Accessibility links

Sweeping Changes in Nepal


The past few months have been a time of turmoil and sweeping changes in the mountainous kingdom of Nepal. A crackdown on anti-monarchy protests resulted in 21 deaths earlier this year. Since then, there have been democratic reforms and the new government has entered into peace talks with the country's Maoist rebels.

Never in Nepal's history has the monarchy taken the series of blows it has this year. And the barrage shows no signs of letting up.

A special panel of inquiry summoned the king's first secretary for questioning in recent weeks and there were even questions about whether King Gyanendra himself would be summoned for a formal interrogation. An investigating panel wants to know what role the king may have played in the violent suppression of democracy protests earlier this year, in which at least 21 people died.

The King's Coup

Tens-of-thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital throughout March and April, calling for democratic freedoms.

They were angry at King Gyanendra's takeover of the government in February of 2005, and his decision to arrest opposition politicians and activists and restrict civil liberties. Some called the king's move a constitutional coup d'etat.

The king said he was forced to act because Nepal's feuding political parties had failed to end a communist insurgency wracking the countryside. Nepal, he said, was at risk of becoming a failed state.

Ultimately, the king's move backfired. It galvanized an alliance of seven opposition parties and their supporters, many who went beyond demands for democratic reform, and called for an end to the monarchy.

Among those demonstrating is Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University.

"Monarchy and democracy cannot go together in Nepal. Our history -- 55 years of history -- from 1951 onwards, has very much proved that monarchy and democracy cannot exist together in Nepal," says Khanal.

In several instances, security forces responded to the demonstrations with violence -- shooting into crowds and beating protesters with sticks, tactics that lead to the protesters' deaths.

Still it was King Gyanendra who was first to back down. As violence intensified and protests showed no signs of letting up, the king relented. In a nationally televised speech, he promised to reinstate parliament that had been disbanded in 2002 and to restore democratic freedoms.

Activists hailed the concessions as a victory for the democracy movement. But others warned that in Nepal, history has a way of repeating itself, and that it was too soon to say that the country's politicians -- famous for bickering -- were ready to move past the petty squabbles of the past.

The Road to Peace

Kunda Dixit the editor of the English-language newspaper, The Nepali Times, says, "We've gone down this road before. We've been disillusioned - not once, not twice, but multiple times with political parties that have promised everything. But I think this time is different. There's been a long struggle. There's not just a question of restoration of democracy but making it inclusive, making it work, and making in part of the whole peace process."

Now that peace process has the potential to leap ahead. With parliament restored, veteran politician Girija Prasad Koirala was appointed prime minister. He held landmark talks with Prachanda, the alias used by the shadowy leader of Nepal's Maoist movement.

The rebels claim to follow the teachings of the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. They launched a violent campaign in 1996 to overthrow the monarchy, which they see as a vestige of Nepal's feudal past.

With King Gyanendra sidelined, the government and the Maoists are now observing an indefinite ceasefire. They have also agreed that elections for a new Constituent Assembly will be held, most likely next year.

It is that assembly that will draw up a new constitution, thereby determining the fate of the monarchy. Still many are skeptical of what the Maoists say are their democratic intentions. Among the skeptics is the U.S. government, which lists the group as a terrorist organization.

Speaking in Kathmandu earlier this year, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that given the history of violence perpetrated by the Maoists, it would be premature for the United States to remove the Maoists from its terrorism list.

"Our removing them from any terrorists lists and other things is not going to happen until they've stopped that behavior. It's not a question of what they say in the press or what they are doing temporarily. It's whether they have really stopped the terrorist behavior," says Boucher. "And the only way to be sure of that is for them to lay down their arms, join in a political process, and present themselves to the people of Nepal the way other people, other candidates, do, and see if they can get votes. So it's really the change of behavior we are looking for."

There are still other precedents set by the legislators. Nepal was also declared a secular state, and is no longer a Hindu kingdom. Parliament voted to remove King Gyanendra's control over the armed forces and to strip of his political immunity -- for the first time, making the monarch subject to the laws of the land.

Still it may be too soon to discount the king entirely.

Rhoderick Chalmers is an analyst with the conflict resolution organization, the International Crisis Group.

"I believe there is already underway a rearguard action, by the palace, by the people who depend on the palace, the powerful feudal elites in the country, who retain all sorts of leverage behind the scenes. And I think it would be very naïve if we imagine that the king's unconditional surrender, as was announced on television, means the end of the game for them," Chalmers.

The investigation into the killing of the anti-monarchy demonstrators is still underway and King Gyanendra's role in the incident is still a matter of contention. Nepal's time of turmoil may not be over.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

XS
SM
MD
LG