Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Nepal on the Brink

For Nepal there can be no going back. February’s royal coup, growing pro-democracy agitation and unilateral Maoist ceasefire are bringing the nine-year conflict to a head. Rapid developments of the recent past have left the 237-year-old monarchy staring into the abyss. Whatever the days ahead may bring, Nepal’s future cannot lie in a return to an earlier status quo.

It may yet be that Nepal manages to arrive at a new distribution of power peacefully: that the king sees sense and offers concessions, that the political parties build both policies and public support, that the Maoists deliver on their promise to become good mainstream democrats. But to assume any or all of these will happen easily is to be over-optimistic. The powerful political dynamics that have been unleashed are more likely to usher in dangerous contingencies for which no one, domestically or internationally, is well prepared. Apart, of course, from the Maoists.

How has a situation that many read as a bloody but nonetheless stable stalemate started unravelling so quickly? First, any sense of stalemate was illusory. The Maoists may not have decisively won but they have consistently been gaining political ground. It is no coincidence that the sea-change in popular mood over the last few years, most dramatically illustrated by the tilt of conservative mainstream parties to republicanism, has been almost entirely in the Maoists’ favour. The inability of successive governments to respond to the rebel challenge has now been exposed.

Second, many crucial actors have been blinded by wishful thinking. Otherwise sensible observers in Kathmandu reassure themselves that the Maoists will collapse. The outside world has been little better: perhaps only now, as it faces a possible collapse of royal authority, is New Delhi shaking itself out of complacency towards the precarious state of its closest neighbour. America has braved isolation with its warnings of imminent Maoist victory, but its own policy of bolstering an ineffective military loyal to an adventurist king has only hastened the slide. Third, and most crucially, history may well remember King Gyanendra as the catalyst that sparked the final denouement of Nepal’s painful drama. Among supporters of constitutional monarchy, the fear that the king himself is hastening his dynasty’s demise is palpable. As those close to the palace prepare their fall-back plans, move their assets out of Nepal and furnish their second homes abroad, a sense of quiet panic is spreading. Even the king’s closest advisers have started dropping hints that they are urging moderation and cannot be held responsible for the February gambit. It seems only those at the heart of Narayanhiti Palace are still refusing to acknowledge the urgent need to step back from the brink.

If the king does indeed insist on seeing his gamble out to the bitter end, there is little doubt which way it will go. The irony is that had he played his cards more astutely, he could almost certainly have won the international community over in the wake of his power-grab. He might even have been able to deliver some token achievements to a population yearning for peace and progress, and disillusioned with the shortcomings of elected administrations. With imagination, the palace could have turned the Maoist ceasefire to its advantage, claiming credit for having pressured the rebels into the truce and being magnanimous in victory by offering a full reciprocation.

“If the king were sensible...” is the hypothetical preface to almost every effort at second-guessing the palace’s next moves. But the monarch’s actions to date — from crushing relatively harmless mainstream dissent to presiding over an economic deterioration that is alienating the business community and international backers — leave even sympathetic observers with little hope. Others want the king to stick to his hard line so that the end is hastened. There is a further, more bitter, irony to come. Party leaders have only reluctantly turned against the monarchy. “None of us really wanted to embrace republicanism,” a standing committee member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) told me recently, “but we couldn’t resist the pressure from society any longer.” He could have been speaking for any of the mainstream leaders who have doggedly clung to the hope that they could return to the comfortable accommodation with the palace that had served them well enough for the first dozen years of democracy.

The king himself recently compared palace-party relations with the quarrels between a husband and wife. According to a Nepali proverb, marital tiffs are like a blaze in the straw: they flare up dramatically but burn themselves out quickly. But the metaphor is better framed as one of domestic violence: the long-suffering parties have been assaulted once too often and may resist the urge to kiss and make up. The parties also have other suitors now in the Maoists. Political leaders have ridden on a brief surge in popularity and profile. Their new-found republican rhetoric if not heartfelt at least appeals to a growing section of opinion-formers and more radical young supporters. But there is also a quietly gnawing fear that in a fit of careless enthusiasm, they may have unleashed forces beyond their control. That republicanism is a fine principle but that defending their own non-violent democratic principles in the face of a disciplined insurgency may be difficult if the bulwark of the monarchy is removed. The Maoists may lack popular support but they have not lost momentum. If the monarchy is seriously weakened, the army’s behaviour will initially decide the course Nepal takes. A measured transition to an all-party interim government, backed by a democratically accountable military, is the sensible ideal. But if the army insists on tying itself to the palace, the prospects are bleak. Without political leadership it cannot maintain order, and brutally repressive moves would fuel discontent in the restive lower ranks hoping for a ceasefire.

The Maoists stand ready to fill any power vacuum, though they would be canny enough to preserve at least a pluralist facade. They may yet be brought into non-violent mainstream politics but only if the moderate forces are backed unequivocally by the outside world. And only if someone else has a better strategy than they do. For the time being, they are in the driver’s seat.

Nepal’s political leaders and external friends do not have much time left to come up with a plan. Pushing for a bilateral ceasefire would be a start: it might not resolve the central power struggle but would at least act as a brake on the accelerating slide towards further violence and instability.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.