June 15, 2001


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Brahma Chellaney

The red star hangs over Nepal

The unprecedented palace carnage that on June 1 wiped out most of Nepal's royal family has cast a cloud over the Himalayan nation's political future. The gloom and uncertainty are reflected in the expressions of a shocked, distrustful public, fears of renewed street violence, and a drop in foreign-tourist arrivals to a trickle. The traditional national anchor -- the monarchy -- is battling a crisis of survival at a time when the credibility of the elected government is at its lowest and the military appears confused and adrift. A handwritten sign hanging outside the gates of the Narayanhity Palace poignantly sums up the national mood: 'We are lost, lonely and very sad.'

Not all are sad, however. The events have come as a shot in the arm for a growing underground Maoist insurrection in the countryside and the assorted communist groups that fill the opposition benches in Parliament as the United Marxist-Leninist alliance.

Although the Maoists and the UML differ on whether to wage their fight within or outside the political system, they agree that the latest developments expose the decadence in the feudal set-up. With the institution of monarchy damaged and the weak elected government under siege, the red star hangs over Nepal.

This is Nepal's most serious political crisis in modern history. In terms of violence and killings, the country's worst episode was in 1990 when a wave of mass demonstrations and police shootings forced King Birendra to move from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. But no crisis in Nepal has undermined its people's confidence, stirred bewilderment and fear, and exposed the fragility of its institutions as this one has.

The reported crime of passion in which Crown Prince Dipendra shot Birendra, the queen and eight other royals before turning the gun on himself has no parallel in history or mythology. Despite its quasi-divine status, with the king venerated by the Nepalese as a reincarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god of life, the royal family could not save itself from destruction.

The alleged acts of regicide and suicide by the crown prince changed the line of succession to a different family offshoot. Not even the official probe headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court can fully dispel the deep public suspicions over what happened inside the palace on that fateful evening.

Amid swirling conspiracy theories, most far-fetched, Nepal is buffeted by an ominous but unique juxtaposition of forces: palace intrigue; a corrupt, inefficient government; a communist opposition that has staged paralysing strikes since last winter; a stumped, demoralized military; and increasingly violent Maoists who stage raids from their mountain hideouts. Without a revitalization of Nepalese political institutions, the country could descend into anarchy.

The monarchy has since its inception 230 years ago been the symbol of Nepal's unity, sovereignty and solidarity. As the country despaired over its nine democratic governments in the past 10 years, many Nepalese had begun looking back to the sovereign for leadership.

But with some conspiracy theories blaming Birendra's murder on his brother Gyanendra, who was vaulted to the throne last week, the biggest casualty has been popular respect and veneration for the crown. The current political disorder can only benefit the variegated communist factions, particularly the far-extreme Maoist movement modelled on Peru's Shining Path.

The Maoists, as avowed champions of the downtrodden in a country that ranks among the world's 10 poorest states, have been systematically extending their influence in the countryside. They behead local government officials and enforce a ban on the singing of the national anthem in schools as it glorifies the king. In less than five years since launching their insurrection, the Maoists have set up parallel administrations in almost a fourth of Nepal's rural districts. They levy taxes and run a 'people's army'.

The Maoist strategy, aimed at chipping away the state's authority, appears twofold in the current crisis: fuel and exploit public suspicions about the palace massacre by questioning the legitimacy of Gyanendra's ascension to the throne; and step up pressure on Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's nine-month-old government to quit. Not only is there evidence of their hand in instigating street violence in Kathmandu following the massacre, the Maoists were also quick to publicly allege a 'grave political plot' behind the royal murders.

The top Maoist leader, nicknamed Prachand, issued a public statement this week calling for an interim leftist-run government because the "monarchy ceases to practically exist... in view of the people's refusal to accept the main villain of the massacre as the sovereign".

Earlier, his No 2, Baburam Bhattarai, in a signed article published in the largest Nepali language newspaper, went to the extent of claiming that a joint US-India-Gyanendra conspiracy lay behind the slayings, which he alleged were provoked by "Birendra's liberal, pro-China views". The publication of the fugitive's article prompted authorities to arrest the newspaper's editor and top two executives. The arrests, however, have been widely interpreted as a crackdown on press freedom.

The Maoists and other communists have thrived the most in Nepal's flawed democratic experiment that has bred political instability, corruption and lawlessness. The unemployed rural poor, disillusioned with democracy's failure to deliver, have swelled the ranks of the Maoists and the democratic communist opposition.

But the growing lawlessness has serious implications for Nepal's internal and external security. The disorder has made Nepal a more attractive hunting ground for foreign interests. While China wields considerable leverage over Nepal -- a transit route for Tibetans fleeing to India, including the Karmapa Lama, who escaped 18 months ago -- New Delhi over the years has sought to keep the landlocked nation within its sphere of influence through the port access it provides for Nepalese trade and supply of essential fuel and food.

Despite India's close cultural and religious affinity with Nepal, China has bought ubiquitous influence in the affairs of the Nepalese state. Even the ruling Nepali Congress party is loath to speak against China, the patron of the UML opposition.

In recent years, Nepal has come under mounting pressure from New Delhi to crack down on foreign intelligence activity directed against India. All Indian Airlines flights to Nepal were suspended for six months after the 1999 hijacking that India said was engineered by Pakistani intelligence operatives stationed in Kathmandu.

For the Sino-Pakistan nexus, so evident in Nepal, an excellent route for operations against India is through the open 1,600-kilometre Indo-Nepalese frontier, with its passport-free passage.

The rising lawlessness leaves New Delhi with essentially two options: either stem Nepal's growing attraction as a staging ground for anti-India operations by revising the open-border policy or move India's outer security perimeter to the Nepalese frontier with Tibet. It is not clear that the septuagenarians and octogenarians who lead India by their chins understand that a continued open border without security safeguards is an invitation to disaster.

As for Nepal, the palace bloodbath complicates its fight against the Maoists at a time when the extremists pose a grave threat to Nepal's unity and integrity. The Nepalese constitution, which set up the National Defence Council, does not specifically say that the military answers to the king. But in practice the monarch has controlled the military, with the generals loath to take orders from the elected government.

The Koirala government had been trying to reach a deal with Birendra that would allow a greater role for the military in combating the Maoist menace. Initially the king had balked at the idea, but lately such a deal appeared imminent.

Now, with the monarchy, the military and the government at loggerheads over the handling of the massacre, the Maoists have cause to celebrate. At least until the new king earns the people's respect, the Maoists will not only rule the mountains but also be in a position to expand their challenge to Kathmandu's authority. This makes it imperative for the West to extend full support to the beleaguered Nepalese institutions and assist in their rejuvenation.

Brahma Chellaney

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