Nepal, An Unfolding Tragedy

Millions of Americans have visited Nepal over the past several decades, and the great majority have returned with warm feelings for the friendly Nepalese people and the extraordinarily beautiful land they live in. How is it possible that a peasant revolt is now ravaging the countryside? What can be done about it? And what may happen if the problem isn’t solved?

There’s a story here that needs to be told, a tragic conflict that needs to be understood. Nepal is no longer strategically important to the United States, as it was when the Indians and the Chinese were pointing guns at each other across the Himalayas. But we don’t need another Sri Lanka, devastated by protracted civil war, and we certainly don’t want another Cambodia, where a peasant revolt beheaded that nation in a singularly bloody manner. Neither outcome is necessary but either is possible at this critical juncture. The unstable equilibrium between the palace, the parties, and the Maoists that has kept Nepal out of the headlines in recent years is unlikely to endure much longer.

India, the US, the UN, and Britain are the external actors that play significant roles in the evolving internal situation. (China prefers to keep its distance). All are concerned and all, as far as I know, sense that the situation is getting out of hand, but they all operate under constraints and their efforts to intervene constructively have failed. I cannot attribute this failure to insensitivity or ineptitude by any of these interested powers. Much as I like to criticize my own government’s insensitivity in other parts of the world, our policy toward Nepal has been generally accurate. The closest I can come to criticism is that India is probably still unduly sensitive to possible UN intervention.

And the closest I can come to a positive suggestion is the possibility, suggested recently by a highly placed Nepalese friend, that someone persuade the Nepalese to accept a peacekeeping mission from a small neutral state like Norway or Switzerland. But I am getting ahead of my story. First, some historic highlights by way of background.

Nepal was never colonized. While the British were building roads and schools and health facilities in neighboring India, the mountain kingdom remained isolated, almost totally sealed off from the rest of the world. The Rana shoguns ruled in the name of a puppet King for a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. As of 1950, Nepal was still medieval, still feudal, an anchronism like a fly frozen in amber. There were virtually no roads in the country, and no public education or public health program whatsoever. So when Nepal opened its doors and began to modernize, it started from scratch.

Nepal’s brave new world of the 1950’s included a democratic government headed by a charismatic leader, B.P. Koirala. His Nepali Congress Party was a clone of the Indian Congress party and he himself was in a sense a kind of clone of Pandit Nehru. But it was too much change too soon. In 1959 King Mahendra slapped B.P. in jail, revoked the constitution, and took over.

Scholars have been arguing about that palace coup ever since. My friend Leo Rose, a Nepalologist at Berkeley, never forgave Mahendra for nipping democracy in the bud. I’m not so sure. A strong argument can be made that Nepal wasn’t ready for democracy at that time. Even now, after two generations have passed, you can make a plausible argument that it still isn’t entirely ready.

Mahendra ruled indirectly, relying on a few talented, western-educated civil servants spotted in key positions in the government ministries. An extraordinarily taciturn gentleman, he not only never gave any indication of what was on his mind, he never even signalled what he wanted you to think was on his mind. There was a parliament, elected through a three-tiered electoral system known as Panchayat Raj. At the center there were ministers who nominally represented the people, who formed a government of sorts, but it was mostly sham. On the whole the system worked pretty well; the facade of a parliament and cabinet satisfied foreign aid donors and other well-wishers, while real progress was achieved by the technocrats in the ministries. But it was strictly a top-down system. If some village council out in the boondocks had a problem, there was no way to bring it to the attention of the decision makers and resource allocators in Kathmandu.

Mahendra died and his son Birendra became King in 1971. Birendra had a modern education and modern attitudes toward democracy, but he had a bear by the tail. He loved his country and people and wanted to do right, but he wasn’t particularly decisive, and he was surrounded by hard-nosed, bottom-line family and advisers, some of whom hadn’t changed their attitudes much from the Rana days. As time went by, the ranks of the educated urban elite swelled, and increasingly demanded the substance of democracy rather than just the outer trappings. While pressures grew and gradually evolved into student demonstrations and riots, Birendra dithered. Finally, in 1990, he negotiated the end of palace rule and a return to genuine parliamentary democracy.

Dawn of a new era? Hardly. The parliamentarians of the previous regime regrouped into a rightwing political party, the RPP, while the Nepali Congress party took over the center, and an amalgam of leftwingers, usually grouped under the misleading title of United Marxist-Leninists (UML) positioned themselves on the left. B.P. Koirala, the only modern Nepalese leader with national stature and charisma, had, tragically for his country, died. His successors began an undignified scramble, rather like a game of musical chairs, to see who could get to be Prime Minister. Corruption was as bad if not worse than it had been in the old days of Panchayat Raj. The people out in the boondocks who had problems had just about as much luck as before in getting the attention of their national leaders.

As one Nepali observed to me, “the Congress has moved right and shares that position with the RPP, the UML has moved to the center, and this has left a vacuum on the left, that the Maoists are moving into.”

Think of Nepal’s modern history as a kind of stately symphony, with the leitmotif being passed back and forth between the strings and the woodwinds, between the Palace and the politicians. About ten years ago a new element, brass and kettledrums, began to intrude, ominous, threatening. In isolated outposts, signs popped up of a peasant revolt, though for several years it was hardly recognized as such. The simple folk out in the villages had always been taken for granted in Nepal. Americans trekking through the hills have always been pleasantly surprised by the smiles and friendly hospitality they find. How can these nice, gentle people be attacking police posts and coopting villagers and carrying on in this brutal fashion?

The Maoist phenomenon can only be understood, in my opinion, in terms of the fact that Nepal’s modern history only began two generations ago. Until fairly recently, the police dealt with problems in many rural areas in much the same feudal manner as their predecessors in Rana days. There were inevitably many incidents of police brutality. Now many of the worst horror stories are of Maoists capturing police posts and literally hacking their victims to pieces with their khukris. It is not pretty, but it is understandable when you reflect on the fact that many villagers have come to realize that their inferior situation is not the result of divine law but of of oppression by other mortals. The idyllic and peaceful scene I got to know when I wandered around Nepal was not due to some special benison that a divine providence had bestowed on the peaceful people of the hills, but was due to the fact they hadn’t yet woken up from their millenial habits of accepting their inferior status without question.

I first became acquainted with the Maoist insurrection during a during a visit in February 2002. My interlocutors then were mostly urban Kathmanduites and generally horrified by the violence in the countryside. At the same time, they felt that most of the leaders of the main political parties were still playing musical chairs, jockeying for position while the countryside around them was going up in flames, and that corruption was still a major problem. Unsurprisingly, some of these informants waxed a bit nostalgic about the good old days, and hoped the new King would step in and assert control. Forget about democracy, at least for the time being, let’s go for stability. His Majesty should fire the present government, appoint a new team of honest, competent technocrats, and order the army and the police to get together and suppress the revolt.

One problem with that approach was that the monarchy had been mortally weakened, first by the constitutional reforms of 1990, and more recently by the tragic bloodbath in the Palace in June, 2001. When King Gyanendra took over from his murdered older brother, he occupied a much diminished office, and knew it. I had an audience with Gyanendra in February, 2002, and found him thoughtful and pragmatic, aware that he faced difficult choices. For a while I entertained hopes that he would make them wisely. But apparently not. Given choices between bold initiatives and hunkering down within the fortress of the old regime’s way of doing business, he has consistently taken the reactionary option.

I spent two weeks in Kathmandu last October visiting family and renewing friendships. On the surface, not much had changed since my last visit. The uneasy equilibrium continued between the three major power centers: the Palace, the political parties, and the Maoists. But I sensed that this equilibrium could not rock along indefinitely, and some kind of crisis was brewing that would break the current deadlock and reshuffle the deck. But when, and with what outcome?

This common perception of impending doom was most marked when I arrived. The Palace had just closed down a local pro-democracy radio station and many were outraged. The response was a general strike which closed all the shops and tied the city up for a day. But after that the city started bustling again, and then everybody began celebrating Tihar, known in India as Diwali, with its ubiquitous lights and flowers, gambling and merrymaking. It’s hard to stay grim during such a festival.

But the grimness soon returned. During the last several months, the Maoists ended their unilateral ceasefire and launched a series of attacks in various parts of the country. The parties met privately with Maoist leaders and worked out a twelve point agreement on a program of national reconciliation, but the Palace ignored it and continued to treat each of the other groups as an implacable adversary. Strikes continued in Kathmandu and the other larger centers, and the Maoists have recently attacked on the outskirts of the Valley itself.

As of this writing (February, 2006), King Gyanendra sits in his palace surrounded by advisers who are not giving him the information he ought to have. Over and over again, he has missed opportunities to play the peacemaker. His moves have been clumsy, ill-timed, and counterproductive. The rumble at the radio station that ocurred when I arrived last October was an uncommonly inept move. Who advised the king on that one? We don’t know, but the town circulates rumors about a Gang of Four, or maybe a Gang of Seven, advisers the King trusts, most of whom are medieval in their views, hangers-on from the old Rana era.

When Gyanendra suspended the constitution and took over direct control in February, 2005, people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s see, they thought, maybe he can do better than the democratic forces at meeting our basic needs. He did not. Now he is tolerated, but just barely. Some of the political parties that used to oppose the King but supported the institution of the monarchy are now grumbling about getting rid of the monarchy entirely. And that venerable institution, hitherto the essential symbol of Nepalese nationalism, is sitting on a landmine. Gyanendra’s son, Crown Prince Paras, is known as a thug and a murderer. He is the most unpopular person in town. Everyone I talked to last October agreed that if Gyanendra were to drop dead or disappear, Paras would not be allowed to succeed. There would be a revolution and the monarchy would be history.

But apparently noone can discuss this with the King. Someone called it the “third rail” in Nepalese politics. Mention it to His Majesty and you’ll be thrown out of the palace forthwith. So nobody with access does.

The military is generally assumed to be with the Palace, as always. But the traditionalist Rana generals who were so closely associated with the throne in the old days have mostly died or retired, replaced by younger, more modern officers, many of whom have seen service abroad as UN peacekeepers. Is their support for the King as solid as it used to be? Would they fire on a Kathmandu mob if the King told them to? Noone seems to know.

Inside the political parties one sees the same old tired faces, many of them that I knew back in the ’80’s. G. P. Koirala, the Congress Party leader, is as stubborn as ever and continues to block any creative thinking in that party. The “good” marxists aren’t much better. The old panchayat crowd that ruled the roost as royal puppets back before 1990 is still hovering around, doing a little better at currying the king’s favor than the Congress leaders and the marxists. I asked some of my younger interlocutors if there was any real talent in the under-50 ranks of the party people and they all said of course, but their way is blocked.

The real strength of the so-called democratic forces is with these younger people, not the leadership. There are thousands of them, young, educated Nepalis in Kathmandu and environs that simply were not there when I served as Ambassador back in the early eighties—at least not in such numbers. I talked to several of them, including a couple of them associated with the human rights cause. Some of them want to get rid of the monarchy but others would just as soon keep it as a symbol of national unity, provided the King’s powers could be curbed in a new constitutional regime. They stand for democracy and the rule of law and are impatient to bring it about. They have no use for their present party leaders, whom they consider either corrupt or incompetent, or both.

The Maoists still control much of the countryside, but they’ve lost some of their momentum. People are worn out, tired of the conflict. The movement is still recruiting new members but defections have increased and now balance the new recruits. Some Maoist leaders think it would be a good time to negotiate but others disagree. When I was there, the key question was whether the Maoist leadership was ready to cut some kind of a deal with the parties, or perhaps with the Palace. Either option was conceivable. Not now, however, since the Maoists and the parties reached their twelve point agreement. For the foreseeable future, the alignment of forces will be the Maoists and the parties versus the Palace and the army.

A coalition between the parties and the Maoists necessarily will be a tenuous one, a marriage of convenience between two forces with radically different objectives and philosophies. If the king could emerge from his feudal cocoon he ought to be able to restore the former tripodal balance and move on from there. But he remains locked in a posture of total inflexibility.

It looks like a situation where a neutral third party could intervene as a facilitator. Evidently the UN thinks so too. Top UN troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi was in Kathmandu shortly before my visit. Most of my informants were either uninformed or tight-lipped about his mission, which I gather the US did not support though the UK did. One informant told me that Brahimi explored the possibility of a UN role in mediating a solution but was told by the Indians to get lost. This is plausible as India, historically, usually reacts this way to UN efforts to mediate in problems involving its smaller neighbors. In my opinion, in this case it was rather short-sighted of them.

Perhaps, as one highly placed Nepalese friend told me, the Indians would be less opposed if a small, non-threatening third party, not the UN, stepped in and tried to help break the impasse. Norway, say, or Switzerland. That is the closest thing to a constructive idea I heard during my entire visit. Poor Nepal!

I don’t know how this mess will work itself out, and I don’t think anybody else does either. The solution most of my interlocutors in Kathmandu hope for is restoration of a democratic regime, probably with the preservation of the monarchy in a largely ceremonial role, and a peaceful resolution of the Maoist insurrection. But hopes for this outcome are receding as the crisis continues, and the alternatives are grim. One might be a protracted civil war on the Sri Lankan model, which would drain the economy and stop development in its tracks, throughout much of this very poor country. Another alternative is even grimmer: an outright Maoist victory leading Nepal to the brink of the kind of “final solution” that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge imposed on Cambodia in the late ‘70’s. That is, if you perceive that your society’s leaders are responsible for all your problems, just march them out to the killing fields and do them in! Of course that didn’t solve Cambodia’s problems, and it wouldn’t work in Nepal either. It is an insane approach to nation-building that you wouldn’t believe any rational leader would adopt. But I am chilled by reports that the Maoists are targeting the school system. Nepal desperately needs more schools and more teachers, not less.

One thing is clear: Nepal is in trouble, deep trouble. I love the country and its earnest, industrious, and for the most part honest people. I very much hope it gets through the present crisis without a bloodbath, and without losing the progress already achieved toward becoming a modern democratic state. I don’t want to come back in ten years and find all my old friends missing, and nobody over thirty in sight. One Cambodia in my lifetime is enough; in fact, it is one too many.

Carl Coon 2/12/06

Note: This essay incorporates and updates three earlier pieces on Nepal which I have deleted from my website

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