KNIGHTS AND PAWNS CHECK KING
April 27th 2006
People power wins in Nepal–for the moment.
disastrous attempt at absolutism. Faced with the prospect of either
mowing down unarmed demonstrators or seeing the palace stormed, the
generals went to the opposition and asked them to form a government on
the eve of a huge rally planned for April 25th that would have been in
violation of a near-total curfew.
Although foreign diplomats and others were involved, it was almost
certainly the army that brought the news to ‘s deluded sovereign
that the game was up. Shortly before midnight on April 24th, a
shattered-looking king appeared on national television, to read words
written by his democratic enemies. He restored the parliament that had
been dissolved four years ago, implicitly accepted the opposition’s
policy of securing peace with the Maoist rebels by rewriting the
constitution, and offered his condolences to the families of the 15
protesters shot dead on his orders during 19 days of mass
demonstrations against his regime.
For the first time in many years, the outlook for
The alliance of seven political parties, which now forms the
government, reached an agreement with the powerful Maoists last year
with the aim of restoring peace and adopting a new constitution. Girija
Prasad Koirala, now 84 years old, has become prime minister for the
fifth time, and says the preparation of a constituent assembly will be
his first act when parliament convenes on April 28th. A Maoist
ceasefire was announced on April 27th, for three months to begin with.
The movement got its momentum from the Nepali people’s fervent wish for
peace with the Maoists after a decade-long civil war that has cost some
13,000 lives. It was intensified by King Gyanendra’s obstructive
attitude towards the achievement of that peace. Since the political
parties offer a solution, they are apparently being forgiven their past
sins. But the public is sure to remain wary of their new leaders.
Previous democratic governments, including those led by Mr Koirala,
have been inept, corrupt and short-lived. It was the politicians who
dissolved their own parliament in the first place, opening the way for
the king to seize power. As the crowds celebrated their victory this
week, their message was clear: don’t betray us again.
The road ahead is difficult. Nothing has been decided about how the
constituent assembly will work–and it is not even absolutely clear
that Mr Koirala will be able to convene one. Negotiations with the
rebels will be awkward and drawn out. Although they acknowledge that
they cannot win militarily, they have shown themselves to be shrewd,
and this week hardened their position publicly before getting down to
International expertise in the highly technical process of supervising
a ceasefire, holding peace talks and organising elections will be
needed, though it is sure to be available if sought. Trials, or a
reconciliation effort, for crimes committed on both sides of the
conflict will play a role. Western aid money, reduced after the king’s
coup last year, should now flood back in, though Nepalis will hope that
donors perform better than in the past, when billions were spent to
The democratic government will also want to bring the army under
control and dismantle whatever remains, once the dust settles, of the
palace’s power. Under the existing constitution, the army is answerable
only to the king. But Pyar Jung Thapa, the chief of staff, is sounding
co-operative, pledging loyalty to the new government and speaking of
absorbing rebels into the army under a peace deal.
And what of the king? His fate may be decided by the people if and when
they vote on a new constitution. This week many of his most despised
lieutenants were believed to have already fled; the country had no
functioning government for three days. Republican sentiment is running
high, although the two largest parties, and some foreign governments,
would like to see a purely ceremonial monarchy remain. But the Shah
dynasty has nothing to offer and King Gyanendra, a man of blood, may
have to go.