Nepal: Beyond Royal Rule
Nepal: Beyond Royal Rule
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Briefing 41 / Asia

Nepal: Beyond Royal Rule

I. Overview

Nepal is in turmoil and the monarchy is in question. King Gyanendra had calculated that his authoritarian moves since October 2002 would return order to a land wracked by Maoist insurgency and political instability but he has failed. The seven months since the royal coup have seen security degenerate under a royal government with no plans for peace and democracy. The Maoists seized the initiative by announcing a unilateral three-month ceasefire on 3 September 2005. The international community needs to recognise that its calls for palace/ political party reconciliation as the sole path toward stability are unrealistic. New lines need to be explored, beginning with support for the ceasefire and the tentative dialogue underway between the parties and the Maoists.

The king's actions have marked the definitive end of the old status quo. There is no prospect of a stable balance of power between palace and parties. The monarchy retains control of state instruments, crucially the army, but it has alienated other natural allies and prompted swelling republicanism. The Maoists are militarily strong and control much of the countryside but have failed to win popular support. Mainstream parties offer the hope of representative leadership but have lost legitimacy and must make difficult decisions about the monarchy and the Maoists. Civil society is finding a voice but cannot supplant the parties and will struggle to play a decisive role on its own.

History may credit Gyanendra for forcing the pace of political developments, albeit not as he had hoped. While endangering the future of the monarchy, the royal coup has prompted a healthy clarification of positions and acted as a catalyst for Maoist-parties dialogue. But there are many dangers. The Maoists are strong and determined, possibly serious about peace talks but also reluctant to give up the advantages they have won through force. The monarchy is weakened and in a corner; as pressure mounts the king, backed by the army, may stage a further, more brutal, crackdown on the mainstream opposition. The political parties' unity is fragile, and they have to reengage with their public while treading a careful line between two armed forces hostile to democracy.

The final pattern of the fallout from the royal coup has yet to become clear but some trends are identifiable. The Maoist-parties dialogue has been boosted by the ceasefire announcement. So far it has set modest aims, with no illusions of instant solutions, but it has made some progress on building confidence and developing an agenda. Popular support for a monarchy that has failed to deliver peace or prosperity is declining. Political activists have already been joined on the streets by other protestors, and mainstream dissent will certainly grow. The mainstream parties will have to struggle to regain mass support.

The death rate from the conflict has risen, with 1,574 fatalities reported from January 2005 through June and major clashes in the following two months. If the Maoist ceasefire is not reciprocated or does not hold there is potential for further escalation. Meanwhile, both the economic and humanitarian situations have deteriorated.

The international community's one-point policy of urging the palace and parties to cooperate was reasonable as long as there were realistic indications they might oblige. However, the king's actions since February 2005 have produced a political sea-change, with moderate parties moving toward a more republican stance and the Maoists urging them to negotiate. Nepal's most influential friends need to engage in a serious rethink. They should:

  • welcome the Maoist ceasefire and urge its indefinite extension, government reciprocity, and that all sides in the conflict seize the opportunity for substantive talks;
  • continue suspension of military aid in order to maintain pressure on the royal government to restore democratic governance and explore all avenues to peace talks;
  • replace the traditional insistence on a constitutional monarchy alongside parliamentary government as the sole path to stability and democracy with an unequivocal focus on democracy -- with or without the king -- and a negotiated peace;
  • work towards better international policy coordination, especially between India, the U.S., the EU and the UN, preferably in the form of a loose contact group;
  • hold a follow-up to the 2002 London International Conference on Nepal, bringing together all major players to chart a course towards a principled, democratic peace and ensure basic unity of purpose;
  • support the UN human rights monitoring mission with money and political backing; and
  • support mainstream, non-violent democratic parties, helping to protect them against attacks from both armed sides and planning for a potentially difficult transition to democracy.

There can be no return to the status quo before the 1 February coup. Nor can there now be any easy return to the political institutions of the 1990 constitution. The king has made clear his desire to take Nepal back to the absolute monarchy of the 1960s, while the Maoists insist on moving straight to a constitutional revision process. King Gyanendra's refusal to go back on any of his controversial steps, however many diplomatic exit routes he is offered, has reduced the chance for compromise. The mainstream parties' suspicion of the king's intentions and their consequent willingness to envisage abandoning the monarchy make a palace climb-down risky.

The king may yet give in to pressure to reinstate democratic institutions but his instinct is to see out his all-or-nothing gamble. He may find that he has been outflanked by both the Maoists and a resilient political mainstream that still embodies most Nepalis' desire for peace and democracy.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 15 September 2005

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.


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