The Reversal of Democracy in Nepal

The developments on February 1 in Nepal, in which King Gyanendra re-enacted his father’s 1960 coup d’etat and in some respects even outdid the late King Mahendra, should shock any freedom-lover, especially at this time when America is pursuing a vigorous policy of spreading freedom abroad.

The reversal of democracy in Nepal, displayed fully in a state of emergency, arrests of party leaders, suspension of fundamental constitutional rights, censorship of media and the return of an absolute monarchy, cannot but be a cause of concern for the free world, who played an instrumental role in bringing the popular rule to the Himalayan kingdom in 1990. Even so, the events in Nepal suggest that without a strong culture of a practice of democratic attitudes and values, formal structures of democracy alone cannot always sustain democracy.

During the past five decades of Nepal’s tenuous body politics, in which autocratic rule was twice punctuated by constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, freedom often gave way to political anarchy and public disenchantment rather than contentment. That happened because of a perpetual power tussle among political parties and monarchy and continued neglect of social and economic development. A compromise between King Birendra and parties in 1990 helped formalize a British-style constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Many hoped, including freedom-lovers in the west, that Nepal had finally crossed the democratic threshold. It was not to be so.

The past 14 years, the country’s truly longest period of democratic trial, have largely proven a parody of democracy. The split visions of the feuding power blocks, ranging from royalists, socialists, democrats to communists, and the outlawed Maoists, never found a common ground. Instead, they became even more polarized after the Maoists began in 1996 their bloody rebellion aimed at uprooting monarchy and parliamentary democracy in favor of a communist republic.

The rebels earned considerable number of sympathizers among the rural, disenchanted masses, particularly in the impoverished parts of western Nepal. Roughly 11,000 have died in the conflict. In large parts of the country, development infrastructure have been badly damaged and disrupted and basic services such as health and education have largely collapsed. Such a gloomy reality on the ground defies the popular monastic image of Nepal as a happy Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas.

For the majority of 27 million Nepalis, who live under poverty line, the procedures of democracy–elections, a party system, a free press, etc.–appeared merely slogans. Nepal has not have elections in years; the parliament was dissolved in May 2002, and the parties cannot see eye to eye. A slim, emerging middle-class did find some relief in the growth of free enterprises and a vibrant civil society, including a truly independent and perhaps too outspoken press. But such institutions, mostly proprietorial, did not help the majority of Nepalis realize their aspirations for peace and prosperity.

The disjunction between structures of democracy adopted copiously but seldom cautiously and the unchanging elite political culture reflected in the travesty of democracy. Rampant corruption and nepotism in officialdom as well as Maoist extortions and persecutions also eroded people’s faith in the political process. Public faith in monarchy, traditionally an institution revered to the level of divinity, also received a heavy jolt in 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his father King Birendra and 9 other royals in a suicidal palace massacre. The current King Gyanendra, Birendra’s second brother, inherited the throne of the 250-year-old Shah dynasty.

Any student of democracy would agree that happiness and freedom, in reality, are seldom synonymous. Yet, in Nepal, politics had (and have) little to do even with public welfare and a responsible leadership; it remains more of a state intrigue, power grab and popularity contest. Obstructive opposition, distrust and bickering among political parties led to frequent collapse of governments, as many as thirteen in the past fourteen years.

A coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba became the latest casualty. In his declaration, the King promised to uphold people’s aspirations and heaped denigration on the government for failing to conduct elections and create a consensus among the political parties to deal with the Maoist insurrection. The takeover was merely a replay of Nepal’s ingrained political culture, except that in one respect the King emulated General Pervez Musharraf, who had shut down telecommunications and the Internet for a week in 1999 when he took over power in neighboring Pakistan.

In November 2001, the King had declared a state of emergency, unleashed the army for the first time to fight the Maoist insurgents, and six months later fired Mr. Deuba for similar reasons. After two royalist prime ministers, much political pressure and a worsened security environment, he reappointed Mr. Deuba to the post in June last year. Unlike his popular, slain brother Birendra, the 58-year-old poet-King Gyanendra has a stronger sense of history and purpose of royalty and has consistently emphasized his desire for a more assertive monarchy. Unfortunately, the country’s peace and security deteriorated more than ever since 2001, when he began to play a more active role in the affairs of the state.

The country’s leaders are apparently unwilling to give up their preferred positions for a compromise. The King’s unilateral move has altogether shut the prospect of any dialogue, the true essence of any democracy. This one is the King’s biggest gamble.

In his royal proclamation the supreme commander-in-chief of the 78,000-strong Royal Nepalese Army promised to restore multi-party democracy in three years, hoping to flush out Maoist “terrorism” by that time. Public reaction to the king’s move remains mixed, though not as fractured as the political parties. Many still view the institution of monarchy as their last resort for political maladies. Despite his unconstitutional move and contrary to what the international media would like one to believe, many see the King as a decisive monarch rather than an absolute despot. If he defeats the Maoists and keeps his promise, he may emerge as their redeemer. If he cannot tame the rebels, estimated at 8,000 core militia and about 40,000 irregular soldiers, he may take the country further into chaos.

It is also vaguely possible that in their quest for a kingless republic the Maoists may forge an alliance with the sidelined political parties. If that happens, King Gyanendra could eventually loose his throne.

What does this mean to the free world, especially the United States, the self-professed champion of freedom and human rights? If democracy has anything to do with people and populations, freedom of about 27 million Nepalis cannot be less desirable than for some 25 million Iraqis, for instance. Unfortunately, the country’s decade-long democratic ordeal did not garner any serious world attention until the terrorist attacks on America in 2001. By happenstance or by design, the king’s takeover has forced world’s democracies, not to mention mountain climbers, to pay heed to the Nepali chaos. The concerns are real.

First, the King’s anti-democratic steps will discredit the military aid of America in the war against the Maoist insurgents. Britain and India have already suspended their military aid to Nepal. The U.S. has branded Maoists “terrorists” and it provides Nepal some $ 40 million a year in economic and emergency military aid. The military option, tried since 2001, has been largely ineffective. The Maoists seem highly organized, and Nepal’s difficult mountain terrain is in favor of their guerrilla tactics. They control 40 out of 75 of Nepal’s districts.

There are reports of widespread human rights violations from the military, not the least from the Maoist militia. Just a week before the royal takeover, Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Kathmandu. She blamed the Royal Army and the Maoists of arbitrary killings and torture of innocent civilians in the ongoing civil war. The UN also has labeled Nepal as the country with the highest number of disappearances. The London-based Amnesty International said last month that a human rights catastrophe was looming.

Second, an all-out war in Nepal could ignite a regional blaze. The King has vowed to crush the rebels, giving more power to the security forces. The Maoists have displayed increased confidence in achieving a one-party, kingless republic. They already maintain close links with other South Asian extremist groups sharing similar violent agendas. India already has several such groups. The spillover effect could also extend to a Nepali diaspora of some 7 million scattered in India, Tibet and Bhutan.

Should the King’s actions lead to a victory by Maoists rebels, there could be a chaotic state between the region’s two restless giants, India and China. Amid such a geopolitical reality, the U.S. may not like to afford to have a “failed state” like the former Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, especially because the Maoists have publicly decried America’s “imperialist designs” in the region.

Third, and perhaps more important, at least in the short-term, the future of freedom in Nepal is in doubt. Whatever the King’s motives and promises, his three years of autocratic rule will be more than enough to wear away the baby bones of the fallen democracy. If the neighboring Pakistan is any indication, promises can be broken. General Mussaraf has repeatedly reneged on his assurance to restore democracy. It takes a lifetime to nurture good leaders, and three years will not suffice to produce a new breed of visionaries to reactivate an effective multi-party system. The war against Maoists will likely prolong, and with that the suspension of basic constitutional freedoms. A censored press and a muffled civil society, for example, cannot help foster a democratic society.

No doubt that some may view Nepal’s reversal of democracy as nothing unusual. In recent years democracies from Pakistan to Russia to Zimbabwe to Venezuela have witnessed that. Yet, as the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has pointed out, if a democracy can recede, it could as well resurge again. The problem in Nepal’s case is when, and at what cost.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. and the mature democracies, as partners in Nepal’s democratization project, must reassess their democratic morality vis-*-vis Nepal. Threats of disengagement and sanctions from allies and donors, who have become vocal in recent weeks, may force the King to restore democracy sooner. But such principled threats may only embolden the Maoist strife, the centerpiece of the current crisis, and undermine the pragmatics on the ground. Given a chance, the monarch may restore some ‘order’ by cleaning the mess and help set some precedence. In deed, a delicate balance of a cautious military support and political dialogue is the only viable option.

Every democracy has unique vicissitudes, and Nepal is not Iraq or Pakistan. Regardless of their adopted name and a violent face, the Maoists derive their strength from the successive elected leaders’ utter neglect of social justice, in a society deeply divided along the lines of caste, class, wealth and power. A pro-active role of developed democracies, lacking for so long in Nepal, could help prod the King and the political parties as well as the Maoists for a negotiated solution.

At least three self-mediated talks by parties in conflicts have failed. And a direct mediation by India, America or U.K looks impossible and even undesirable given these countries’ overt strategic interests in Nepal. India, for instance, as evidenced by its appeasement of autocratic rules in Bhutan and the Maldives, has a poor record in nurturing the democratic aspirations of its neighbors. But as democracies with a faith in dialogue and a stake in the problem, they should facilitate a genuine peace process. Neutral states like Norway and Switzerland, much experienced in peace processes, have shown interest in mediating the dialogue. The UN is another means.

Nepal’s democracy, riddled with feudal and egocentric party leaders, may not have been perfect. But even mature democracies are far from perfect. Democracies sustain with more dialogue, not less.

DHARMA ADHIKARI, formerly a news reporter and editor in Nepal, teaches journalism at Georgia Southern University. He can be reached at: