People Power In Nepal

People Power In Nepal

The removal of the contemptuous Nepali regime was a type of “people power” absent from Asia and the rest of world for many years, opening dialogue with the Maoist rebels and creating the conditions for peace.


Rise from the villages
Rise from the shanties
Rise, to transform this nation

These translated lines became the lusty anthem of the People’s Movement of Nepal, which has just vanquished a despot-king. The victory has made it possible for democratic politicians to open up dialogue with Maoist rebels, and with a bilateral ceasefire in place as of May 4 it now seems certain that the destructive, decade-long insurgency will be wrapped up in the coming months.

Before dialogue could begin, it was important to bring down the contemptuous regime of King Gyanendra. And the people rose to the task, coming in from the mountain trails, emerging from city lanes, to challenge a king whose malevolent idea of governance harked back to the medieval era of the seventeenth century, when his twelfth ancestor subjugated everyone within sight to create the Nepali kingdom.

Gyanendra used the excuse of fighting the Maoist insurgency to seize power on February 1, 2005, with the help of an army loyal to him rather than to the civilian government. This was a ploy specifically designed to appeal to the Bush Administration, with its antiterror agenda, and US Ambassador James Moriarty proved more than willing to take the bait. Over the past year, the ambassador drummed up a red scare and sought to prop up the royal regime with graphic predictions of rebels streaming into Kathmandu to slash and burn.

Moriarty was to prove very much an American cowboy in a Nepali china shop. Fortunately, the local politicians decided to trust their own instincts and information, that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) were ready to abandon their “people’s war.” In an August 2005 meeting, the rebel outfit’s central leadership decided unanimously to enter “competitive multiparty politics,” and thereafter started dialogue with the political parties in Kathmandu.

The Maoist change of heart was credible because they were acting under duress–they could not take over the state after a decade of insurgency, nor could they expect international recognition from any direction as long as they carried the carbine. The Maoist movement had become bigger than their wildest expectations, and yet to protect their achievements it was now important to seek a “safe landing.”

The United States has no geostrategic stake in Kathmandu and has been a benign source of development assistance for more than five decades, providing support for education, malaria eradication and family planning, and placing Peace Corps volunteers in the far corners. It was incongruous, therefore, for an ambassador to try to foist upon people who knew better a dogmatic mix of rhetoric from the cold war and the “war on terror.”

The political parties of Nepal were in no mood to buy the argument. Neither were the people, who joined the agitations of mid-April in their millions. This was “people power” of a kind that neither Asia nor the rest of the world had seen for a long time. This was the sudden release of bottled-up feelings of a people seeking peace and harboring resentment against the wayward King Gyanendra.

The People’s Movement was difficult to spark before this spring because the conflict had evolved into a three-way tussle, between king, rebels and the political parties. Things remained in limbo throughout 2005, until the rebels and parties achieved a twelve-point understanding over the winter to challenge the king in parallel. The agreement made it possible for the political parties to agitate credibly not only for democracy but also for peace, which was the trigger the populace was waiting for.

The upwelling of street power has given the citizens of Nepal–totaling 26 million and not at all a small country–a newfound unity and national self-confidence. For a people that has been historically divided by ethnicity, caste, faith and geography, the entire population came together to fight for pluralism. This has provided the energy for reinstating a Parliament disbanded four years ago and emplacing an interim government that, having sidelined Gyanendra, is now all set to bring the Maoists in from the cold and re-engage in the task of nation-building.

The task of the octogenarian democrat Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is now to organize a constitutent assembly, which will write a new Constitution. That is for tomorrow. For now, Nepalis will be forgiven their deep sense of achievement for having defeated an autocrat’s agenda and simultaneously creating the conditions for peace. Tomorrow’s democratic Nepal may be loud and raucous, but we have every reason to believe the gun has been silenced and there will be political stability and economic recovery.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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