Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

The Nepal Problem

It's now more than 100 days since King Gyanendra unleashed his assault on democracy. On Feb. 1, backed by the Royal Nepalese Army, he shut down telephone services and the Internet, jailed hundreds of political leaders and human-rights activists and instated emergency powers that made Nepal effectively an absolute monarchy. At times, the situation veered into the absurd: army colonels literally sat across the desk from newspaper editors in Kathmandu, telling them what could be published and what could not be; a number of editors responded with impressive fortitude and ran blank spaces on their editorial pages to signify the government's new muzzle.

The king justified his move as warranted by Nepal's ongoing, and often brutal, Maoist insurgency. Yet, almost all observers rightly questioned the logic of locking up democratic leaders, reporters and human-rights activists that had nothing to do with the armed conflict. International condemnation of the king's move was sharp, and sharper than many in the royal palace anticipated. India and Britain announced in fairly short order that they would cut off military aid to the Nepalese government, while the Bush administration said that it would take the matter under consideration.

In an effort to stave off even greater isolation and condemnation, the king quickly assured the U.S., British and Indian ambassadors that he needed only 100 days to get his house in order, and that after this 100 days the king would not only present a comprehensive plan for restoring democracy, but for defeating the Maoists insurgency as well. But the king, when asked directly about his takeover, offered these hardly reassuring words, "There really was no plan. It was just something on the cards."

So where does Nepal stand after more than 100 days of royal rule? The answer: The king's move looks every bit as dubious as it did at the time it was announced. The Maoist rebellion has continued largely unabated, and while the government has issued a series of sunny dispatches claiming that it is making great progress in the field against the insurgents, these accounts are impossible to take seriously. Indeed, the situation in the villages appears ever more desperate, with the Maoists and the government military seeming to be in virtual competition to see who can conduct the more egregious human-rights abuses. The conflict has taken an even uglier turn with efforts by the royal government to encourage local "militias," sometimes little better than mobs, to destroy the homes of people suspected of being Maoist sympathizers.

In late April, the government "lifted" the state of emergency, but this effort was largely rhetorical. At almost the same moment the emergency was supposedly being rescinded, the king had the democratically arrested prime minister arrested -- yet again -- after he refused to appear before a handpicked royal commission investigating corruption. Large numbers of political prisoners and some key student leaders remain in jail. Journalists still regularly face intimidation by military officers, even if they are no longer sitting across the desk from them. The king's promise to restore democracy? Well, it turns out that rather than restoring parliament, returning the prime minister to office or letting the parties function normally, the international community will have to settle for some hazy promise of municipal elections in April 2006 or later.

Perhaps the only bright note of the 100 days was that the Maoists and the royal government both agreed to allow the United Nations to deploy a relatively robust human-rights monitoring mission in the field. At least so far, the U.N. appears to understand how absolutely critical this effort will be to protecting the innocent civilians that continue to bear the brunt of the war.

Now comes the hard part for the international community. Nobody wants Nepal to collapse under a Maoist onslaught, and the king has done everything he can to paint himself as the last bastion of defense against the Maoists. But the simple fact of the matter is that the royal government continues to pick all the wrong fights, and soldiers should be deployed against insurgents rather than repeatedly arresting peaceful democratic leaders in Kathmandu.

Yet, after an intense internal squabble on the issue, India has announced that it will resume military aid to Nepal. Not a dollar of U.S. or Indian military assistance should go to Nepal until the king is no longer an absolute monarch and a semblance of functioning democracy has been restored. One hundred days of royal rule have proven that the king was being honest when he said he did not have much of a plan, and this is no time to go wobbly on democracy in South Asia.

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