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Nepal King Sacks Government, Cuts Off From World

For nearly a decade, civil war between Nepalese government forces and Maoist rebels has shattered the traditional serenity of this Hindu kingdom, a land of spectacular beauty and home to the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest. The civil strife has killed about 11,000 people and devastated Nepal's tourism - its most vital industry.

King Gyanendra accused the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of failing to stop the communist insurgency [loosely based on the teachings of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong], amid signs that the rebels' attacks have intensified in recent weeks. The king sacked the entire government, detained leading politicians, cut off communications with the outside world and suspended basic civil rights.

Many analysts say the move does not come as a surprise. Teresita Schaffer, Director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the dire situation is a result of troubling trends. “The first is the growing and very painful Maoist insurgency, which has taking place over the past decade and gathered strength in a number of parts of the country. The second is growing authoritarianism of the current king who became king after the previous king and most of his family were killed in a palace fight.”

In that palace fight four years ago, Nepal's crown prince massacred the popular King Birendra and much of the royal family, clearing a path for the late king's less popular brother to take the throne. Ms. Schaffer says the new king was never comfortable with Nepal's 1990 transition from an absolute monarchy to a more limited constitutional monarchy -- Nepal's first step toward a multi-party democracy.

But many analysts say Nepal's democratic experiment has been a troubled one, with frequent government shakeups. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of Nepal's 27 million people remain poor. Ms. Schaffer says this widespread poverty has fueled the Maoist rebellion that aims to replace the monarchy with a communist republic. “The underlying causes are a combination of extreme poverty and very weak governance. The government has never been able to get much by way of development services out into the country side, so there was no difficulty for the Maoists going into villages and finding people who felt they weren't benefiting much from whatever was happening in the country. They have been able to use fear as well as the promises of the better tomorrow to get some kind of foothold.”

The uprising has spread to every province in the country. Chitra Tiwari, an independent analyst of South Asian affairs, says nearly two thirds of the country is now in rebel hands. He says the government tried to deal with the insurgency not as an insurgency but as a law and order problem. They could have launched several socio-economic programs in the districts that were more becoming sympathetic to the Maoist rebels. Instead of giving any carrots, the government only continued to supply sticks.”

Mr. Tiwari says the king's dismissal of the government is risky. Some Nepalese support him but after the 2001 massacre, many have lost faith in their royal rulers -- traditionally regarded as the incarnation of the Hindu god of protection. Mr. Tiwari adds there is no guarantee the king has enough firepower to face the rebellion. “Until now, it was assumed there were three forces in Nepal - the king, the political parties, and the Maoists. With this action the political parties do not have any rule at all. The king sidelined the parties and prepared himself for a bigger fight with the insurgents. But the Maoists are not going to bow down.”

The insurgents declared a three-day nationwide strike in response to the king's latest move. But the king's ban on press freedom has left most Nepalese unaware of the rebel's call. A state-run radio announced recently that private radio stations would no longer be allowed to broadcast any news or opinion. International phone lines and Internet links remain cut.

Many analysts say the situation is more than an internal crisis in a small and distant country. If Nepal continues to descend toward failed statehood, unrest could spill over into neighboring countries, particularly India, which is facing its own Maoist insurgency.

There has been almost unanimous condemnation of King Gyanendra's actions by the international community. Lou Fintor is a spokesman for US state department. “Nepal should make immediate moves toward the restoration of multiple party democratic institutions under a constitutional monarchy. We also continue to urge the Maoists to abandon their armed struggle and to join the political mainstream through dialogue.”

It's not clear whether Nepal's king will be receptive to such advice. He's already appointed his own government and vows to remain in power for three years. The king recently called for the rebels to join in peace talks or face 'other measures.' The rebels responded with condemnation of the clampdown and ruled out any possibility of talks.