January 10, 2008

Nepal faces new identity crisis

Previously the world's only Hindu kingdom, Nepal is now the only republic with a king, and the election that is expected to signal the final exit of the royal family remains controversial.

Commentary by Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch (10/01/08)

Until last year, Nepal's claim to fame was being a mountaineer's paradise, home to eight of the world’s 14 tallest mountains. But last month, the country acquired a new distinction: the world’s only republic with a king.

It is part of the dramatic changes prompted by the 2001 assassination of King Birendra, culminating last month in parliament declaring the country a federal, democratic republic.

The governing body's decision has left the now-reigning king, Gyanendra, who took over after his brother's murder, stripped of many of his powers. In 1996, the Maoists, demanding the abolition of the constitutional monarchy and an election that would allow the people to write a new constitution, started their 10-year People's War. The conflict, in which over 13,000 people were killed, received an unexpected boost from the new king himself. In 2005, King Gyanendra seized absolute power through an army-backed bloodless coup, declared himself head of the government and began direct rule, much as his ancestors had done.

It proved disastrous for him and his dynasty. The 14-month royal regime brought the marginalized parties and Maoists together, who began a united opposition to the royal government. Called Nepal's "Rhododendron Revolution," the opposition launched 19 days of public protests that though peaceful, paralyzed the country, emptied the treasury and isolated the king in the international community.

The revolution forced Gyanendra to surrender and with the formation of a new government of opposition parties, the Maoists signed a peace accord, ending the insurgency. After the former rebels joined the government in April 2001, plans for a Constituent Assembly election were announced. The people would choose between the king and a republic.

However, the parties' failure to implement the peace accord and the Maoists' refusal to give up violence came to the king's rescue.

The election was postponed twice, and in September 2007, the Maoists walked out of the government, demanding the king's ouster before the balloting and a new election system that would improve their chances.

After Prime Minister Girjia Prasad Koirala refused to meet their demands, the rebels successfully took the battle to parliament, and in December 2007 a republic proposal was accepted.

Though the constitution was amended to oust the king, actual implementation however was to take place only after the election.

The twice-deferred poll is scheduled to be held by mid-April and the newly elected Constituent Assembly will decide the fate of the king at its first meeting: it remains to be seen if this will happen.

The Election Commission says it will require a minimum of 90 days for preparations once the poll date is announced, and the window of time is closing.

By opposing the election once, the Maoists have raised doubts about their intentions. Though their guerrilla troops, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has been kept confined to barracks under UN supervision to ensure a free and fair election, the UN says over 8,500 soldiers have disappeared from the camps.

With such a large number of trained and possibly armed guerrillas at large, voter intimidation cannot be ruled out.

The election process also remains contentious, with Maoist infighting over whether to back a mixed or fully proportional system. If the rebels fear poor results, they can once again try to sabotage the election by raising a fresh demand for a fully proportional election.

The Maoists are also seeking the integration of the PLA with the state army. Though the Koirala government agreed to the proposal when it signed the peace pact, senior officials of the Nepal army are against such a merger.

This month, army chief General Rukmangud Katuwal spoke strongly against such a move, followed by Koirala himself, which has freshly angered the Maoists. If the future of the PLA is not ascertained, peace will continue to elude Nepal, even if the election is held.

The government also must restore law and order in the southern plains where more than a dozen groups, many of them armed, are waging separate movements for autonomy. Events there prompted the postponement of elections in June 2007. A similar situation could recur unless the government is able to engage the warring groups in dialogue.

Finally, though Nepal is now a republic, the king still musters considerable support. On 7 January, defying the Maoists, hundreds of Gyanendra's supporters rallied in the capital, demanding the restoration of the monarchy.

Kamal Thapa, the king's former home minister, says a republic does not guarantee democracy and Nepal should learn a lesson from four Asian countries that in the last four decades chose to embrace a republic from a monarchy.

"Out of these, one lost its independence," he told ISN Security Watch, referring to Sikkim, which merged with India. "One - Afghanistan - is plagued by a continuous war. The third, Iran, turned into a fundamentalist state and the fourth, Cambodia, returned to monarchy."

Sudeshna Sarkar is a correspondent in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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