REVIEW: Article

Where is Nepal Headed?

On February 1, 2005, Nepal’s King Gyanendra shocked his country by firing the constitutional government for failing to fulfill its mandate to restore peace and to hold elections. At the same time, he dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, declared a state of emergency and assumed direct control of the government himself. Gyanendra then proceeded to appoint a new ten-member cabinet under his own leadership. For a few days Kathmandu was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Phone and Internet lines were blocked. Independent news organizations were shut down, right of assembly was suspended, and political leaders were placed under house arrest. Although news reports indicate that many of the measures violating basic civil liberties have been lifted, the political climate remains tense.

Initial reaction to these events has been mixed. Various local human rights activists, once they were allowed to speak out, were understandably outraged and began to organize demonstrations. Along with the United States, India, the United Kingdom and other friendly governments called for restoration of basic rights and recalled their ambassadors for consultations.

On the other hand in the Kathmandu valley, the King’s action initially was overwhelmingly supported. The majority of the people there reportedly were fed up with being harassed by Maoists insurgents and were tired of the squabbling of the self-serving political parties. Most of all, they desperately wanted protection from Maoist violence, threats and blackmail and looked to the King to take decisive action to restore security.

This episode is the latest chapter in a reign that has been marked by instability from its beginning. Gyanendra became King in June 2001, after his nephew, Crown Prince Dipendra, went on a drug crazed shooting spree in Nepal’s royal palace. Dipendra shot and killed his father (King Birendra), his mother (Queen Aishwarya) and seven other members of the royal family before turning the weapon on himself. Dipendra succumbed several days later from his self-inflicted wound. Thus, Gyanendra, never as popular as his late brother, inherited his reign under the most difficult and trying circumstances.

To knowledgeable observers, the King has taken a huge risk in dismissing the Prime Minister and his cabinet. By eliminating the protective layer of a government, Gyanendra has become the government. The tradition that the Nepalese monarch should remain above the political fray has been pushed aside. As Chairman of the new cabinet, he has assumed direct responsibility for solving Nepal’s two major problems: the Maoist insurgency and the effectiveness of the government itself. Unless the King begins to deliver fairly quickly, his support will surely erode.  Furthermore, by acting against the cabinet before suppressing the Maoist insurgency, he risks driving the rebels and the political parties to unite against him.

To understand how Nepal has sunk to this sorry state, one must turn to the country’s recent history.  In 1990, in response to a period of popular agitation, the late King Birendra agreed to create a new Constitution and appointed a committee of scholars to recommend reforms. A year later, the King approved the new Constitution, which established a multi-party democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy.

Political parties were finally permitted and, for the first time, members of Parliament were elected by popular vote from constituencies around the country. The King remained head of state but the prime minister was to be head of the government. Parliamentary elections were to be held every five years. Upon promulgation, there was jubilation in Kathmandu, and there were high hopes that Nepal’s conversion to a democratic system would lift the country from its impoverished status and open the way to a better life for its people.

The anticipated benefits of democracy, however, did not materialize. The political parties bickered, and their leaders constantly maneuvered for power. It was apparent to observers that while politicians in Kathmandu personally profited from the new system, their people, in rural Nepal, especially in the western part of the country, were ignored by the government and remained mired in illiteracy, ethnic and caste discrimination and poverty.

These were some of the conditions that in 1996 fostered the Maoist guerrilla-based insurgency.* In the last nine years, this insurgency has spread from the remote western areas to large sections throughout the country. The government now only has effective control of the major cities and villages. Even though the 72,000-men Royal Nepal Army vastly outnumbers the estimated 15,000 insurgents, the Maoists have the advantage of geography.  Rugged mountains, deep river gorges and dense forests provide cover for the insurgents while hindering the movements of the regular army. The Maoists’ spectacular hit-and-run strikes on fortified camps and police posts have cut army and police morale.

The Maoist tactics include unbelievable cruelties—murder, rape, kidnappings, forced servitude, blackmail and extortion—all designed to create a climate of instability and fear. Schools, offices and shops are shut down at the whim of the Maoist guerrillas even in Kathmandu. The rebels use strikes and blockades to demonstrate that it is they, not the government, who call the shots. The response of the army to this situation also has been brutal and well documented. It is estimated that the armed struggle has claimed over 11,000 lives.

Now, with the politicians out of the way and the King in charge, Nepal is at a turning point. Can Gyanendra forge a deal with the Maoists to bring an end to the conflict?  If so, there is a chance that the country can survive and return to the democratic course that began in 1990.

But if the King fails, the future for the Nepalese people is perilous. Nepal could quickly become a Communist dictatorship similar to the cruel regimes of Cambodia’s Pol Pot and Peru’s Shining Path that, in the past, terrorized and killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Maoist movement, which has already spread into Northern India, would then pose a serious threat to stability in a region where rebels are already entrenched. 

Stability in the sub-continent has always been the overriding concern of the United States, the United Kingdom and especially neighboring India, which borders Nepal on three sides. China, too, Nepal’s northern neighbor, supports this objective. The reality of their security interests requires all these countries to support the current Nepalese government.

But the King’s unexpected coup and his suspension of many basic rights have brought about negative consequences. The US has called for the immediate restoration of democracy, and while saying nothing for the moment about its military assistance program, it has indicated that it will follow India’s lead in this matter. The British government, however, has, as of this writing, suspended their planned package of military aid.

This situation has created a dilemma for countries seeking to help the Nepalese. The King has stated many times that, despite the State of Emergency, he is committed to multi-party democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Withholding support for the King at this time will weaken him and give encouragement to the Maoists who have brought chaos, violence and suffering. The King’s supporters are asking the obvious questions to their critics: “What do you want in Nepal…not to fight terrorism, not to uphold democracy?”

It is still not clear how this dilemma will be resolved. While the King will remain under pressure to restore and strengthen democratic institutions, the overriding concern is to prevent the insurgency from driving Nepal into chaos and ultimately turning the country into an international haven for terrorists.

* Editor’s Note: A paper entitled, “Nepal: Maoist Insurgency,” that appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ South Asia Monitor of March 1, 2001, provides background on the origins of the insurgency in Nepal: “Led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (“Comrade Prachanda”) and Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist fired the first salvo of the People’s War [the name given to the insurgency by its leaders] on February 12, 1996. Its stated aim was to destroy the monarchy and establish a Maoist people’s democracy. The insurgency began in five mountain districts [of Nepal]—the districts of Rolpa, Rukum and Jajarkot in the mid-west, Gorkha in the West and Sindhuli in the East—and…spread to most of the country.”

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United States Ambassador to Nepal, 1984-1987