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.