Nepal: Darkening Clouds in the Shadows of Mount Everest

Nepal's strategic location between India and China has both countries jockeying for power

By René Wadlow

Nepal's strategic location between India and China has both countries jockeying for power.

On February 1, 2005, Nepal's King Gyanendra dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, claiming that the government was incompetent in the fight against the Maoist insurgency that began in 1996. The King assumed direct power and declared a state of emergency, suspending constitutional provisions on freedom of the press, speech, and expression, peaceful assembly and the right against preventive detention. Three leading human rights organizations -- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists -- warned that "Nepal's last state of emergency in 2001-2002 had led to an explosion of serious human rights violations, including increased extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and a breakdown in the rule of law."

The King has now appointed a 10-man cabinet under his chairmanship with no prime minister. The short-term consequences means probable repression, especially in the Katmandu area, of the press, non-governmental organizations, and political leaders.

The longer-range significance of this most recent state of emergency is that it is the start of the third and final act of a drama that is likely to see the end of the monarchy as an institution, increased suffering among the already poor population, and the danger of a "power vacuum" between India and China.

Nepal, landlocked between India and China, has a terrain which ranges from the flat river plain of the Ganges in the south, through its large central hill region, to the Himalayas in the North. Each ecological area has been populated by different peoples, some coming from India and others from Tibet. It was only late in the 18th century that the country took its current shape with the elimination of local chiefs in favor of a monarchy with its seat in Katmandu. The monarchy has tried to impose one Nepalese language and the Hindu religion as a cement on this diversity of ethnic groups, languages, and religions.

Strategic Location

The often antagonistic relationship between India and China is a sub-theme of the drama. Nepal is strategically situated between Tibet and the northern border of India. Both powers view Nepal as a buffer zone over which each has jockeyed for influence. India considers Nepal part of its "zone of influence." China is concerned that Nepal not be used as a base for Tibetan independence activities as it was in the 1960-1972 period, when the Tibetan insurgency had its headquarters in the Mustang area of Nepal. China wishes to prevent India from being the sole influence in Nepal and is concerned that India might invade Nepal to prevent a change of regime. India, for its part, is concerned that China could take advantage of any upheaval in Nepal to strengthen its hand against India in the whole region.

Thus, one has to see the action in Nepal against a background of major regional politics and not simply as an insurgency in a far away area of interest only to mountain climbers and Buddhists going to Buddha's birthplace.

Development and Dependency

There is a long prologue to the first act of the drama, during which a more-or-less constitutional monarchy is put into place and a parliament with political parties created in 1990. Unfortunately, neither the monarchy nor the parliament has done much to restructure the economic and social life of the country. The poorer Nepalis, although they constitute the bulk of the population, have remained on the margins of public life. Nepal's economic policies have been shaped by the development ideologies and strategic interests of the donor countries. This has led to shortsighted, dependent forms of development based on playing aid donors one against the other. Development has been in the interest of the elite and of a growing urban middle class which has benefited without making sacrifices or building up domestic savings. There has been little land reform or modifications in the land-holding patterns. With an increase in population but without adequate growth in education and jobs, the young are discontented and open to political violence as well as crime.

The first act of the drama starts with bangs in February 1996 when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) initiates an armed struggle against the Nepalese government, with simultaneous attacks in different areas of the country. The leadership of the armed movement is Maoist - having read books of Mao on the importance of rural guerrillas holding the countryside while letting the cities rot and fall. It is not influenced by the current Chinese government. The real nature of the revolt is more "Naxalite," named after the village of Naxalbari in north Bengal where tea plantation workers revolted in 1967. Such rural revolts against persistent injustices are often linked to utopian ideologies of equality but do not have a coherent alternative program for government. The Maoists are not a single movement with a well-defined chain of command but many separate revolts with local leaders. This makes negotiations or mediation difficult.

The Maoist insurgency spread to most parts of the country, feeding on poverty, class and caste discrimination, ethnic divisions, and lack of government development activities. The Maoists, however, do not administer the areas -- they only prevent the government from administering them. Thus, the bulk of the rural population must cope for themselves.

Massacre at the Palace

The first act ends with another bang on June 1, 2001 when King Birendra, his wife, and seven other members of the royal family are murdered by his son, the Crown Prince, who then kills himself. See Jonathan Gregson's Massacre at the Palace: The Doomed Royal Dynasty of Nepal (Miramax Books, 2002).

Act II begins with the brother of the murdered king becoming King Gyanendra. The King decides he will play an important political role directly, having little taste for parliamentary life. His first major decision is to call for a ceasefire and negotiations with the Maoists. Between July and September 2001, there are three series of talks between Maoist representatives and the royal government. The Maoists call for an end to the monarchy, the drafting of a new republican constitution, and an interim government in which they would have a major influence.

No common ground was found between the two sides. Thus in November 2001, the Maoist guerrillas began a new offensive, and the King responded by getting more and newer weapons. The rest of the act is taken up with more fighting, more repression, a few inconclusive talks off stage, but with a larger audience starting to look at the play as government officials in the US and the UK join Indians and Chinese in looking at what is going on. A few NGOs in Asia, the US, and Europe have become interested in the conflict and seek to play a positive, mediation role, but with little impact as yet. The divide between the government and the Maoists is very wide. Some independent non-governmental groups in Nepal have proposed some peace measures such as the Birat Declaration for Action: Challenges for Peace and Development in Nepal (November 2003).

February 2005 is the start of the third and probably final act. The clouds darken, and increased fighting within Nepal is probable. A greater flow of arms to the area is likely; government to government (from the US and the UK to the Royal Nepal government), and also from arms dealers via non-governmental groups in India to the Maoists. The danger is real that India and China can be "sucked into" the power vacuum or, more likely, willingly stepping in.

What is to be done?

In September 2002 I wrote an article ("Nepal Watch: A Priority") for the New Delhi-based Tibetan Review indicating that "The situation requires careful study to see if there are ways to help the forces of democratic change." It is still not clear to me what we outside Nepal can usefully do. There seems to be no "middle ground" between the King and the Maoists. Each wants the other to disappear. The political parties that functioned when there was a parliament are weak and had little base among the people. NGOs outside the control of political parties are weak, but there might be ways to strengthen them.

For the moment, our priority should be to alert a wider group of people to the dangers of the situation, stressing that non-military means of conflict resolution should be found, and that we should be prepared to help quickly when we find proper and useful channels.

René Wadlow is a Geneva-based writer.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005, page 22. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Rene Wadlow here

Peace Magazine homepage