Swords drawn in Nepal
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Swords drawn in Nepal

The impoverished Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is staring at a steep spike in violent pro-democracy protests.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2006 17:27 IST

The impoverished Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal is staring at a steep spike in violent pro-democracy protests as the unpopular King Gyanendra and his opponents draw fresh battlelines in their intense confrontation.

But the endgame is some distance away as political parties leading a movement against the king's 14-month absolute rule would need to build on a successful campaign they launched this month while ensuring fatigue does not creep in.

On Friday, the king's opponents rejected his call for unity talks and a promise to hold national elections, saying the Hindu monarch was merely repeating offers they had refused in the past.

"Nepal is headed towards disaster if the king continues like this," said Sukh Deo Muni, a Nepal expert and an international relations professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"He will make the life of the pro-democracy groups as difficult as possible as it is now a question of his survival. Violence will increase and there will be no let up in state violence too.

"But ultimately, there is no escape for him if he does not budge from his position," Muni said.

Nepal, a constitutional monarchy tucked between China and India, has hobbled from one crisis to another ever since nearly the entire royal family was wiped out in a bizarre drug-and-drink fuelled shooting spree by the then crown prince in 2001.

Political instability has since surged and a Maoist insurgency against the monarchy has become increasingly violent, culminating in King Gyanendra, who succeeded his dead brother, sacking the government and taking full power in February 2005.

Clear warning

The king justified his power seizure saying political parties had failed to crush the Maoists and hold national elections.

When the parties took to the streets and international pressure mounted against him, he announced a vague roadmap for national polls, saying they would be held by April 2007.

But the seven main parties, despite the lack of a strong leadership, formed a joint front and entered into a loose alliance with the Maoist guerrillas to unseat the king.

A nationwide general strike and mass protests called by the parties, and backed by the Maoists for the first time, led to the fiercest demonstrations in 14 months and completely shut the country down for nearly a week.

Four people were killed when police opened fire on protesters, hundreds wounded and many more detained.

"This is a very clear warning to the king that even people supportive of the monarchy want him to only have a ceremonial role and the anger on the streets reflects that," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly.

But King Gyanendra, a stubborn ruler thought to prefer short-term survival tactics to longer term strategies was pushing the country further towards the brink and refusing to accept reality, analysts said.

The 58-year-old monarch, known to consult or heed to very few people, draws his strength from the unwavering support of the Royal Nepal Army and to some extent, the police force.

Military backing

Although he has invited widespread global condemnation for his actions, international powers such as the United States, the European Union and giant neighbour India have done little beyond issuing strong statements.

While the main military suppliers such as India, Britain and the U.S. restricted arms transfers to fight the Maoist guerrillas, aid, trade and tourism, the three pillars of Nepal's economy, have remained unhindered.

The king has also tried to exploit some differences between Washington and New Delhi over dealing with the Maoists and tried to pit China against India over Nepal, hoping that divergent policies would ensure his survival.

However, with less than a third of the country of 26 million people under his administration - the rest is controlled by the Maoists - and no let up in sight to pressure from the Maoists and the political parties, King Gyanendra could hold on only as long as the military is with him, analysts said.

"The denouement will come when finally the army turns to the king and asks him, 'Your majesty, how long do you want us to kill your subjects'," one Kathmandu-based diplomat said.

Meanwhile, political parties who frittered away people's trust through their misrule and corruption during 15 years of multi-party democracy, would need to convince the people of their seriousness and stay motivated, he said.

"So the results won't come soon," he said. "To use a sporting analogy, I would say this campaign is still in the league phase, may be somewhere closer to the quarter finals."

First Published: Apr 17, 2006 16:08 IST