King Gyanendra’s Promises Are Waning Fast

A Nepalese soldier stands guard at the wreckage of a passenger bus

A Nepalese soldier stands guard at the wreckage of a passenger bus in Chitwan district June 6 after at least 53 people were killed when a powerful bomb ripped through it. (Photo: Devendra M Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

The 126th day of the King’s direct rule in this Himalayan kingdom saw the bloodiest single attack on civilians since an armed insurgency was launched in 1996.

King Gyanendra, who staged a bloodless coup by dismissing a multiparty government on Feb. 1 accusing the civilian government of “failing to end violence”, had set the “sole agenda” of restoring peace. But, 38 civilians — many of them women and children — were killed at Madi village in Chitwan district (in southwestern Nepal) on June 6 when a packed passenger bus ran over a landmine planted by Maoist rebels.

This incident makes mockery of the government’s claims of an “improved security situation,” said Jeevan Prem Shrestha, a leader of Nepali Congress — Democratic (N.C.-D.). N.C.-D. chief Sher Bahadur Deuba had led the government ousted by the king.

Faced with never-before wrath at home, the king has done enough to convince the international community that “what he did was right.” He talks all sweet things, but the reality back home is bitter. Even as the king was in the Indonesian capital promising a “strengthening of democracy in the country, sooner than later” on April 22, his men back home were running amok arresting pro-democracy activists and tightening the screws on democratic institutions. At the same time, the Maoist rebels were targeting civilians and development infrastructure in the countryside.

During his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in Jakarta, the king asked for military support to contain the nine-year-old Maoist insurrection that has claimed some 12,000 lives.

The Nepalese monarch reportedly agreed to the proposal of Dr. Singh to relax emergency rule, restore civil liberties and release pro-democracy leaders for acquiring the arms. India, followed by the United States, has remained a principal arms supplier to Nepal’s army to fight communist Maoist rebels.

Even before the king — who according to the constitution of his country is only a ceremonial monarch — returned home from the three-nation tour, his men had already arrested erstwhile Prime Minister Deuba, who had in the past headed people-elected governments thrice, in a midnight drama. On the same day, five senior party leaders, who had held several Cabinet portfolios in the past, were detained.

A day after the king addressed heads of state of 52 nations in Jakarta, masked revolver-wielding men — later known to be policemen — stormed a meeting organized to mourn the death of a veteran communist leader and arrested some of the mourners.

Against the backdrop of such lawlessness, a sudden ray of hope was implanted in the minds of the peace-longing people when the king announced the lifting of emergency rule on the night of April 29, within hours after the king’s return from his tour of Indonesia, China and Singapore.

However, the glimmer of hope that the emergency relaxation provided for a “national reconciliation” and peace, unfortunately, was seen waning fast the next day, as the authorities issued orders banning political rallies. The government also didn’t lift the harsh six-month censorship on the press issued on Feb. 2 and didn’t release many democratic activists and student leaders detained or kept under house arrest.

Over two-thirds of 37 central committee members of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s largest political force, are still languishing in detention or are in exile. Likewise, three-quarters of the central leaders of the People’s Front Nepal, a communist party, are still in detention. In total, there are about 2,000 pro-democracy activists detained post-Feb. 1.

“All this indicates a de facto emergency situation and possible escalation of confrontation between the monarchy and constitutional forces in the days ahead,” said The Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest selling English daily, in its May 2 editorial. “The positive step taken on April 30 by lifting emergency should now find its logical follow-up — release of all detainees of conscience, restoration of civil liberties and end to press censorship.”

However, the police on May 5 rearrested influential student leader, Gagan Thapa, moments after the Supreme Court ordered his release. And, the authorities rearrested a number of other political detainees who were released by the court order.

India termed the lifting of emergency only “a first step” and the United States said the king needed to do more. In the daily press briefing, the State Department said on May 3, “The United States welcomes the Government of Nepal’s decision to lift the State of emergency … However, more needs to be done.”

Issuing a joint statement, three global human rights bodies — Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.), Amnesty International and International Commission of Jurists — said on May 3 the lifting of emergency might be a “tactical ploy” by the king to convince India and the United States to resume military aid. “Without specific and direct action by the king to an immediate return to full democratic, constitutional rule, this could simply turn out to be a cynical attempt to convince India and others, such as the United States, to resume their military aid,” Brad Adams, Asia Director of H.R.W., said in the statement.

In the same statement, Purna Sen, director of the Asia Pacific Program at Amnesty International, said, “If Nepal’s once vibrant civil society continues to be suppressed, the lifting of the emergency will be meaningless.”

With the king’s unwillingness to engage democratic political forces in resolving the crisis situation, the latter fuming against the king, and the Maoist rebels continuing terror and anarchy in the countryside, any peaceful solution is nowhere in the sight. Analysts here fear a virtual political standoff with no clear-cut future.

Dr. Bishnu Raj Upreti, a conflict analyst who runs a group called Friends for Peace, said, given the present atmosphere, the democratic forces are likely to go for head-on confrontation with the king. “And, the situation will be further worsened as the Maoist rebels always try to create wider rift between the king and the democratic forces,” he said, however, adding that reconciliation between them is the only solution.

Addressing a mass in eastern Nepal on May 4, Girija Prasad Koirala, the president of the Nepali Congress who was put under house arrest by the king for two months after the coup, said, “The king has put the future of the crown at stake by shutting the door of reconciliation for national unity.”

Prof. Lok Raj Baral, a former diplomat and a university professor who occasionally gives lectures on democracy at Harvard University, feels that a solution cannot be imported from outside countries. “Unless something significant is achieved here in Nepal, any extent of outside support doesn’t hold any meaning (vis-à-vis resolving the crisis),” he said.

Prof. Baral thinks that India and the United States must have understood that Nepal’s insurgency cannot be contained militarily: “Supplying arms to Nepal’s military means inviting dangers of weakening of democratic institutions.” He said the outside support — whatever it is — is given just to keep things in balance, i.e., not letting the rebels seize power.