Copyrighted material


by Marty Logan

on Nepal's revolt against monarchy

(IPS) KATHMANDU -- Hours after King Gyanendra said Friday he would hand power back to his citizens, state-run Nepal TV, for the first time in months, displayed the flags of many world powers that it seemed to be indicating were now onside, including India, the United States, Britain and the European Union.

Representatives of those nations have been trying to explain themselves ever since.

Just minutes after a nervous looking king made his televised offer, thousands of protesters boldly marching on the capitol's streets before stick-swinging riot police and rifle-toting soldiers resumed their chants of "Democracy!" and "Hang the king!" a sure sign that they rejected the proposal.

Saturday morning protesters pressed against the gate of a house where opposition political leaders were discussing the king's offer, advising those inside, "it's not enough."

That is what the seven-party alliance (SPA) also decided later in the day, and it called on the monarch to respond to a list of its public demands, including the revival of parliament and elections to a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution, where the fate of the monarchy would be spelt out.

But many governments had already issued statements welcoming Gyanendra's move, at least as a first step in ending a political stalemate that had spawned a two-week general strike that had evolved into the largest ever public opposition to a government in this politically turbulent South Asian nation wedged between China and India.

The proposed handover, the governments concluded, would also fulfil the demand they have repeated since the king jailed his own prime minister and started ruling with a handpicked council of ministers Feb. 1, 2005: restore multi-party democracy now.

But the embassies got it wrong, political parties, civil society groups and people on the street have argued the past two days. "Hurried," "insensitive" and "superficial" are just some of the labels applied to the reaction.

"We believe that there is a sleight of hand involved here, by a royal palace intent on misleading the embassies. Overall, we conclude that the king is not prepared to transfer sovereign power," said a statement issued Sunday by civil society leaders jailed at the start of the general strike.

Among that group had been physician Sundar Mani Dixit, who was released from prison last week. "This country has been unstable for over half a century primarily due to over-ambitious cannot trust the king -- that's what the ambassadors cannot understand," he told IPS by telephone Sunday.

"If the king agreed to a constituent assembly, all this would end," he added.

"The international community did interpret the king's message a little too hastily. Our capitals also reacted hastily," a diplomat in the capital said in an interview Sunday. Like the other country representatives IPS spoke with, he asked to remain anonymous because of the tense situation.

"We should have at least waited for the official response from the parties," said another in hindsight, talking by telephone during another all-day curfew in the capital and adjacent cities in the Kathmandu valley.

Following a pattern established early in the general strike called by the SPA, thousands of people Sunday ignored the shoot-to-kill order, marching and chanting in various areas. Riot police and soldiers let some protests pass but drew a line at the city center, beating back protesters with their canes, firing teargas or shooting with rubber bullets.

Three people among the tens of thousands marching in the capital were injured in a volley of rubber bullets, while dozens more were reported hurt in skirmishes. Local media said that in western Dang district 300,000 people marched against the king.

In Kathmandu, the diplomats were eager to clarify their stance. "We don't say that it's a question of accepting the king's offer. Rather, the parties have to accept their responsibilities and state their opinion," said one, repeating a common theme.

On Saturday, the foreign secretary of Nepal's hugely influential southern neighbor India held a press conference to expand on his government's positive reaction on Friday. "You should be careful not to take India's statement yesterday as an acceptance of this or rejection of that proposal," said Shyam Saran.

"The principle that power should be handed over by the monarchy to the people of Nepal, that particular principle the king in his statement appears to have conceded," said Saran adding, "I think what you should really be looking at is the response from the parties that what the king has said is not enough. So, more needs to be done."

It will not be easy for party leaders, said Dixit. "On one hand they have to be bold; on the other they have to be wise: the noise on the street is that they should not in any way compromise...on the other hand, how long can people go on with these demonstrations and shortages?"

Because the strike has virtually emptied the only highway in and out of the Kathmandu Valley, vehicle and cooking fuel have been scarce in the capital for the past week. The prices of some fruits and vegetables and essentials like salt have doubled and even tripled at the same time that wage laborers have no work to earn their daily keep.

On Sunday, the SPA called for two million people to attend a protest on the outskirts of Kathmandu on Tuesday.

The parties, Dixit continued, "will be damned for being seen to accept the king's offer but also for letting a chance go if they appear too rigid. A day is going to come where they have to take a stand...or else the country is in for more bloodshed."

One of the diplomats raised the spectre of what he called a "power vacuum." The result could be "uncontrolled repression, more confusion and you could have an expansion of the armed conflict that could help the Maoists resume the civil war," he predicted.

Maoist rebels have grown to be the third political force in this poor, largely rural nation, controlling up to 80 percent of the countryside. Gyanendra justified his takeover 14 months ago saying political leaders had failed to end their insurgency, but he has shown no sign of delivering peace since then.

In November, the parties and rebels signed an understanding -- the latter would rejoin the political mainstream if the politicians could deliver a constituent assembly that would fairly represent the politically excluded groups that the Maoists say they are fighting for.

The deal was blasted by the United States, which previously provided heavy support to Nepal's army, but by bringing rebel leaders to the tables the parties accomplished what no one else has done for years, said Dixit.

Such boldness from the political leaders is needed now, said a diplomat. "They should just say 'we are the government and this is what we're going to do.' Yes there were many elements missing (from the king's speech) but it was a good opportunity for the SPA to shape the it looks like they expect the king to shape the agenda."

The problem with that approach, said Dixit, is that the monarch would remain in place. In theory, he would again be governed by the constitution but "the king could invoke article 127, as he did to remove former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba (in 2005).. So he would get to regroup and then he could clamp down again."

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Albion Monitor   April 20, 2006   (

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