External powers must act to save Nepal
External powers must act to save Nepal
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

External powers must act to save Nepal

Since his palace coup earlier this month, King Gyanendra of Nepal has been hoping his newly imposed absolute monarchy, backed by the Royal Nepalese Army, can prevent a Maoist takeover. It is a dim hope at best.

Responding to this week's decision by the UK and India to suspend military aid to Nepal, an RNA spokesman said yesterday: "If they don't provide us with military aid, it will indirectly benefit the Maoists." But in crushing fledgling democratic institutions and locking up mainstream politicians, journalists and human rights activists, it is the king who has strengthened the rebels' hand.

After nine years of brutal insurgency, Maoist guerrillas hold sway over most of the country, while the state security forces, ineffective at the best of times, now have their hands full censoring the press and intervening in civil administration. The rebels, whose guerrilla warfare strategy has made the most of Nepal's terrain and festering political grievances, cannot be defeated militarily and have refused to enter negotiations with the royal government.

The international community has been quick to condemn the royal coup but is still searching for a coherent policy response. India, the US and the UK - the most active external powers - are well aware that the Nepali state has been dangerously weakened and can see that the insurgents are scenting victory. But they face a difficult choice: regime stability or state stability? There is no broad base of support for an executive monarchy, and the king's all-or-nothing gamble has alarmed Nepal's allies, not least those who have supported its military campaign against the Maoists. Without democratic parties on board, the state's fight is likely to end in bloody failure. "Wait and see" is no longer a viable option.

There are, however, a number of steps that the international community can take to save Nepal from disaster. The first of these has to be a change in long-term outlook - a recognition that there can be no return to the status quo ante, a constitutional monarchy that retained a great deal of ambiguity over the balance of power between an ambitious palace and a parliament riven by factionalism and corruption. Nepal needs to unite its democratic forces to deal with the Maoist challenge and then reshape its constitution and state institutions to build a stable nation.

Uniting Nepal's democratic forces will require a firm, united stand from the international community. "The king just doesn't listen to us. What can we do?" is what most ambassadors are saying in Kathmandu. But the strong advice given to the king in the past has not been backed up with a clear bottom line, and the powers in Kathmandu have felt they can play one embassy against another. Creating a contact group for Nepal - comprised of India, the US, the UK and the United Nations - would provide the single international voice so clearly needed.

This group, backed by Nepal's other donors, should offer the king a last chance to deliver on his repeated commitments to a democratic Nepal. They should underscore their seriousness by putting some real pressure on the palace: suspending all but the most essential military aid, freezing budgetary assistance and putting a social and diplomatic freeze on the post-coup government. These measures should only be relaxed when certain conditions are met: the freeing of political prisoners, the restoration of constitutional rights and solid steps towards re-establishing democratic governance.

If the palace heeds the outside world's collective advice, it could salvage the situation. A broad-based political strategy responsive to popular sentiment will be able to meet the Maoist challenge and deal with the genuine grievances that have helped fuel it. If, however, the king still insists on going it alone, the international community can increase pressure by suspending development aid and further squeezing the military. Suspension of Nepal's army from UN peacekeeping duties, for example, would focus the minds of the top brass.

India and the UK have sent a clear signal by suspending military assistance. Major donors have withdrawn their ambassadors for consultations and some, such as Denmark, have already frozen development aid. But if Nepal is to survive and stabilise, the international community must maintain the pressure in a co-ordinated manner and resolve to help rebuild the centre ground. This is the only way to deal with the Maoist insurgency and safeguard the future of Nepal and its neighbours.

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