Taking a Stand for Democracy in Nepal
Taking a Stand for Democracy in Nepal
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia

Taking a Stand for Democracy in Nepal

The U.S. must side with foes of the king, even though they include Maoist rebels.

Kanak Dixit and I began drafting this article three weeks ago to try to draw attention to the disaster unfolding in Nepal, where a corrupt, absolute monarch has spent four years pushing the hands on the democracy clock back toward midnight.

Unfortunately, Kanak, one of the finest journalists in Nepal, wasn't able to approve the final draft. On April 8, this gentle man with a sly sense of humor was abruptly tossed in jail. About 200 other Nepalese journalists also have been rounded up in the last two weeks, either for attending demonstrations demanding democracy and freedom of the press or for covering such demonstrations, which have erupted in the capital, Katmandu, as the king's rule has become ever more repressive.

It's not surprising that Americans have only the gauziest notion what's going on in Nepal. The news stories sound as if they could have been written from any of several dozen troubled Third World countries where angry insurgents threaten an oppressive regime.

But Nepal's story has its own quirks. A landlocked Hindu monarchy, it is a gorgeous place of mountains, plains and jungles, blighted for centuries by poverty and harsh ethnic and caste discrimination. High-caste elites in Katmandu have always dominated in Nepal, and development has usually been a distant afterthought. Per-capita income stagnates at just $240 a year.

Nepal's cast of characters includes:

  • Maoist-inspired guerrillas who spout 1950s-era rhetoric while waging a dirty war across an expanding swath of territory. China has denounced the rebels as anachronistic, but, since 1996, about 13,000 Nepalese villagers have been killed in the crossfire between the insurgents and the government. Nepal today has the world's highest rate of political "disappearances." Many can be traced to the government, but the Maoists also have slain thousands. Teachers and politicians are frequent targets. Insurgents also conduct brutal reprisals in villages that buck their authority.
  • King Gyanendra, who was crowned in 2001 after the former crown prince, distraught over a marriage dispute, massacred most of the family at a royal dinner. Before that, Gyanendra had been the family's financial manager. Since taking the throne, he is widely believed to have continued the royal tradition of shady business dealings. He has used the war with the Maoists as an excuse to suspend all democracy and assume absolute powers. Parliament was dissolved in 2002. The king jailed the leaders of the main political parties in 2005, and he has spurned cease-fire negotiations with the rebels. In the last week, his forces have shot at least a dozen demonstrators in the streets, according to human rights organizations.
  • The U.S. government, which, while promoting democracy elsewhere, staunchly defended the Nepalese monarch until recent days. In a Cold War policy throwback, Washington worried that a takeover by the Maoist guerrillas would prove worse than the king. Kanak and many others were mystified in February to see American officials offer only tepid rebukes when the king jailed the leaders of the country's mainstream political parties. Now, with near-daily democracy demonstrations, even the U.S. seems to be slowly waking to the fact that perhaps it should stand with the people against the crown.

The U.S. was indignant when Nepal's democratic political parties joined the Maoists to sign a 12-point agreement against the king. The Maoists agreed to enter mainstream politics, and the seven political parties agreed to begin revising the constitution to make it more inclusive. The U.S. has long maintained publicly that there is no military solution to Nepal's conflict. It fears that the Maoists are just using the established political parties as a Trojan horse to infiltrate and take over the country. Still, it is bewildering that Washington would find political dialogue unacceptable. Most Nepalese feel it is time to find out whether the Maoists are ready to forswear violence, reasoning that it's worth calling the insurgents' bluff, if it is one.

Kanak has always argued that Nepal had a dozen years of successful democracy after the monarchy was sidelined to a constitutional role in 1990. Just because Nepal's young democracy made mistakes, he said, was no reason to return to monarchical rule. The public rightly expects party leaders to run the government, not royalists in the palace or Maoists in the jungle. So why shouldn't they talk to the rebels?

Even the U.S. ambassador has been forced to conclude that unless the king "begins an irreversible process of handing over power, I do not think his state will last long."

For the protesters facing bullets in the streets of Katmandu, and for my friend Kanak in his jail cell, I hope Washington's embrace of democracy will transcend its old fears.


Former Special Adviser to the President
Kanak Mani Dixit
Founder & Editor at Himal Magazine
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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