Monday, May 15, 2006

The Military And National Insecurity

What an argument to delay a “landmark” plan to strip King Gyanendra of almost all of his powers: Let’s wait for the monarch to expand the cabinet and then we will revisit the issue.
In effect, that’s what the leaders of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) said while postponing a landmark a parliamentary vote on a proclamation overriding the 1990 constitution.
Technically speaking, yes, King Gyanendra would be naming new ministers on the recommendation of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. And, yes, those ministers won’t be sworn in by the premier at the Royal Palace. And, yes, the cabinet won’t be serving His Majesty’s Government once the proclamation is adopted. Even by that circuitous logic, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?
There is unanimity on the proclamation’s contents. Apart from “democratizing” the designation of the administration, the SPA intends to abolish the privy council. They accuse the king-appointed council of egging on the monarch to take absolute powers 15 months ago. (Prime Minister Koirala, one understands, agreed to take the oath from King Gyanendra on condition that he would not take his ex-officio seat on that council.)
The draft proclamation also aims to tax the king's income and property and allow his actions to be challenged in court.
The SPA controls more than 90 percent of the reinstated House of Representatives. So the proclamation would have breezed through. But MPs, we are told, decided to put off the vote because of “minor” differences within the SPA. Such a sweeping structural transformation of the state is now contingent on the SPA constituents’ agreement on the distribution of cabinet portfolios.
The “minor differences,” according to press reports, relate to the army. Reuters news service, quoting an independent Nepalese TV channel, said some politicians were not comfortable with the idea of also stripping the king of his formal title of supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Is the latest development an outcome of Royal Nepal Army (RNA) chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa’s hour-long one-on-one with Prime Minister Koirala the other day? That meeting touched off much speculation. According to the benign version, the army chief wanted to commiserate in front of the premier – who happens to be his boss on the National Security Council -- the double agony of having to send off his daughter in marriage to a foreign land at a time the country badly needed his undivided attention.
The more sinister version was that Gen. Thapa went in to inform the premier that the army – royal or not – was fully prepared to mount a real coup this time. Don’t try fixin’ what ain’t broke.
But that doesn’t answer why a section within the SPA would feel uncomfortable with the king shedding his formal military title. Could this be Prime Minister Koirala’s camouflage? Or has there been some belated acknowledgement within the SPA that the head of any state with a standing army holds an equivalent title?
It looks like the alliance leaders were impelled by the same reality that left control of the army and the exercise of emergency powers with the palace last time. It is tempting to believe that King Gyanendra somehow detected loopholes in the 1990 constitution that his late brother hadn’t and began plotting his takeover the moment he wore the crown.
The don’t-ask-don’t-tell reality was more elaborate. Once the euphoria of triumph wore off, the Nepal Congress and the communists recognized they were still rivals. For each, the monarchy was the lesser threat and therefore acceptable as the custodian of the coercive powers of the state.
Admittedly, the task of governing is much more arduous this time around. While confronting their internal rivalries, this time the SPA constituents have to contend with the Maoists, complete with their own army as well as agenda.
So the king stays as the supreme commander in chief but the army sheds its royal prefix? Now it’s really getting convoluted.