NEPAL: Downsizing the Monarchy

Marty Logan, Journalist

ABSTRACT

With Maoist rebels breathing down their necks, Nepal’s parliamentarians prepared to downsize the monarchy and strip the king of his traditional role as army. chief.

FULL TEXT

KATHMANDU, May 18 (IPS) – With Maoist rebels breathing down their necks, Nepal’s parliamentarians prepared Thursday to downsize the monarchy and strip the king of his traditional role as army chief.

A special proclamation, expected to be adopted and passed, may result in the world’s ‘last Hindu kingdom’ no longer being run by ‘His Majesty’s Government’ and the king no more controlling the ‘The Royal Nepalese Army’.

”In response to the aspirations of the people, the traditional powers and privileges of the monarchy are in the process of being curtailed,” finance minister in the interim government, Ram Sharan Mahat, was quoted telling foreign diplomats and donors on Wednesday.

After a senior politician was reported suggesting that the king should be allowed to retain his role as army chief, gangs rampaged through Nepal’s capital on Tuesday. Groups of youths destroyed half-a-dozen vehicles, torched a police post and marched and chanted through Kathmandu’s streets until well into the night.

Rumours rippled through offices and homes. Many of them blamed Maoist rebels for the sudden eruption of violence despite their leaders having announced a ceasefire days after hundreds of thousands of protesters forced King Gyanendra to restore the lower house of parliament in April.

Former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba called the allegation against him by another senior political figure, “character assassination”. “To tell you the truth, I would be most happy if the people remove the king (from power),” he told journalists, Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the speaker of the renewed House of Representatives told IPS that calm had returned. “There is no problem,” said Subhas Nembang. “People are very supportive of the government; they have faith in the political parties.”

But, many people here are deeply suspicious of the ruling seven-party alliance (SPA), although it spearheaded April’s general strike that mushroomed into daily street protests where people from all walks of life snubbed curfews and shoot-on-sight orders to vent their anger at the king.

Citizens blame the parties for squandering the opportunity provided by 1990’s people’s revolution to put this deeply poor South Asian nation on the path to development. And many political figures from that era wield power in today’s democracy.

Critics say the restored house of parliament should have accomplished much more since “people power” pressured the king to relinquish direct rule three weeks ago. The monarch staged a bloodless “palace coup” on Feb. 1, 2005, but failed to end the 10-year-old Maoist insurgency as promised and his uncompromising approach backed by repressive tactics eventually alienated many across this nation of 25 million people.

Topping the list of popular demands in the new political scenario is elections to a constituent assembly that would produce a new constitution, which is expected to decide the future of Nepal’s monarchy.

Calls for a republican system are ringing loud in a country whose subjects once considered their king a god. Already, the House of Representatives has promised to curtail the palace budget and many others argue the king should be stripped of his position as commander of the army and that the institution should become answerable to parliament.

As the week started, Prime Minister Girija P. Koirala promised that the House would soon release a proclamation that, among other things, would declare Nepal a secular state. ‘’Today it is officially a ‘Hindu kingdom’.”

But the proclamation had to be postponed to Thursday, because of differences that surfaced within the SPA coalition, including over the future role of the king.

‘’Tomorrow (Thursday) there will be a proclamation by the house,” Nembang said in an interview in his sparse office near the House of Representatives that was dissolved by a previous government in 2002. Some people are describing it as “the Magna Carta of Nepal”, added Nembang, referring to the 13th century document in which the King of England agreed to abide by the rule of law.

But not everyone is confident that the House will deliver. “The seven-party alliance is ready but they have delayed for three days so people suspect a conspiracy” led by the palace, said Sitaram Tamang, leader of the United Left Front (ULF) of political parties in an interview, Tuesday.

Five members of the king’s government were jailed this week for suppressing the people’s movement. Many others close to the monarch remain in hiding or under army protection. Gyanendra and other members of the royal family are free to move but are keeping a low profile.

A member of the Tamang indigenous community, the ULF leader helped to organise demonstrations Wednesday to pressure the politicians to deliver the proclamation.

Indigenous people account for 40 percent of Nepal’s population and feel they have much to gain in a new Nepal where political power would be distributed based on population. Today, members of so-called “upper castes”, who make up about one-fourth of the population, wield overwhelming political, social and economic power.

Other groups carrying placards and marching on the capital’s streets this week for a more “inclusive state” include women and gay rights activists and Dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’).

Maoist rebels reportedly continue using much more violent tactics to make their points. In the past decade, in the name of justice for the downtrodden, they have bred a movement that controls up to 80 percent of the country outside major cities and towns. More than 13,000 people are estimated to have died in the war between Maoists and security forces.

Forced donations have long provided much of the rebels’ cash and they continue extorting money, even in the capital Kathmandu, despite the practice being outlawed in the ceasefire they announced. District-level Maoist leaders also continue blocking non-governmental organisations from working in their areas unless they sign contracts.

On Monday, leader Prachanda said that the new government must provide for the basic needs of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. “Otherwise, we remain compelled to collect taxes through our government,” he added.

On its side, the government has declared an unconditional ceasefire, released many Maoist prisoners from jail and says that it will name its team for upcoming peace talks with the rebels in days.

Despite the Maoists opposing the reinstatement of the House, they are sincere when they say that they will now work for peace, because all the political players agree on the need for a constituent assembly, said Nembang. “If they took up arms and went back to the jungle they would be isolated totally. I think they’re very much committed to this issue.”

(END/2006)

Source: Inter Press Service News Agency – 2006 May 18

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