Nepal's Backward Trek
Nepalese democracy has foundered and its political tempests have become increasingly turbulent.
the source: “Nepal: The Politics of Failure” by Barbara Crossette, in World Policy Journal, Winter 2005–06.
Nestled in the himalayas between China and India, the Hindu kingdom of Nepal has a reputation among foreigners as a prime destination for exotic adventure. Less widely known to the outside world are the tempests of its political life.
An outpouring of popular support for democracy in the late 1980s forced the king to accept a constitutional monarchy in 1990, but since then democracy has foundered. Now, tensions among the autocratic King Gyanendra, fractious political parties, and brutal Maoist guerillas threaten the country’s stability, warns Barbara Crossette, former New York Times chief correspondent in South Asia. The buffer mountain kingdom could easily become a source of trouble for the entire region.
Crossette says that travel warnings “give little hint of the depth of the country’s political collapse and the despair, confusion, and powerlessness of its people.” In 2001 King Birendra and nine members of the royal family were shot dead at a royal dinner, allegedly by the crown prince, who is said to have then committed suicide. Birendra’s brother Gyanendra assumed the throne, and since then has placed restrictions on civil liberties and freedom of speech, dismissed several prime ministers, and, in February 2005, arrested political leaders and dissolved the government.
Gyanendra’s actions have strengthened connections between the now-impotent political parties and the Maoist insurgency. The Maoists, formerly the Communist Party of Nepal, have grown in strength since the mid-1990s and are now estimated to have 10,000 members. They face an “inept and lawless” army. The armed Maoists draw recruits from isolated, impoverished mountain villages by “playing on the hopelessness and weariness of the poorest people,” says Crossette, and they “have amply demonstrated their contempt for democracy.”
In the international community there is growing alarm about the rise of Maoism, but “there is no focal point around which to build a solution” to Nepal’s governance crisis. Even before Gyanendra’s royal coup, leaders of the dominant Congress Party “let the country down, comprehensively,” indulging in corruption and infighting and producing legislative gridlock.
As Nepalis abandon hope in the promise of democracy and embrace extremism, the Nepalese experience is a warning “for those who still nourish the shaky conviction that democracy can be established simply through an outburst of people power . . . , a constitution, and an election or two, without the vital dedication of a political class willing to put aside differences.”