the Disillusioned kid: Nepal kicks off
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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Nepal kicks off

Nepal is a landlocked Himalayan country bordered by China to the north and India to the south. It's population is estimated to be around 28 million, of whom some 80% are Hindu. This means it has the dubious honour of being the world's only Hindu monarchy. The way things are going, however, it is far from clear that this state of affairs is going to last. The Nepalese people have had enough of the King and they want everybody to know it.

Nepal has traditionally been ruled by a Monarch, but in 1989 the "Jan Andolan" (People's) Movement was able to force the regime to accept constitutional reforms, leading to the establishment of a multiparty parliament in May 1991. Nevertheless, the country remained economically feudalist and the king appears to have retained rather more powers than are bestowed on his British counterpart. In 1996 this encouraged the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to launch a "people's war" to bring down the Monarchy and establish a socialist republic.

In 2001 it emerged that the Nepalese Royal Family were even crazier than ours when on June 1 Heir Apparent Dipendra responded to his parents' rejection of his choice of wife by going postal the royal palace, killing nine and wounding four. Clearly feeling left out he topped himself three days later. In the aftermath of the massacre Prince Gyanendra ascended to the throne an act which was accompanied by the inevitable conspiracy theorising.

In February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the entire government and assumed executive powers ostensibly to quash the Maoist movement. This attracted considerable international criticism and was never exactly going to be popular with opposition party supporters. There have been sporadic protests ever since, but earlier this month things seemed to have stepped up a gear. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the face of a ban on political rallies, a curfew and indiscriminate police brutality. This mobilisation has been accompanied by a General Strike which is today in its 27th day.

Participation in the insurrection seems to be extensive. Lok Raj Baral, head of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, avers, “The scale of this uprising is unprecedented. During the people’s movement in 1990 that brought democracy to the country, the uprising was significantly smaller in size and scale. This time, every locality in Kathmandu Valley, and every district in the country are in spontaneous revolt.” There are even reports of tourists getting involved, which must make for an interesting slant on the package holiday.

Clearly Gyanendra is bricking it in the face of such massive popular outrage. Last night he even offered to return the executive powers he seized last year "to the people," although still intended to hold onto the throne. The opposition parties weren't impressed, believing that it didn't go far enough. The Nepali Congress opined that the king had "not clearly addressed the road map of the protest movement" and pledged that protests would continue.

There can be little doubt that one of the key factors influencing the course taken by the demonstrations and any subsequent political reform will be the response of the Maoists. After more than ten-years of war they control around 70% of the country. Although they don't seem to have always been on the same page, the Maoists reached a twelve-point understanding with seven opposition parties in November last year. In fact, this document is surprisingly liberal - particularly in light of the brutal manner in which the Maoists have pursued the "people's war" - declaring support for a "competitive multiparty system, fundamental rights of the people, human rights, and rule of law and democratic principles and values." Hell, even the authors of the Euston Manifesto would struggle to find much to disagree with.

Participation by the Maoists may have a detrimental effect on international relations with certain other countries in the event of a succesful revolution. The US and UK view Nepal's campaign against the Maoists as part of the "War on Terror." The Americans have sent military advisers and 5,000 M-16s, while the Brits have provided communications technology, helicopters and training. Conveniently - and with a delightful touch of irony - British aid is provided under the aegis of the "global conflict prevention" fund which means that it can be sent covertly and largely bypasses Parliamentary scrutiny. The Indians are concerned that Nepal's people's warriors may encourage India's own domestic Maoists, hence they have been Nepal's single biggest donor of military hardware. That said, there is a suggestion that India may have helped facilitate the twelve-point understanding, presumably on the basis that a stable liberal democracy serves there interests much better than an ongoing revolutionary war. The Chinese meanwhile are embarassed by a Maoist revolution so near to their own border which detracts from their attempts to excise China's communist past and present themselves as good capitalists and has continued military aid to the Royal Nepalese Army even while the US, EU and India have cut-off arms supplies.

The sheer scale and breadth of this uprising means that it must surely be terminal for Gyanendra. The only question would seem to be how long he can hold on and how much damage he is prepared to before he releases his hold on the reins of power. Burdgeoning international solidarity is a positive development worthy of support and could potentially play an important role. Now if only we could get ourselves organised and follow the Nepalese example...

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