a former prime minister, as the fifth prime minister of Nepal.

The Maoists, however, saw this as a betrayal, saying that the goal of the popular uprising had not been reinstatement of the parliament but the total uprooting of the feudal monarchy.

Maoist leaders were mollified when Mr. Koirala promised to hold an election to the constituent assembly, denied the Maoists were “terrorists,” and invited their leaders to negotiate. The Maoists reciprocated by declaring a three-month cease-fire to expedite negotiations, and demanded the release of 1,400 comrades from Nepali jails and another 180 from Indian jails before formal negotiations.

After a month of delays, the government ordered the release of all Maoists, paving the way for the start of the talks that began yesterday.

Maoists ‘smell a rat’

Maoist leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, and Baburam Bhattarai, complain that their party was not consulted as expected under the 12-point November understanding, when Gyanendra reinstated parliament, and also when the parliament asserted its supremacy.

In a statement issued after parliament announced its supremacy on May 18, top Maoist leader Prachanda, while cautiously welcoming the parliament’s proclamation, voiced concern when he said: “We smell a rat in the government’s attitude to marginalize us, bypass us, and minimize the role of the Maoist movement.”

Friends of Nepal including the United States, India and the European community have welcomed the developments in Nepal and asked the Maoists to renounce violence and join the political process.

The monarchists have begun to argue that the army, now under parliament’s control, has become a truly national army and therefore the Maoists should lay down their arms before constituent assembly elections.

Nepalese who hope for democracy, however, say the SPA will be at risk if conservative generals attempt a coup and return power to the king. In this context, they say, it is premature for the Maoists to lay down their arms before there is a total restructuring of the armed forces, arguing that the SPA would need help from the Maoist armed force to safeguard the recently asserted parliamentary supremacy.

Maoists say this is an issue that has already been solved by point No. 3 of the 12-point SPA-Maoist understanding, which states:

“Once the autocratic monarchy is ended, the arms of both the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and the Maoists will be supervised by the U.N. or a dependable international body to ensure free and fair election to the constituent assembly.”

Non-Maoists also argue that the monarchy may have had its wings clipped, but the loyalty of the military high command toward the monarchy remains unquestionable because many high officers either have royal relatives or ties to the network of royal relatives.

Observers say that after Gyanendra’s April 24 capitulation and the parliament’s assertion of supremacy May 18, the guns are silent in Nepal, but the road to permanent peace remains as rugged as the country’s mountains.

Chitra Tiwari can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]verizon.net.

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