Let People Power Prevail in Nepal
Let People Power Prevail in Nepal
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Let People Power Prevail in Nepal

As the people of Nepal rose to signal their final loss of faith in King Gyanendra, the key international players at last achieved a long-awaited unity of purpose in their response to a situation that has been deteriorating for years. Unfortunately, however, they came together behind the wrong solution, trying to force an unworkable deal on an unwilling population.

India, China and the US, with the European Union in support, led a push to strong-arm Nepal’s democratic leaders into accepting the king’s hollow offer of handing over limited powers. But the outside world’s reaction is too far behind events unfolding on the ground here in Nepal, where the Shah dynasty is now facing the end of its power and quite possibly its existence. The world must catch up with local popular sentiment if it is to stand any chance of guarding against a dangerously chaotic transition.

A few days back, locals from my neighbourhood in Kathmandu would not have dared defy a curfew enforced by ranks of well-armed soldiers. Now they march towards the city centre, with security forces giving in to the sheer weight of numbers and stepping aside. The almost carnival-like atmosphere of the protests last Friday, when people thought they might have persuaded the king to give in peacefully, have been replaced by a more grim resolve after the king’s evening speech.

“We are all revolutionaries now,” an old man told me: “We won’t stop until he’s gone” is a common refrain. Within hours of Gyanendra’s Friday offer, the diplomatic heavyweights publicly dictated their orders to the parties: accept the king’s offer and call off the movement for full democracy. The EU even sent its ambassadors to press the parties at the joint meeting they called to decide on their response.

Leaders listened politely to their case and, very firmly, rejected it. Nepal’s much-maligned mainstream parties thus proved decisively, if belatedly, that they could make the correct choice, rejecting the king’s offer on several grounds, all persuasive.

First, his offer would not bring peace. The king explicitly rejected the parties’ road map for peace, which is based on a freely elected constituent assembly that would write a new constitution and is a fundamental condition for the insurgents to disarm and enter mainstream politics. The road map is the only realistic plan to deal with the Maoists: the military’s counter-insurgency efforts have only strengthened the rebels.

Second, the proclamation put forward no political compromise. The king offered only a return to the status quo ante of January 2005, a system in which he appointed and dismissed prime ministers at will. He also made no mention of restoring parliament or refraining from legislating by decree. Despite a misleading translation circulated by the palace, Gyanendra made no affirmation of the people as the source of sovereign authority.

Third, the king’s Friday offer did not speak about control of the Royal Nepalese Army, his primary source of power. Any future government that does not have control of the army will inherently lack authority and be susceptible to undermining by the palace.

In rejecting the king’s offer, party leaders rightly judged the mood of Kathmandu and the country’s citizens. Had they accepted, they would have lost the trust of their own activists and the people at large – and would thereby have sacrificed the chance to direct and control an increasingly militant movement. This would have handed the Maoists the perfect chance to claim exclusive ownership of the anti-monarchical uprising.

But it is time to remember the Maoists. Whatever transition the next few days or weeks deliver, the new government will have to keep the focus on a peace process. Whether the final outcome is a constitutional monarchy or, increasingly likely, a republic, the end of royal power will only be the start of a long, tough road to a stable settlement. The world has still not learnt the lesson that there are no easy answers for Nepal’s troubles, no quick solutions or convenient compromises.

Faced with a range of difficult options, the political parties and the Maoists have at least managed to agree on the least bad: a route to a negotiated settlement that brings the Maoists into peaceful mainstream politics via a constitutional assembly. There are no guarantees that this will work but, sensibly managed, it offers both a peace deal and a chance to satisfy the people’s demand to have their say in how they are governed.

It is here that outsiders must still play a role – but a role guided by Nepal’s new government. Nepal’s friends should be ready to help in brokering and monitoring a ceasefire, ensuring the army accepts democratic control, using the leverage of eventual legitimacy to keep the Maoists on track and accepting and supporting a process of constitutional change that can lead to a more fundamental social and economic transformation.

The people of Nepal lost faith in their monarchy after the palace massacre of June 2001. The international community now has to learn to let go – and urgently help smooth a possibly messy transition.

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