Monday, September 25, 2006

Our National Ambivalence

So we Nepalis are evenly split over the relevance of the monarchy. Since the opinion poll was conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, we probably don’t have to denounce the findings as the handiwork of regressive forces. (Unless, of course, you want to include the NDI and by implication the United States as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to retain the Nepalese monarchy against the spirit of the April Uprising.) What makes the monarchy, in its weakest state ever, face a nation so evenly divided? Of course, any pollster would tell you how the inflection and demeanor of the person asking the question affect the response. Moreover, our traditional predisposition to playing it safe would encourage fence-sitting at this juncture. Still, one can’t help asking a couple of questions. Has the man calumnied by two generations of critics, repudiated into seeming irrelevance after the April Uprising, redeemed himself in the eyes of the respondents?
On the other hand, were the survey participants skewed – deliberately or otherwise – heavily in favor of the palace on account of class, ethnicity or outlook? And look at the way the question was framed. A whole new coalition of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s ceremonial monarchists and Kamal Thapa-led active monarchists has been inaugurated.
Or do Nepalis have the ability to make a distinction between the monarchy and the man on the throne? (How comforting it is to know there is always someone to take care of things should the parties and Maoist rebels botch it again and then endure spasms of mass revulsion?)
In the fickleness of our political terrain, even the Maoists recognize the value the palace would represent once the rebels are made to part with their weapons. (Could the Maoists’ public posturing over the status of monarchy be a cover for the consummation of their alliance with the Chinese and the rightward realignment that would imply?)
How soon elections to a constituent assembly are announced would perhaps depend on how fast the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists agree on the “status” of the monarchy. From recent pronouncements, the Maoists appear to have climbed down from their demand for an outright abolition to a suspension during the interim. The SPA constituents will probably have a response in time for the summit. And the referendum on the monarchy to go together with the assembly polls? You don’t have to be a royalist to expect, given the current state of affairs, the palace, the numbers to improve in favor of the palace.
Actually one royalist is moving in the other direction. Pashupati Shamsher Rana, president of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), announced that his party is no longer in favor of the monarchy. The head of a party that finds itself in the revived legislature but not part of the ruling establishment, Rana hasn’t complained of having been misquoted.
Nor have RPP leaders of enough standing shown any urgency toward dissociating themselves from Rana’s statement.
Is the erstwhile royalist party on the verge of a radical policy shift? Or is the grandson of the last Rana prime minister taking the ultimate revenge on the monarchy for its role in overthrowing the oligarchy?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Wrong Lesson From Thailand

The shock waves from the military coup in Thailand continue to clatter the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) government. In his first reaction, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala ruled out a similar takeover in Nepal because the monarchy has been eviscerated.
In parliament, the mood was less confident. According to Raghuji Pant of the Unified Marxist-Leninists, the Thai experience underscored that the monarchy “in any state is always busy conspiring to take control of the government.”
Long before Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin ordered his troops to move against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Maoist rebels had begun voicing fears that the Koirala government’s flip-flops might precipitate another palace takeover.
For all the civilianization of the Nepalese military since the political change of April, the SPA still sees the palace looming large over the force. Yet Koirala, Pant and everybody in between miss the larger picture. The prospect of a military coup need not be associated with the political aspirations of the palace.
Gen. Rukmangad Katuwal has been bending over backward to establish his allegiance to civilian supremacy. While domestic adversaries of Katuwal continue to hound him for his role in “suppressing” the April Uprising, international critics have been more sympathetic to the army as an institution. Even the United Nations human rights office in Nepal chose to release its report criticizing security forces’ excesses only after Katuwal was firmly in the saddle.
At the height of the protests in April, according to the Economist, the military had persuaded the palace and the SPA to come to an agreement by unveiling the goriness of the alternative. In view of subsequent events, the military can be expected to consider itself a stronger vanguard.
Speaking after the developments in Thailand, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House, believes Pakistan is the most likely South Asian candidate to experience a coup. For those familiar with the Golden Age of coups between the 1950s and 1970s, the prospect of a revolt against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who himself overthrew a civilian government, is hardly abnormal. In Bulmer-Thomas’ view, Nepal and Bangladesh are in the same regional risk category.
The more prescient Stratfor, too, had pointed to the possibility of a military coup a few months ago. “Recognizing that Nepal's fate depends primarily on the mindset of its generals, India's attention likely is fixated now on the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA),” the Austin, Texas-based think tank said in an April 18 analysis titled “Countdown to a Coup in Nepal?”
Stratfor added: “Senior army officials feel that New Delhi, formerly one of its chief suppliers, ditched the army when it cut off military aid to Nepal following the royal takeover. If New Delhi and the RNA can make peace, India might begin to draw the SPA away from the Maoists with the promise of RNA backing to topple the monarchy.”
Of course, King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of parliament set the ball rolling in another direction. Yet those tempted to dismiss Stratfor’s prescience in Nepal would be advised to read the last paragraph of that analysis: “Though a military coup is likely in the cards for Nepal, such political maneuverings by the SPA and India would need time to develop.”
Despite the army’s affirmations of allegiance to democracy, its concept may not necessarily conform to the expectations of the political class. When Gen. Prajwalla Shamsher Rana in 2002 virtually blamed the political parties for creating the Maoist insurgency, it was difficult to believe he could have made that sweeping indictment without the approval of his supreme commander. Today, it becomes vital to consider whether such sentiments have disappeared simply because the army has been stripped of its institutional links with the monarchy.
Moreover, new dynamics have set in since the political change of April. The SPA’s timidity in defending the military after Maoist supremo Prachanda accused it of having done nothing but plunder and pillage during its entire existence must have left a searing effect even on constituents least loyal to the palace.
Furthermore, the rebels’ predilection for equating themselves with the state’s army must have unnerved many in the ranks. Specifically, the ease with which the Maoists expect their guerrilla fighters to be incorporated into a national army without the academic and professional rigors existing members have undergone could precipitate considerable – and public – disgruntlement. Considering the Nepalese military’s participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations as well as the international community’s urgency of assembling contingents at short notice in view of the proliferation of global trouble spots, the generals’ interest in maintaining a professional force can only grow deeper.
The SPA, one would expect, doesn’t need to be told that such new dynamics in the military have nothing to do with the monarchy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Friendly Advice Or Blatant Interference?

Five months after the restoration of democracy, American Ambassador James F. Moriarty is confronting calls for his expulsion from a section of the Seven Party Alliance whose empowerment he had so assiduously advocated for more than two years.
“Would a Nepali ambassador be allowed to tour military barracks in the United States and make political statements?” thundered Lila Mani Pokharel, vice president of People’s Front Nepal, in the parliament Moriarty helped reinstate.
Narayan Man Bijukchhe, president of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, another SPA constituent, was no less strident in criticizing American interference. When ministers of King Gyanendra’s government accused foreign ambassadors of meddling in Nepal’s politics, SPA constituents vied with one another to defend what they called “friendly expressions” of democratic solidarity.
Can it be inferred from Pokharel’s outburst that America has now abandoned its support for Nepal’s democratic forces? Regardless, his rhetorical question merits consideration. What if Nepal had been arming the U.S. government in its fight against, say, the Aryan Nation only to discover that the extreme-left component of the Democratic Party decided to expand Senate membership to accommodate the Michigan, Montana and other variegated militias? A fine display of national reconciliation, perhaps? Or a total repudiation of long-standing Nepalese foreign and defense policy vis-à-vis the United States?
Admittedly, it would take more than the rants of fringe commies to expel Moriarty. Yet His Excellency must be under a lot of pressure here. The recent visits of Senator Arlen Specter and a House delegation led by Jim Kolbe underscored the urgency with which Washington views Nepal’s evolving peace process. (House Speaker Dennis Hastert, one may recall, canceled his delegation’s travel plans once the anti-palace protests grew ugly.)
In Washington’s view – at least in that of the dominant policy-making section – recent events appear to have vindicated the posture of Moriarty’s predecessor, Michael E. Malinowski. In Reagan-speak, you can trust the Maoists, but there’s no way of verifying. It’s this deepening Reaganesque hue in official American attitudes that seems to be crystallizing in Nepal.
Is there a growing convergence of opinion between the neo- and paleo-conservatives on the wider implications of a Maoist-dominated – if not entirely controlled – Nepal? As much is indicated in a September 13 article in The Washington Times. Paul Moorcraft may not be a household name in Conservative America. But in “Danger in Nepal,” he certainly fuses the thought processes of the erstwhile Cold Warriors and of those waging the War on Terrorism.
Moriarty must have recognized the local fallout from the outset. Unified Marxist Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal used to take down portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin whenever the US ambassador came calling at Balkhu. The UML chief probably still does. But Madhav Nepal also has become more strident in advising Moriarty to stick to the norms of his profession.
The UML, which until not too long ago, was searching for the appropriate pretext to change the party name and flag is now competing with the Maoists to raise the hammer and sickle the highest.
Regardless of what Pokharel and Bijukkche think, Moriarty probably considers offering “friendly advice” a firm element of his job description. Especially when former “royalist” premier Surya Bahadur Thapa – who one understands completed an elaborate tour of the White House and the Pentagon – comes out in full support of his sentiments.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Elocution Amid Revolution’s Convolution

Physical Planning Minister Gopal Man Shrestha advocates a presidential role for King Gyanendra. Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat believes the Nepal Army won’t back another palace takeover because it has burned its fingers real bad. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa accuses the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) government and the Maoists of flouting the spirit of the People’s Movement-II. Welcome to the tortuous world of Nepalese politics.
In a climate where politics and posturing have become the exclusive catalysts of change, it would be unfair to criticize those in responsible positions for speaking from all sides of their mouths. Nor are the three aforementioned utterances totally irrelevant to the ongoing debate.
With Nepali Congress president and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala so firmly behind a ceremonial monarchy, the breakaway faction of the country’s preeminent party certainly couldn’t afford to waste any time. Since Nepali Congress (Democratic) President Sher Bahadur Deuba is out of station, the vice-chairman is entitled to shed light on the party’s position on the crown. Until Deuba overrules Shrestha, we can assume that a pro-monarchy realignment of political forces has begun. Whether there will be a formal unification of the two Nepali Congress factions any time soon becomes immaterial.
Mindful of the storm General Rukmangad Katuwal’s confirmation as chief of army staff has kicked up, the government is mounting every defense it can muster on his behalf. Katuwal may have been the deputy army chief during People’s Movement II. Whether the royal regime’s crackdown on violators of curfews duly and officially imposed can retroactively be considered suppression remains to be resolved. What we know is that Katuwal was second in line to head the army. Depriving the first man outside the traditional Rana-Shah clan of the top job would certainly look bad for a government claiming to have democratized the army.
Critics can make the case that Katuwal, having been virtually adopted by King Mahendra, is the most loyal army chief the palace could ever expect. But, then, those critics would have to devise a way of rediscovering the evolution of the Nepalese military outside the sanctuary of the palace.
Finance Minister Mahat was resting his confidence in the transformation of the army on the top general’s assurances that the force would never betray democracy. Let’s dip a little deeper here. If we accept the democratic mainstream’s claim that King Mahendra’s and King Gyanendra’s power grabs of 1960 and 2005 were in fact military coups, then we must also acknowledge that both monarchs justified their steps as being in defense of democracy. If the military were to intervene again, it certainly would not do so in the name of betraying democracy. Dr. Mahat’s assertion will have stood the test of time.
What’s interesting here is the fact that Dr. Mahat happened to make that bold claim. He was fortunate to have avoided much of the confinement and other torments his Nepali Congress colleagues – along with those from other parties -- suffered under the royal regime.
Reputed to be one of B.P. Koirala’s favorite youths, Dr. Mahat used his furlough to defend Nepal’s 1990-2002 experiment with democracy in the form of a book as well as in newspaper articles and conference papers. He may have made life a little difficult for the palace by complaining to a Washington Post reporter about the ease with which US Ambassador James F. Moriarty swung golf clubs with Crown Prince Paras while Washington criticized King Gyanendra’s takeover. The ruckus Dr. Mahat’s complaint created did allow Washington to clarify its position vis-à-vis the palace in a way that did not hurt the royal regime too bad.
Compounding this convolution is former premier Thapa’s stand that the SPA and Maoists are proving to be a problem to the country. The most liberal face of the partyless Panchayat system, Thapa’s strong contacts span the political spectrum. Considered close to the Indian establishment, Thapa’s reconciliation pleas following the royal takeover have won admiration in the West. The forum he chose to make that accusation – the first Madheshi national conference of his Rastriya Janashakti Party in Janakpur – adds to the significance.
The Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist Leninists and other members of the SPA would have loved to demonize Thapa as a relic of the partyless autocracy. They forfeited that right when they accepted him as prime minister of a coalition government in 1998.
Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai was alarmed by the way Thapa, as a member of the legislature King Gyanendra reinstated in April, welcomed the SPA Proclamation and the government’s determination to hold constituent assembly elections. Having broken off the last peace process during Thapa’s premiership in 2003 – when, incidentally all three security chiefs as well as the home and foreign ministers shared the same surname – Dr. Bhattarai’s nervousness is understandable.
With the SPA constituents rushing to describe the “mandate” of the People’s Movement – II in their own ways, Thapa seems to have gauged the mood of the people as well as that of Nepal’s international partners. And, we are told, he has always been the only politician Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala ever listens to. Thapa may be the ex-prime minister to watch – yes, even amid the convolution of Nepalese politics.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

It’s Payback Time

As new details emerge from the recent Maoist central committee meeting at Kami Danda of Kavrepalanchok district, the precariousness of Nepal’s plight is becoming all too perceptible.
Since the meeting, the Maoists have grown increasingly critical of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) government’s alleged teaming up with the palace and “some foreign forces” to subvert the peace process.
By threatening to launch a “Kathmandu-centric revolution,” the Maoist central committee has endorsed Prachanda’s earlier pledge that the rebels would not return to the jungle. Yet the real import of the decision lies in the rebels’ eagerness to reap the return on their investment in the April Uprising. The Maoists seem to be convinced that their utility as part of the broader anti-palace alliance ended the night King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives.
A formal repudiation of the alliance with the SPA at this late stage would do greater harm to an organization that has always considered itself ahead of everyone else in the game. Denouncing the Indian architects of last November’s accord would expose the Maoists’ own susceptibility to some of the same “foreign forces” they currently castigate.
A full-fledged withdrawal from the peace process might placate the radical base, but it would vindicate the royal government’s stance. So Prachanda does the best possible thing. He appoints himself heads of a 10-member team to facilitate the peace process and then stands in the way by adding outrageous demands.
The Maoists now insist they will not lay down weapons until ethnic and regional autonomy with the right of self-determination is guaranteed, the monarchy abolished and the army restructured.
What is particularly revealing is that folks like Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel, who until the other day saw the Maoists as reasonable republican cohorts, are now hitting out hard against the rebels.
The international community, which implacably refused to recognize the legitimacy of King Gyanendra’s three-year roadmap, got its way in half that time. Now it’s in for some amusement. Once the leading advocate of United Nations involvement in an elaborate peace process, Prachanda has now inflicted a heavy blow on the organization’s severely curtailed arms-management jurisdiction. Reversing an assurance he gave to the Mistura mission, the rebel supremo now insists he would not be ready even to confine the Maoist militia to specific cantonments unless both the armies were treated on par.
Ian Martin, who as the top UN human rights monitor consistently ridiculed the royal regime’s deep distrust in the Maoists, now has an opportunity, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s principal representative, to test the rebels’ commitment to peace.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

October In The Air

With the advent of September, Maoist chairman Prachanda has stepped up his warnings of mass protests in Kathmandu if the rebels’ demands for the election of a constituent assembly were not met. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s government is not paying enough attention to the peace talks, Prachanda said in an address to a rally in the capital. But the rebels would leave no stone unturned for peace.
Such a capital-centred revolution would conform to the urban-uprising component of the Maoist “People’s War.” It would also be in keeping with the Maoists’ pledge that they would not return to the jungle even if the peace process collapsed. Considering that the rebels’ ceasefire ends in the last week of October – that ominous prefix of Prachanda’s next revolution – there must be some disquiet among the republican wing of Koirala’s Nepali Congress. (That in turn must have inspired Sher Bahadur Deuba, head of the rival Nepali Congress (Democratic) to indulge in some posturing ahead of party reunification talks.)
Prachanda’s warning comes after a central committee meeting of the rebels accused the government of joining forces with the palace in a bid to maintain the status quo. Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara told reporters that the meeting had concluded that the government was joining hands with anti-democratic elements (read: palace) to preserve the status quo. By indicting every constituent of the Seven Party Alliance, the Maoists have signaled their unwillingness to be considered merely as an eighth player in the anti-palace coalition.
Arms management should be addressed only after an agreement on an interim constitution and government is reached, the Maoists said in a statement. That conflicts with the government’s as well as the principal external stakeholders’ stand. Yet Mahara sounded hopeful that all political issues would be resolved through dialogue. The rebels have refused to disarm, but seem ready to place their weapons at sites under UN supervision, provided there are similar controls on the Nepal Army. How much room that leaves for compromise obviously depends on one’s level of optimism. Skeptics can draw comfort from some cynicism. Perhaps it’s too early to start worrying.
With so many blanks to fill in the draft of the interim constitution, the imperative of phrasing an acceptable text on managing arms might not be on too many influential minds right now. But, then, the fact that October is less than a month away must be.