State and People: Royal Coup and Looming Disaster in Nepal

By: Dr. Pramod Dhakal, Dr. Ram Acharya

More than two centuries of dynastical rule in Nepal from the palace had resulted in unchecked mismanagement and corruption by royalties, isolation of the country from the rest of the world, and oppression of the ordinary citizens. For long, Nepalese people are deprived of their fundamental rights. Brief encounters with democracies have also been squandered by the political plots of the palace and the ineptitudes of the political leaders who could not take the sides of the people in crucial times. Nepal has been failed miserably by its rulers and remains one of poorest countries in the world with shameful records on most measures. In all this, monarchy has been a source of poverty, betrayals, corruption, human rights violations, low morale, degeneration of ethics, and cultural degradation. The oppression to the ordinary people has intensified after the February 2005 coup staged by King Gyanengra. Since then, his administration has imposed the darkest rules on media and journalists. The army has been a constant fear to people whether they are in the city or in the remote villages. The power thrust of the palace with dictatorial attitudes and conspiracy against the Nepalese people is pushing Nepal at the brink of disaster.

Nepal, which was once ruled by more than 50 small states, emerged as a nation state when P. N. Shah, the king of the Gorkha (area west of Kathmandu), expanded his dominion in 1768 by conquering the Kathmandu valley. Since then Nepal has been ruled either by absolute monarchy till 1990 except from 1846 to 1950 when a member of noble family, J. B. Kunwar (who later adopted the Rana title), seized control through massacres of rival notables and become prime minister. Hereditary Rana prime ministers wielded absolute power, rendering the Shah Monarchy mere puppets. In 1950-51 as Independent India refused to support autocratic rule and supported a royal restoration, Rana family agreed to share power with King Tribhuvan who in turn promised to have a fully democratic political system in accordance with a constitution prepared by a Constituent Assembly. But the promised Assembly never met. Ironically, it appears to be the only solution for present day crisis in Nepal.

Reneging his father’s promise, King Mahendra promulgated a constitution in 1959 which was drafted by his appointees and approved by his Council of Ministers. This constitution explicitly vested executive power in the king, allowing him to appoint prime minister, dissolve the cabinet, summon parliament, and reject legislation, control army and use extensive emergency and residual power. Even this proved too restrictive to Mahendra, who in December 1960 arrested the government formed through 1959 elections, and assumed absolute political power. Then he promulgated another constitution in 1962, the Panchayat constitution, which made it clear that all legislative, executive and judicial power will emanate from the king. Political parties were banned; it was the most undemocratic constitution in the post 1950 Nepal.

Mired with corruption and mismanagement, the repressive Panchayat regime collapsed in 1990 when confronted with a people’s movement that organized street protests in the Kathmandu valley and major towns. Failing to suppress the movement, King Birendra agreed for a new constitution, which established multi-party system in Nepal. Throughout the Constitution drafting process, however, the king and his allies, including the army, exerted pressure to slow any shift toward democracy. The preamble of this constitution stated that the king, not the people, promulgated the document. Though the power of the king was curtailed, he still commanded substantial legislative and executive power, and the king remained the supreme commander of the army. Moreover, under this constitution the public was forbidden from criticizing the deeds of the palace and no judicial system was allowed to investigate the actions of the royal family. To be able to participate in multi-party election, it was mandatory for the political party to accept monarchy in the party’s constitution.

Hence, the 1990 constitution was far from being democratic and was full of flaws. It left the monarchy with considerable and ill-defined powers, which the palace exploited to regain power. The constitution included a provision for legislative amendment but forbid monarchy (the most debatable issue in Nepal these days), from being amended. Besides, the closed manner in which the 1990 constitution was drafted was the main reason for it to be full of flaws. Even this constitution proved too restrictive to king Gyanendra, who became king after all of royal members were massacred in June 2001 except his own family. Therefore in October 2002, he suspended the elected parliament, sacked an elected prime minister. He resumed executive powers through an appointed prime minister and cabinet.

After changing three prime ministers of his choosing in a period of three years, on 1 February 2005, Gyanendra used a royal proclamation to dismiss the last prime minister, imposed a state of emergency and seized absolute power. The royal coup formalized the earlier assumption of de facto power by the king and replaced the indirect palace rule that started in October 2002 by a direct one. Even the limited rights that people were able to use after 1990’s uprising are taken back by Gyanendra. The actions of the king have proven the inherent flaws of the 1990 agreement. The king’s action proved that the ultimate power remains with the King as long as the army is under his effective control. It also proved that the sovereignty of Nepalese people granted by the 1990 constitution was just an illusion.

King Gyanendra’s brutal act of February coup has ended any remaining relevancy of the 1990 constitution. The constitution does not give king the power to appoint and dismiss prime ministers. Still less does it entitle the monarch to dismantle the democratic structure envisaged by the constitution and rule without check. The king is acting beyond his constitutional privilege and is trying to legitimize his ruthless ambition to be an absolute monarch and establish his son, a notorious criminal, as a respected heir to the throne. The king has a simple bottom line: the palace will do whatever it takes to stop any constitutional change that could endanger the monarchy or reduce its power.

The multi-party system between 1990 and 2002 was conducive for the people to articulate their thoughts freely. It provided opportunity for many political parties to compete in the political process. Regrettably however, the regime has been a sad story as well on many fronts. After the parties took over the already bankrupt country in 1990, they did not correct the mistakes rather continued in the same way. Parties were engaged in systematic corruption and continued to be dominated by the elite, older, and often non-responsive leaderships. The abject poverty, unemployment situation, injustice and massive mismanagement remained unchanged or further deteriorated. These factors culminated into a situation where people felt suffocated and unrepresented by the system. It is fair to say that the failure to cement broader reforms and sounder institutional arrangements after democratic uprising of 1990, was partly responsible for the present crisis.

In the meantime, the political forces that did not want to accept the role of monarchy in the 1990 constitution and hence were excluded from the electoral process, were building their political base outside the bound of the constitution. In the process, they were capitalizing on the frustration that people had for years; the situation was about to burst any time. That happened when instead of being engaged in dialogue, the government dismissed the 40 demands (most of which were popular demands for election platforms of all political parties themselves) put forward on 4 February 1996 by the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist (Maoists, hereafter). The situation that could have been reached into compromise by dialogue turned into an armed struggle between the government and the Maoists. Contrary to the government’s belief that the Maoists could be easily defeated through armed operation, they grew by leaps and bounds. According to the government report, the Maoists who started in one remote district of Nepal in 1996 are operating in 70 out of 75 districts and controls most of the rural part of the country.

The conflict has turn out to be very costly for Nepalese people; they are caught up between two guns. Widespread human rights abuses from both government and Maoists are taking place despite repeated warnings from world bodies. By now more than 13,000 people, most of them non-combatant, have died because of the conflict. Of this, the state has been responsible for the three-fourths. Social costs beyond these death counts are immeasurable. Nepal has been ranked, by UN, the number one country in the world in number of disappearances of people under state custody.

The civil society in Nepal believes that the conflict reached to a turning point after Gyanendra became king after palace massacre. He was very unpopular; the populace was against him. What was on his side was the Nepalese army. Over the course of 150 years, the intermarriage between Rana (who occupies all army top brass) and Shah (the monarchy) families has made the relation between army and the palace a family matter.

Taking advantage of this unholy relation, king approved the state of emergency and mobilized army to the conflicts in November 2001. He could have calculated it as the best scenario for him and his son to remain in power. The intertwined familial relation between top army brass and the palace vividly show that legal change alone will not erase the ties and patronage which shape the distribution of power in Nepal. A transition to a genuine democracy needs the army under the elected government and would require more fundamental change.

Since the mobilization of the army, the human toll has multiplied, and people are living in constant fear of army. Similarly, human rights violations from Maoist side are also increasing. In recent times, the operation of vigilante groups, which has been sanctioned by the king, are taking law and order into their hands and burning houses of ordinary people in the name of “eliminating Maoists”. In a very absurd manner, King Gyandra’s government is begging that the human right workers should not put the state and the rebels on the same footing. They insist that since the government is the one to maintain the law and order, it has the right to pursue such a repressive tactics.

Most Nepalese believe that the conflict should be resolved through dialogue. The Maoists are ready for dialogue with international mediation; however, the king is seeking armed victory, which most military analysts believe as impossible. The necessary condition for Nepal for long-term peace is to limit the royal power, which Gyanendra is not inclined to relinquish. In fact, the idea behind the February 2005 coup was to usurp all power so much so that royal military is involved in civilian affairs.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s royal lineage is one of intrigue, assassination, poisoning, exploitation and corruption. Consequently, the monarchy has been a source of instability in Nepal. Directing military aid to this king will be a license for bigger human casualties, and simplistically viewing the conflict in Nepal as an extension of the global war on terrorism is not only wrong, it is also counter-productive.

The international community has a responsibility to acknowledge the aspiration of Nepalese people. Allowing King Gyanendra to continue his regressive behaviors of torturing political activists, banning media coverage, enticing army and the vigilante groups to eliminate “terrorists”, would be a catastrophe in waiting. No one but Nepalese will be massacred in his pursuit of madness. The people of Nepal deserve better from the international community. To break the political deadlock and move forward in the peace process, the king should ideally be on board. But he is unlikely to accept any transitional process that risks diluting his power, as would be necessary for long-term democratic stability. This is high time that we adhere to the democracy, and say loud and clear to the monarch who is not happy even with such a huge legislative and executive power in the 21st Century “go to the public and test yourself”.

The present constitution of 1990 had serious flaws and Nepalese are paying dearly for this mistake. However, the political balance that was there when writing 1990 Constitution has changed. All major political parties consider this constitution as a barrier to peaceful settlement. For example, the Maoists, who have captured most of the rural Nepal, were against it from the very beginning. The political parties who won the election under this constitution and formed government in 12 years of multi-party system consider the constitution as dead. The king himself has killed it, hoping to extend his power to an absolute monarch. Hence, the reality is that presently there is no constitution in Nepal. The king is changing the constitution the way he sees fits his dirty ambition and is crushing anyone who stands on his road. Enough is enough; we should say NO to this atrocity.

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