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The Rediff Special/ Surendra Phuyal

Nepalese king faces tough choice

January 30, 2006

The world isn't listening to King Gyanendra of Nepal.

Neither are his people.

A year after he took over the helm by sacking the Sher Bahadur Deuba government in Kathmandu, popular national and international support for the monarch has all but disappeared, and he is finding it increasingly difficult to justify, or legitimise, his power coup.

At home, Gyanendra faces a political boycott of the municipal election that he has pledged to hold on February 8 to elect 58 city and town mayors around the country.

The Seven Party Alliance, headed by veteran Nepali Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala, hammered out a historic 12-point understanding with rebel Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai last November.

India's U-turn for a despot

For the first time since the rebels started their violent uprising nearly a decade ago, the Maoists have expressed their readiness to embrace multiparty democracy, ending the continuing saga of Nepal's bloody conflict which has claimed the lives of over 13,000 people since February 1996.

But they don't want a municipal election.

Instead, they want to start afresh, with a constituent assembly election and a new constitution. While they are not averse to ceremonial monarchy, he can only be a 'titular head', Maoist supremo Prachanda told the BBC Nepali radio service recently. And that too only 'should the people of Nepal decide' to allow the 250-year-old Shah dynasty to continue its reign.

The king also faces tremendous external pressure. The world's largest democracy, India, and the world's oldest democracy, the US, along with the United Kingdom and the European Union, have chosen to side with the political parties, pitching for an early restoration of democracy to pave the way for durable peace in the Himalayan nation of 25 million people.

'The king is weakening gradually'

"India (along with the US and UK) has done alright, it has done what it was required to do (convey to the Narayanhity palace that 'your roadmap for democracy and then peace won't work without the political parties on board')," says Professor S D Muni, an expert on Nepal at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of International Relations.

Like Professor Muni, many Nepal-watchers see the coming together of the Maoists and the mainstream political parties through the 12-point working understanding as the "boldest attempt" to bring the rebels into the political mainstream.

But "I wish the situation could have been better, that understanding has not been made use of. The king seems to be digging his own grave," says Professor Muni.

Nepal: Grim alternatives

After the four-month-long unilateral Maoist ceasefire broke down on January 2, the Royal Nepalese Army and the police forces have been compelled to take on two types of enemies: the armed Maoists, notorious for their sudden attacks in waves, most of them overnight; and the unarmed pro-democracy activists, good at tyre-burning and brick batting in Kathmandu, Pokhara and other cities.

Over two dozen troops and policemen have lost their lives after the ceasefire broke down. With fresh supplies of arms from China, Israel and other friendly countries, Kathmandu has resorted to more repression. But this has sparked more confrontation.

China, Pak pumping arms into Nepal

This confrontation forced the royal government to clamp dawn-to-dusk curfew on January 20 in an attempt to crush the popular outcry for the restoration of full democracy. Hundreds of political activists including top leaders were placed under house-arrest and subsequently released, further angering the international community pushing for some kind of dialogue and reconciliation in Kathmandu.

In the face of mounting repression and the almost-daily reports of clashes and fighting in and around major cities, especially in western Nepal, the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand have warned their nationals against visiting Nepal.

Human and civil rights groups -– including the Kathmandu-based Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner -– have called on the conflicting parties to exercise restraint and respect human rights.

Maoists launch massive attack in west Nepal

But neither side is listening. The Maoists have been going ahead with their 'Dhadma Tekera Taukoma Hanne (step on the shoulder and hit on the head)) strategy to mount pressure on Kathmandu, and attacking mayoral candidates. They also killed one of them in Janakpur despite a promise to the UN human rights commissioners office.

Moreover, they are preparing for more violent activities ahead of their 10th anniversary on February 13.

The political activists are courting arrest daily. But the royal government -– roping in celebrities like Bollywood actress Manisha Koirala, Girija Prasad Koirala's grand-niece and cabinet minister Prakash Koirala's daughter -- is going ahead with its municipal election programme.

In a desperate attempt to earn some degree of international legitimacy, the king's number two in the cabinet, Vice-Chairman Dr Tulsi Giri, has extended a formal invitation to India's Leader of the Opposition and Bharatiya Janata Party veteran Lal Kishenchand Advani.

Advani, known for his good ties with the region's monarchs including King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, has shown some willingness to visit Kathmandu at an 'appropriate' time.

Why India holds key to peace in Nepal

In Delhi, where Nepalese leaders have gathered on several recent occasions to canvass support for democracy, the majority of political parties, chiefly the Left and the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance government, have thrown their weight behind Nepal's pro-democracy forces.

While the UPA has gone on to freeze military assistance to Kathmandu, even BJP leaders have said 'there's no alternative to democracy.'

Nepal sneers at threat to cut arms aid

But most analysts agree the movement for full democracy, as Nepali activists described it after the king's February 1, 2005 coup -- or 'Loktantra' not 'Prajatantra' -- has to evolve on Nepali soil. And good sense has to prevail at the Narayanhity palace before the violence dies down.

The ball is in firmly in King Gyanendra's court.

"India or the international community can't give us democracy, it can only provide us moral support," says former Nepalese ambassador to India and political scientist Professor Dr Lok Raj Baral. "We should be able to indigenise this popular movement. Only then we will be able to handle and nurture what we will eventually achieve."

Surendra Phuyal is the bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post in New Delhi.


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