The April Revolution is Over: What Next?
A republican democracy in Nepal seems almost inevitable, writes ANGA R. TIMILSINA. That is, as long as the Maoists, the King, the army and the international community reconcile with the emerging realities.
Now that Nepal, still known officially as the Kingdom of Nepal, has virtually done away with the centuries-old institution of royalty, and restored a democratic form of government, one cannot but help ask: What next?
But before I predict and prescribe, which I will do towards the end of this essay, it is important to examine the antecedents of the unprecedented and historic upsurge of people’s power, also known as “the April Revolution.”
The past is what connects the present with the future. Let me begin by reviewing our national politics of the yester years.
The Palace & the Parties
The institution of monarchy emerged as a central political player in recent years. But an active palace came under increasing criticism. Analysts argue that King Gyanendra, who was crowned in June, 2001 after King Birendra and most members of the royal family were killed in a shooting spree by Crown Prince Dipendra, risked his throne because of his high political ambition of ruling Nepal as an authoritarian king.
Just more than one-year after assuming the throne, the king dismissed the elected government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and appointed his loyalist Lokendra Bahadur Chand to the post of premiership. The king said Dueba was incompetent in holding elections. However, the major political parties, via spiraling street protests, forced the king to reappoint Deuba to his erstwhile post in June 2004.
On February 1, 2005, the king again dismissed premier Deupa. This time, the king did not only dismiss the government formed by four major political parties but also declared a state of emergency and assumed direct power by forming a government on his chairmanship, citing the need to defeat Nepal’s Maoist rebels in order to hold local and national elections.
One analyst familiar with Nepal’s political crisis observed that the king reluctantly gave Mr. Deupa his job back and deliberately set him up to fail. It is hard to know how competent Deupa becomes incompetent the other day and incompetent Deuba becomes competent suddenly? The king was just using all techniques to increase his grip on power, the analyst argued.
However, given the widespread resentment towards political leaders, a fraction of people had given some benefit of doubt to the King and were waiting for some time to see whether he could deliver what he had promised when he took over the government.
During the first few months after the royal takeover, the major political parties were in favor of reconciliation with the king. Immediately after the end of three-month emergency rule, the seven political parties formed an alliance and by organizing sporadic protests, asked the king to hand over power to people. The king, who regarded the political parties as his political rivals, turned a deaf ear to the demands of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and continued his roadmap of consolidating his authoritarian regime by changing the laws, curtailing fundamental rights, and appointing staunch royalists to national and local government.
Realizing that the king was uncompromising, unyielding and politically very ambitious, the SPA turned to the Maoist rebels, who have been spearheading, since 1996, a bloody civil war aimed at uprooting monarchy and establishing a communist republic. The parties forged a loose alliance in order to put more pressure on the king. With the Maoists, they signed a 12-point agreement, which included the elections of constituent assembly as a way out of the crisis.
They also agreed to intensify protests against the king, from separate fronts. It was an uneasy cohabitation. Given that the Maoists were labeled terrorists by the government, both domestic and some foreign ones, the parties did not want to protest jointly with the rebels.
The People’s Uprising
In March 2006, the SPA planned to launch a “decisive protest” against the king’s authoritarian regime. The Maoist rebels also declared a partial cease-fire in the Kathmandu Valley, in a bid to support the SPA’s peaceful demonstrations starting from April 6.
In order to foil the protest, the royal government issued curfews, including “shoot-to-kill” orders. Earlier, on January 20, 2006, the government had resorted to the same technique and was successful in foiling similar demonstrations organized by the SPA.
However, the mood of the mass was different this time. People had decided not to live under tyranny of the king anymore. Demonstrators, who numbered millions, were committed to take the movement against royal autocracy to a decisive end regardless of the brutal and merciless means used by the government. The protests really took off once the royal government resorted to excessive force that killed at least 18 people and injured thousand others in different parts of the country. Bowing under the pressure of popular uprising, on April 21, 2006, the king proclaimed that he was returning the executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which he said was in his “safekeeping,” to the people.
The royal proclamation was certainly a victory for hundreds of thousands of demonstrators; however, it was considered as “too late and too little.”
The king failed to take into account the aspirations of thousands of demonstrators, whom the restoration of status quo or the return to pre-February 1-like situation was going to be completely unacceptable. Analysts argue that the king made a strategic blunder by not admitting his mistake and not directly addressing the ongoing movement. Instead of admitting that he made mistake when he assumed direct power by sacking the political parties’ government on February 1, 2005, the king in his proclamation defended his takeover of power as a necessary step to set in motion a meaningful exercise in multiparty democracy.
On April 24, 2006, the king finally agreed on the SPA’s roadmap—the reinstatement of parliament as a starting point and constituent assembly elections to be decided by the reinstalled parliament as the main goal.
There are three main reasons why so many people came out on the streets.
First, hundreds of thousands of people actively participated in the demonstration in a hope for peace. Nepal turned from bad to worse during the king’s direct rule. The majority of the people had little faith on the king’s roadmap that primarily confined on the military solution of the Maoist insurgency. On the other hand, the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists, together with 4-month ceasefire unilaterally declared by the Maoists, raised a hope among many people that the loose alliance between the SPA and the Maoists offered a best shot for peace
After the 12-point agreement, the Maoists rebels significantly reduced their acts of terrorism targeted to the cadres of the agitating parties and common people. On the other hand, during the 15-month-long direct rule of the king, people in villages and towns were caught between the atrocities perpetrated by the security forces and vigilante groups created by the security forces.
Second, the widespread dissatisfaction with the royal rule drew thousands of people in the demonstrations. No government in the history of Nepal has ever made so many people so angry within such a short period of time as did King Gyanendra’s regime. When the king took over the country, he had criticized the political parties for failing in governance. He promised to ensure good governance, including clearing up corruptions and imposing fiscal discipline.
However, the king soon included loan defaulters and convicted criminals in his cabinet. He gave security forces an unrestricted access to state power and resources that directly helped increase the human rights abuses. Moreover, he restricted civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press and association, trampled on constitution, and even changed the laws, such as the civil service code of conduct.
The king made many people furious by not reciprocating the 4-month ceasefire unilaterally declared by the Maoists. The king’s adamant position, and his unwillingness to hold a dialogue with the agitating parties even after two-week strike infuriated many people and helped draw more people to the streets to put more pressure on the king for a lasting solution to the national crisis.
Third, excessive force used by the security forces during the demonstrations worked as a triggering factor. After the security forces provoked the demonstrators with shoot-to-kill curfews, civil servants, the members of almost all professional organizations and even the members of families of ex-soldiers and police personnel joined the protests.
The External Players
After the royal takeover on February 1, 2005, the international community in general didn’t support the king’s direct rule. It condemned the human rights abuses, and demanded democracy.
Lack of international support to the king became instrumental in weakening the control over the regime's instruments such as army, police and civil service. The stoppage of military assistance demoralized the military. The threats from the European Union and UN agencies to ban Nepali army from participating in peacekeeping missions also helped weaken the military’s support to the king. Nepal is among ten countries contributing most troops for UN peacekeeping missions around the world, and by the salary standard of Nepali Army, UN peacekeeping is a dream job for every Nepal Army personnel.
In addition, the cut in development assistance by many donor countries and international development organizations directly affected many target groups in Nepal and thus, helped to fuel the opposition to the king’s rule.
The UK and other European countries, who had adopted a soft corner for Maoists, had always supported the democratic forces of Nepal. They were for a negotiated solution of the Maoist insurgency. The European Union (EU) was even preparing to impose smart sanctions including travel restrictions to the king and his lieutenants. However, like the United States, the EU hastily backed the royal proclamation of April 21, 2006, and put pressure on the seven-party alliance (SPA) to reconcile with the King even though the royal proclamation was received by many in Nepal as a ploy to defuse the popular uprising.
The United States’ record in supporting Nepal’s democratic movement is mixed. The US suspended the military aid and constantly called on the king to restore democratic rights and civil liberties. At the same time, the US seemed to be more concerned about the increase in the Maoist strength due to the political division between the king and the SPA than the loss of democracy due to the royal takeover.
The US gave equal consideration to the actions taken by the king and the major political parties. US Ambassador James F. Moriarty often criticized both the king and the political parties by putting them in the same basket. Analysts argue that the unclear and awkward policy gave the king heart to continue to plod along. The American soft corner towards the king is apparent from the fact that even in the post-April 24 period, the US is asking the king to accept the ceremonial role while the SPA has already made it clear that constituent assembly elections will determine the fate of monarchy.
Regarding China’s role, Beijing initially described the king’s seizure of power as “an internal matter for Nepal,” and sent its Foreign Minister Li Zaoxing to Kathmandu to convey the message that Beijing stood firmly on the side of the king, against the Maoists and democratic parties. The king also visited China to reaffirm Nepal’s commitment on “One China Policy”. The royal government also banned some of the activities of the Tibetan Government in Exile. China provided some budgetary support and also supplied some arms to the Royal Nepalese Army at a critical time when India and the US had suspended the military aid.
However, after about one year of king’s takeover, China changed its policy of firmly supporting the king to urging reconciliation among different forces. Apparently, Beijing had realized that the king was loosing international and national legitimacy. Chinese State Counselor, Tang Jiaxuan, who visited Nepal from 14 to 16 March, 2006, not only met the king, he also met opposition leaders.
India played a vital role both in bringing Nepal’s main political parties and the Maoist rebels together as well as giving a safe passage to the demonstrations. The leaders of Indian communist parties, who are also in the Indian government, are believed to have mediated the 12-point agreement between the SPA and the Maoists. India also played a key role in brokering the deals with the king. New Delhi sent Dr. Karan Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the US, to Kathmandu, as a special envoy. Sigh convinced the king to back out and restore the status quo ante of February 1, 2005.
More interestingly, India became the first country to recognize the sentiment of millions of Nepali people. Although India welcomed the royal proclamation of April 21, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran revised the Indian policy the next day by saying that King Gyanendra needed to do more and that India supported the democratic forces in Nepal.
India’s strong support to Nepal’s ongoing movement is also evident from the fact that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran visited Nepal’s army headquarters while he was in Kathmandu to accompany India’s especial envoy Dr. Karan Singh. Given Indian’s close relations with the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), analysts argue that India used its leverage to neutralize the RNA by paying a visit to Nepal’s Army headquarters at a time when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were protesting. India sent a clear message that it is not only Nepal’s monarchy but also the institution of Nepal Army that New Delhi cares most about. Analysts believe that Secretary Saran might have tried to convey a message to the RNA that it is not the use of excessive force but restraint that could serve RNA’s interest best because the RNA as a security intuition will still be around even after the end of monarchy in Nepal.
Moreover, when the protests really took off, the Maoists wanted to make Nepal a republic. However, Sitaram Yechury, politburo member of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a close friend of Nepal’s Maoist leaders, paved the way for the restoration of parliament by mollifying Nepali Maoists. He asked Nepal’s Maoist leaders to accept the reinstatement of parliament and seek the solution from there.
It was both in the interest of India and China to stabilize Nepal. Although China believed that the king’s government could provide stability in Nepal and thus, Nepal could help China in containing activities for free Tibet, China later realized that the king alone could not stabilize Nepal and the reconciliation among Nepal’s political forces was essential.
On the other hand, India was worried about unrest that might spin out of control. India would have to bear the humanitarian and security consequences of forced migration of thousands of Nepalis into several states of India such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Bihar. Given the widespread Naxalite movement in India and Nepal Maoists’ close ties with the movement, resolving Nepal’s Maoist insurgency problem is also in the interest of India from the India’s security point of view.
Lessons Learned: What Next?
So, now, let me opine. Several lessons can be drawn from the April revolution.
First, Nepal is a very unique and intriguing case study of insurgency as well as democracy given the fact that the Maoist insurgency was instrumental both in demolishing democracy and resurrecting it. Nevertheless, Nepal has proved that the insurgency can be a very powerful force for change.
Second, the April Revolution provides a lesson that people can lead on their own, without a messiah. Although the protests lacked the clear leadership, hundreds of thousands of people participated in demonstrations spontaneously. This gives a practical lesson to other countries fighting for democracy that if people feel that they badly need a regime change, they shouldn’t wait for or depend primarily on a messiah. Maybe it is time for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s charismatic opposition leader, to tell Burmese people that they could learn from the Nepali people to fight for democracy without depending on a leader.
Third, it may sound strange to give advice to dictators (advice that may help retain their grip on power), but Nepal conveys a strong message to world’s surviving dictators: Do not make too many segments of the population so unhappy within too short a time frame if you wish to survive. In addition, dictators shouldn’t rely primarily on military to save their regime because when a vast majority of people is unhappy, that includes military and their families as well. This message could be very relevant in case of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.
Fourth, the level of political awareness is important for a big change and people of Nepal proved that they had attained the level of awareness that can sustain democracy and prevent its derogation. In addition to the level of awareness on home front, for a small country like Nepal, international influence is decisive. For example, India’s support was very crucial for the democratic movement of Nepal.
Nepal made a history but the road ahead is not easy. Although both the Maoists and the government have declared a ceasefire and are currently holding peace talks about the process of constituent assembly, there are four things that can stall Nepal’s journey towards a new constitution through a constituent assembly.
First, Maoists may remain a difficult partner for peace. The seven political parties want to fully demobilize (if not disarm) the Maoist militias before the elections but the Maoists have already made clear that they will demobilize but not lay down their arms until the constituent assembly elections. If the demobilization process does not go smoothly, it could stall the process of constituent assembly.
Second, the royal Nepalese Army (RNA)— now renamed Nepal Army— is no longer a strong card for the king. But the army will be quite difficult to wean away from the palace if the seven-party alliance is not successful in reforming it and changing its leadership. The RNA may be an obstacle to the quest for a republican Nepal if it does not fully cooperate during the period of cease-fire and in the process of integration of the Maoist rebels into the army.
Third, the constituent assembly is a long and very difficult process. The king may try to bounce back by fishing in troubled waters if the constituent elections process protracts or the parties repeat their past mistakes in governance.
The success of any peace process is a matter of both psychology and pragmatism. In order to build sustained peace, the new government should instill in the majority of people a feeling of improvement in terms of socio-economic development. Otherwise, people will view the new regime more or less the same as the old regime. The loss of faith on the new regime will provide some space for the reactionary forces to destabilize the country. Experiences from many African countries show that nearly half of the peace processes end prematurely because widespread poverty and insecurity, bad governance, illiteracy, poor health, high unemployment, and the absence of basic infrastructure usually reinforce the instability and chaos.
Finally, if the Maoists become too difficult a partner for peace, India, the US and the rest of the world may step in to save Nepal’s monarchy in order to give a counter to the rising power of Maoists.
However, if the above-mentioned four conditions do not occur, a republican democracy in Nepal seems almost inevitable.
Mr. Anga R. Timilsina is a doctoral fellow at the RAND Corporation, a leading think-tank based in California, United States. His main area of expertise is in post-conflict reconstruction. He is also a leading column writer on political and development issues concerning Nepal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Editor on June 4, 2006 02:01 PM