Nepal: How to oust a king

Issue 

Nepal, a small landlocked nation in the Himalayas wedged between China and India, is an incredibly poor and underdeveloped nation.

Thirty percent of people live in extreme poverty. It's horrendous childhood mortality rate is on par with Iraq and the Palestinian West Bank. According to the CIA world fact book, 80% of the population is employed by agriculture, and its main industry is small sweatshops.

Most of the country is only accessible by foot or by air. There are few roads and health care and education are limited in quality and availability. The literacy rate is 48%, and drops as low as 35% for women.

Nepal was ruled by as an absolute monarchy until 1951. In the 1940s a democratic movement developed, lead by the Nepali Congress, which succeeded in creating a constitutional monarchy in 1951 lead by the NC.

In 1959, the government was overthrown by the royal family and replaced by a monarchy-led "party-less" system called panchayat, which lasted for the next three decades.

In 1989, a new democracy movement rose, known as jana andolan (the people's movement), lead by the NC and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). All sectors of society took to the streets and the king was forced to relinquish power again to a constitutional monarchy, with multiparty democracy.

People's War

In 1996, due to the corruption of the government, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) stopped contesting elections and launched a "Peoples War" in the nation's western hills.

Initially, this insurgency was small and localised, but it slowly gained popular support due to the failure of the government to help the rural poor. The government crackdown on rebels and perceived rebel sympathisers stirred unrest and the Maoist influence grew.

In 2001, the Nepali crown prince — while drunk and stoned — shot his parents and a large portion of the royal family, including himself, after an argument. This drastically undermined support and respect for the royal family and the government.

The new king, Gyanendra, began consolidating power in his own hands. In 2005, he dismissed the government on the basis that it could not deal with the now sizeable insurgency.

Gyanendra then used the Royal Nepalese Army, fresh with training and weapons from the US and Britain, to unleash a wave of violence against the population.

The insurgency exploded, and despite a massive RNA presence the CPN-M grew. By late 2005, the Maoists had effective control of 80% of the nation, and the government had little control outside of the capital, Kathmandu.

@question = Jana Andolan II

The CPN-M blockaded Kathmandu in late 2005. The parties that had formed the dissolved parliament formed the Seven Party Alliance (SPA).

The leaders of the SPA and the CPN-M negotiated a "12 point agreement". The CPN-M committed to supporting a multiparty democracy and freedom of speech, while the SPA adopted the Maoists call for elections to create a new constitution.

Together, they called a boycott of the February 2006 local elections. There were waves of arrests of political activists, but less than 20% of the electorate voted.

The SPA and CPN-M called a 4-day strike from April 5-9, bringing the nation to a halt. On April 8, the government ordered a curfew, with orders that protesters be shot on sight. On April 9, the SPA announced the strike would continue indefinitely.

On April 21, after 14 days of massive street protests (involving as many as 500,000 people at any one time) the king relinquished power back to the SPA, and asked the SPA to designate a new prime minister.

The CPN-M did not initially join the government. The SPA broke its promises and did not immediately call for elections to a new constitutional assembly, but said that elections should simply be held for the parliament, with a parliamentary committee drafting a new constitution. The Maoists insisted on a constitutional assembly to form a republican state.

A settlement was reached, and the reinstated parliament, including a sizeable CPN-M delegation, passed a series of reforms in the interim to the constituent assembly elections, including declaring a secular state, removing the king's powers and arresting members of the royal cabinet for breaches of human rights during the People's War.

The elections where finally held on April 10, in a very tense atmosphere. Royalist groups carried out bombings across the nation, political parties clashed and some sections of Madehshi people in the lowland Terai region on the India border agitated for independence.

The result was a massive Maoist victory. The CPN-M recieved around 30% of the vote, winning 36% of the constituent assembly seats. The CPN-M polled more than a million votes more than their nearest competitors.

Who are the Maoists?

The Maoists mostly come from the rural poor. With very limited opportunity in the countryside, no work in the cities and no access to education, the rural peasantry have flocked to the CPN-M in droves.

The Maoists built their support with action rather than rhetoric. In the areas it controlled, the CPN-M conducted land reform, took over government buildings to be used as schools and created democratic local governing bodies. In contrast, parties like the CPN-UML won elections but achieved little. This was the basis for the CPN-M's massive electoral support.

The Maoists also actively involve and fight for the rights of women. Of the 26 women elected to the assembly, 22 are Maoists. Around 40% of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) are women. Many women became involved with the Maoists on the basis that it was the only way to have any opportunity of an independent life in a conservative, religous-dominated society.

The CPN-M also has a high proportion of youth. With no prospect of education or employment, the Maoists stood alone in actually working to provide opportunities for youth. The CPN-M youth wing, the Young Communist League, is extremely active in communities and during the election campaign was constantly active across the nation.

The Maoists also have an organisation for dalits. Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country, with a Hindu-inspired caste system. Dalits are at the bottom of this caste system, considered lower than cows and horribly discriminated against.

The CPN-M has gained the trust of the people of Nepal through hard work and reaching out to every sector of society.

Challenges

The most pressing issue for the CPN-M is increasing and solidifying their support, both internally and internationally.

The established political elite within Nepal had predicted that the CPN-M would come a distant third behind the CPN-UML and the NC. The establishment is reeling in shock at their loss and are increasingly hostile to the Maoists.

Crucial to warding off reactionary attacks will be on the back of popular support. This will involve reaching out to even more layers of Nepali society.

This especially applies to the Terai region, an area with the most fertile land and agriculture. It has 48% of Nepal's population, mostly Madheshi who have strong ethnic and cultural ties to India. While the Nepalese live in poverty as standard, the Madheshi are probably the most exploited. India, via its ambassador in Nepal, has sought to manipulate Madheshi grievances in order to destabilise the country.

While a movement for Madheshi rights developed last year, the SPA used the old electoral system in drawing up plans for the assembly vote, giving the region only 20% of the seats. Due to Maoist pressure, a system was adopted with more than half the seats were allocated by direct proportional representation, with a whereby 26 seats were set aside for minorities to be appointed by a government representative.

Within the SPA framework, all major parties made commitments to form the next government involving all key parties in the widest possible framework. While the CPN-M appear to want to carry this through, the CPN-UML and the NC both look like going back on these agreements to undermine the Maoists.

On May 28, the constituent assembly overwhelmingly voted to formally declare the Democratic Republic of Nepal, sparking three days of celebrations. All of the royal families assets have been nationalised. A June 11 Sydney Morning Herald article reported that the king, who is believed to have US$200 million stashed away, was still to hand over the crown and other valuable jewels.

The SMH reported on June 13 that the king finally vacated the palace. Hundreds gathered to watch, with shouts of "long live the republic!"

It's yet to be seen what the royalists will do next. There is strong support for the monarchy among the military.

A potential flashpoint revolves around the PLA. Political agreements state the PLA will be merged into the conventional army. However this is being strongly resisted by the military that correctly fears that highly politicised and committed PLA cadre would sow dissent and erode the officers control over the rank-and-file.

Nepal has a long history of international intervention into its affairs, historically from the British but more recently from the US and India. There are no signs that this is going to change, as is evidenced by India's role in the bordering Terai region.

The most critical challenge the Maoists face is to take a backwards and horribly underdeveloped country, torn apart by a ten year civil war, and drag it out of the feudal age. This is further complicated by the fact that it is situated on a rocky strip of land, with next to no natural resources and landlocked by two of the worlds emerging powers.

This is an incredible task, but not impossible. If the Nepalese people are able to make important social gains, such as access to health care and education, it could have an important inspirational effect on the poor in India.

If the Nepalese people can pull it off, it won't be the first little rock under the nose of the powerful to do amazing things despite limited resources and isolation. There's one of those in the Caribbean too.

[Ben Peterson is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance. He will present a workshop on Nepal at the Resistance national conference in Sydney, June 27-29. Visit for more information.]