Nepal had a reputation in the West till the 1980s for being an idyllic, peaceful place. It was a favored destination for mountaineers and backpackers. But social discontent, rooted in abject destitution and a denial of democracy, lurked just below the surface, often missed by the casual visitor.
In the mid-1990s, the lid blew off. Over the past decade, Nepal has been riven by a Maoist insurgency that has claimed 13,000 lives. To add to the turmoil, much of the royal family was massacred in 2001, apparently by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then took his own life (though few Nepalis believe the official account). The new king, Gyanendra, took advantage of the factionalism and ineptitude of the major political parties and in February 2005 suspended the country’s democracy.
Over the past few days, the situation has reached a fever pitch, with the mainstream political parties joining hands with the Maoists to oust the king in a campaign that they say will last “indefinitely.” Thousands have taken to the streets. Nepalese security forces have killed at least three people.
How did things come to such a pass? In brief, feudal governance coupled with a highly stratified social structure. Until 1990, Nepal was ruled by an absolute monarch, one of the few vestiges of this type of rule outside the Middle East. With decision-making centered in the palace, the needs of the people got short shrift. In 1990, a popular revolution ushered in a democracy and put curbs on the authority of the king, though he still retained far more power than European-style constitutional monarchs. The democratic experiment proved to be a disappointment, with corrupt and squabbling political parties failing to deliver. In response, the Maoists launched a “people’s war” in 1996. It has been downhill ever since. (For those interested in background to the crisis, the Indian magazine Seminar dedicated its entire April 2005 issue to an analysis of Nepal’s political and social structures.)
I have no love lost for the Maoists. They have engaged in multiple human rights abuses, and bizarrely cite the brutal Peruvian Shining Path as a role model. (It is also true, though, that human-rights reports have constantly pinpointed the security forces as being responsible for a huge number of atrocities, including the largest number of disappearances in the world. For example, see Human Rights Watch’s 2005 report on Nepal.)
But the Maoists have in recent months repeatedly articulated a desire to engage in talks. The leaders of the group have expressed a willingness to abide by a multiparty democratic system and have even stated a readiness to accept the continuation of a role for the king.
It’s quite possible that the Maoists are bluffing. But given the stalemated military situation on the ground, what is the alternative to inviting them to the negotiating table? Currently, neither side is winning, with the Nepalese population having to bear the brunt of the violence.
In addition, Nepali society needs to be transformed to ensure a truly participatory and responsive democracy. The reason that the Maoists control huge swaths of the countryside and enjoy such support in rural areas is the exclusion of large chunks of the populace from the existing system. The role of the current king, who has proven to be a curse for the nation, either needs to be minimized or abolished altogether, and the socioeconomic structure has to be drastically revamped.
What has been the role of the United States? Mixed. To its credit, the Bush Administration withdrew military support after the king’s takeover last February, and has condemned the king’s excesses in the recent past. But it has from the start of the insurgency taken a hardline stance, deeming the Maoists as beyond the pale and unworthy of compromise. (Up until the February 2005 royal coup, the United States was a major supplier of arms and training to the Nepalese Army.) The U.S. ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, reiterated this position on March 28, asking the political parties to sever any alliance with the Maoists.
But such a position is recipe for a continuation of the conflict, since if the Maoists are treated as political pariahs, they will feel compelled to continue with the armed insurgency.
"I have always wanted to bring [the Maoists] into the democratic framework," says Nepali ex-Prime Minister G. P. Koirala. "America and all the others have their contradictions here. They say that there is no military solution and we need to find a political solution but why do they fear when we try to bring the Maoists closer to the political solution?"
Nepal is a country in deep trouble. Only a negotiated settlement can spell an end to its problems.