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Nepal’s Royal Coup

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By Farooq Sulehria

On February 1, Kathmandu witnessed another government dismissal - the fourteenth government change in as many years. In May last year, Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa resigned following weeks of street protests by opposition groups and in June 2004, King Gyanendra reappointed Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister, only to re-sack him. Deuba had earlier been dismissed in October 2002.

In his televised address on February 1, King Gyanendra cited the Deuba government’s failure to organise elections and quell the Maoist insurgency as the reasons for his action. The king has assumed absolute power for the next three years and plunged Nepal into a political crisis. The crisis points to the strength the Maoists have gained in Nepal since February 12, 1996, when the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) started its jana yuddha (people’s war).

Nepal has since 1996 been home to the world’s fastest flourishing and most successful Maoist movement in the post-Cold War period. Also, the communists involved in parliamentary politics (CPN-UML) emerged as a leading force in the 1990s, even reaching the corridors of power once. The CPN-M is one of several splinter groups of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). The CPN-M was born when Samyukta Jana Morcha Nepal (SJMN) split in late 1993, when the SJMN was the third-strongest force in the Pratinidhi Sabha (parliament), with nine MPs.

Nepal’s Maoists have been flourishing since. Even The Economist, a paper with contempt for the Maoists, confessed in its issue of Dec. 2: "The Maoists claim to control four-fifths of the country. That is an exaggeration. But it is true that the government does not exist in most rural areas..."

One reason for the rapid Maoist control of Nepal’s territory could be that the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) was poorly armed at the time the guerrilla struggle was launched. The insurgents are generally believed to have few external sources of arms supply, but their radical ideas on land reform and negation of the caste system has won them support. They are running the district districts they control through people’s committees and have implemented land reforms, besides setting up ‘people’s courts’. Human Rights Watch, however, is critical of these courts: "As part of their ‘people’s war,’ they have deliberately targeted and killed civilians suspected as informers. Most of the victims are members of opposition political parties, persons suspected of having informed against them, and persons who oppose them in any other way."

The Nepalese government has been ruthless too. Consequently, the death toll is high: 10, 000 since 1996. Several attempts at peace talks between the government and the Maoists have proved unsuccessful. The first round of peace talks, which began on August 30, 2001, broke down on November 23 that year. On January 29, 2003, the government and the Maoists announced a second ceasefire, but the talks soon reached an impasse over a justified Maoist demand for a constituent assembly, and the ceasefire ended on August 27.

The success of Maoist ideas in Nepal underlines the crisis facing this impoverished country of almost 25 million, the majority living below the poverty line. According to figures published by the Asian Development Bank last year, Nepal, with an annual national income of just $241 per head, is the world’s twelfth poorest country.

Despite some democratic reforms paving the way for multiparty elections in 1990, Nepal is still a classic example of a feudal state ruled by a powerful monarch. The King is a military-police dictator supported by the upper-caste Hindu elite. The masses have been looking to the communists to rid them of exploitation by the monarchy, its lackeys and state apparatus, because the communists of various hues have always been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy and change.

When limited democratic reforms paved the way for multiparty elections in 1990, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), emerged as the largest party in 1994 general elections. In Asia, this was the first time a communist party was elected to power. But the communist government not only failed to deliver the land reforms it had promised, it also disillusioned its cadres. Meanwhile, the CPN-M provided the action the Nepali masses were perhaps seeking. As the CPN-UML was losing its electoral base in the towns, the Maoists were becoming a pole of attraction in the rural areas.

The Maoists’ growth has been making neighbouring India, itself facing Maoist uprisings in six states, pretty nervous. Nepal, which serves as a kind of buffer zone between India and China, has been strategically very important. Landlocked Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, has been under a sphere of Indian influence and is also desperately in need of Indian support and cooperation.

India is a major supplier of arms and training to Nepal. In April 2003, India’s army chief of staff revealed that India had, by that time, provided arms and ammunition to Nepal worth $25.8 million, and would provide another $12.9 million in weapons.

Traditionally, India and Britain supported the monarchy, but, of late, the US has increasingly been extending its support too. The Bush administration put the CPN-M on the US list of terrorist organisations on October 31, 2020 and also signed a five-year agreement "for co-operation in fighting terrorism and preventing possible terror attacks" with Nepal in 2002.

Washington may have concerns about the impact of instability in Nepal on the Indian Subcontinent as a whole. But the major reason for the growing US military ties with Nepal is the country’s strategic position — adjacent to China and in the neighbourhood of Central Asia.

Washington has a series of military arrangements with countries bordering China, stretching from its new bases in the Central Asian republics through South-East Asia to its formal allies in North-East Asia: Japan and South Korea. Therefore, the United States has become a major provider of military assistance to Nepal, allocating over $29 million in grants to Nepal to pay for U.S. weapons, services and training from October 2001 to October 2004.

U.S. military assistance to Nepal increased dramatically after 2001: in mid-2001, the U.S. administration anticipated spending some $225,000 the following fiscal year (October 2001-September 2002) on the military training of Nepalese troops and did not plan to provide any financing (via grants and loans) for military purchases by Nepal. After September 11, the U.S. added $20 million in a supplemental allocation. In fiscal 2003, Nepal received $3.15 million in FMF financing and $500,000 under another programme. For fiscal 2004, the U.S. administration asked Congress for $10.6 million financing. The justification offered is interesting: "FMF in Nepal will help its government cope with a brutal insurgency, restore enough stability to permit elections, and prevent the countryside from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups." A Hindu state becoming a haven for al-Qaeda...?

Others reported to be supplying weapons to Nepal since late 2001 include Great Britain, China, Belgium, Kyrgyzstan, Poland and Israel.

It seems that in sacking the Deuba government, King Gyanendra is counting on Nepal’s growing strategic position and taking advantage of the changing global political game.

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