Nepal's Royal Coup: Making a Bad Situation Worse
Asia Report N°91
9 Feb 2005
On 1 February 2005, in a move not only destructive of democracy and human rights but likely to strengthen the Maoist insurgents and make Nepal's civil war even more intense, King Gyanendra sacked Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, took power directly and declared a state of emergency. Gyanendra, who has dismissed three governments since 2002, claimed he was acting to "defend multiparty democracy". But his move had every familiar and indefensible coup ingredient: party leaders were put under house arrest, key constitutional rights were suspended, soldiers enforced complete censorship, and communications were cut.
In a televised statement, Gyanendra blamed the politicians, saying they had discredited multiparty democracy by "focusing solely on power politics". Warning that the country was threatened by "terrorists", he said the security forces would end the nine-year-old Maoist insurgency in which 11,000 people have died. Prime Minister Deuba was placed under house arrest, and other political leaders, including the heads of party student wings, were detained before the announcement.
Gyanendra's move was widely condemned by the international community. India, caught off-guard by the announcement, called it "a serious setback to the cause of democracy". UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an immediate restoration of democracy, as did the British and U.S. governments.
The king's takeover came as political tensions were building in Kathmandu over possible elections. Prime Minister Deuba had said that he would shortly announce a date for polls but this was greeted with considerable scepticism given the worsening security situation, in which the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist, UML), a member of Deuba's government, had said it did not support holding an election. The main Nepali Congress Party had said it favoured restoration of the parliament elected in 1999 and would not take part in new polls.
Dismissal of that parliament in October 2002 began the current political crisis. Gyanendra subsequently dismissed a royalist government he had hand picked and brought most of the mainstream political parties back into power. But Deuba was unable to return the Maoists to peace talks, and his coalition government was deeply split over how to proceed. With neither the political parties nor the king contributing constructively to the process, little progress was being made in developing the united multiparty democracy/constitutional monarchy front that most observers have seen as a necessary condition for any such talks to be productive.
The last round of peace talks broke down in August 2003, leading to intensified conflict. A significant build-up of government forces has done little to improve security across the country. Maoist insurgents, who have shown themselves able to attack at will, hold sway over most rural areas and are increasingly active in towns nominally controlled by the government. Combining effective guerrilla tactics with violent intimidation and extortion, they have built up a nationwide presence, though one founded more on fear than popular support.
The state has withdrawn from most rural areas. Its security forces, based in district headquarters and a few heavily fortified posts, are vulnerable and unable to protect the population. When they are attacked, their response has often been indiscriminate violence that further undermines civilian security. There is widespread agreement among knowledgeable observers both inside and outside the country that the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily, and any solution will require a mix of military and political strategies. So far both have been lacking, and there is every reason to believe that the situation will now get even worse with the king's assumption of full power:
This move will only boost the Maoists by confirming their view of the monarch as opposing democracy; they may now seek to make common cause with the mainstream parties against the king.
The political parties, while diminished since the dissolution of parliament in 2002, retain considerable grass roots support: any solution that does not include them is likely to be opposed by many and would be unsustainable.
Government security forces presently lack the capacity to defeat the Maoists and cannot develop it any time soon. Troops are now occupied controlling politicians and journalists in Kathmandu rather than fighting the insurgents. Nepal's terrain, the self-sustaining nature of the insurgency and its lack of an external backer make it difficult to put pressure on the insurgents, and the arrest or killing of a few key Maoist leaders will not end the conflict.
King Gyanendra enjoys little popular support. Most Nepalis would prefer a constitutional monarchy but calls for a republic have become louder in the past two years. The king is now directly exposed to the problems of running the country: if he does not deliver peace quickly, his support will sink further.
A worsening of the human rights situation with the suspension of constitutional protections and an upsurge in violence will likely reduce the willingness of donors to fund the social and economic reforms that would necessarily be part of any political solution.
There is no reason to believe that rule by decree will mean that corruption and mismanagement will be any less prevalent than when Nepal was previously governed by an absolute monarchy from 1960 to 1991.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 9 February 2005
This report provides the essential background to the royal coup of 1 February 2005, describes first consequences on the ground and reactions in Nepal and abroad, and offers initial analysis of its implications. Crisis Group will shortly provide additional analysis and policy recommendations for a way forward, as well as fuller discussion of related political subjects including the constitutional crisis.