Everything about Nepal is a contradiction. It’s a tiny landlocked country of astounding topographical diversity. From the tallest mountains in the world, Nepal plummets to subtropical tiger jungles stretching at sea level along its southern border—all within a distance of 92 miles. It’s caught between the two giant webs of Asia: China and India. Although the United Nations and the international community recognize its independence, Nepal cannot reach the outside world without the expressed approval of its powerful neighbors. The reality is that, at every point on the compass, Nepal’s independence is compromised.
Nepal’s feudal past collides with the 21st century. It’s a country that was born in—and is still hobbled by—an archaic caste system that traditionally supports ethnic marginalization, gender repression, and absolute rule: And yet it now grapples with the obliteration of caste--at least on paper. Its people are generally a peaceful group: And yet they have been beleaguered by a decade-long civil conflict. Nepal has a monarchy that has managed to cling to its throne—with varying degrees of success—for 238 years: And yet a Maoist insurrection has all but scuttled the royal institution.
Even the time zone of Nepal seems like a contradiction. Although the country is located like a saddle strapped atop India, one has to set one’s watch fifteen minutes forward when crossing Nepal’s border. What may seem whimsical to some may strike others as emblematic of Nepal’s problem in the 21st century. Given the galloping pace of change, there has been little opportunity for Nepal to make gradual adjustments. In effect, Nepal has been forced to learn how to run before it knew how to crawl. As a result, every step appears anachronistic and out of sync with the leap of time. To give but one example, slavery was not officially abolished until 1920. In reality, slavery still exists in Nepal. The 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report lists Nepal as a major source country for sex slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude.The unification of Nepal occurred ten years before the American Revolution. AGorkha warlord—the first of Nepal’s kings—conquered and consolidated scores of belligerent principalities to establish a central government that is still seated in the Kathmandu Valley. Nepal was fiercely xenophobic. Few foreigners were permitted to enter its southern border. Western influence was almost non-existent until World War I and World War II, when the British Army utilized the famous Gorkha soldiers as vanguard troops in conflicts throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. These fearless combatants returned to their homeland with new concepts and new expectations based on what they had experienced abroad. Also, by the end of World War II, the British Empire’s control of the subcontinent had given way to the Gandhi-inspired “home rule” in India. Pan-Asian independence became a catch phrase in the late 1940s.
Nepal opened its borders in 1950. Pandora’s box. Initially, the end of isolationism seemed like a godsend. Nepal had attributes the rest of the world desired. Because of Nepal’s jaw-dropping beauty and medieval culture, (and more specifically because of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summit of Mount Everest in 1953,) Western adventurers and tourists targeted Nepal as one of the most dramatic and exotic destinations on earth. Foreign currency poured into the tiny kingdom, followed by huge humanitarian donations from foreign powers. International handouts became the status quo, something Nepalis came to regard, unfortunately, as a bottomless well.
But culturally, Nepal had no idea what it was getting into. The contradictions that had always been a part of Nepal were suddenly compounded by foreigners’ fantasies, expectations and imported values. The difference between the rural and urban populations, for instance, was suddenly thrown into high relief—something that still holds true today. 85% of Nepalis live a remote, agrarian existence. Most areas have no electricity, no roads, no schools and no medical facilities. Transportation up and down the mountainsides is of the two-footed variety. The extreme difficulty of reaching these places ensures that local peacekeeping is largely left unmonitored. Poverty prevails and is accentuated by corrupt local authorities. An oxen-powered plow is high-tech. Whenever the crops fail, subsistence existence degenerates into near starvation. Even if there is a primary school nearby, peasant children are expected to help with the family harvests and livestock by the time they reach the age of six. It follows that illiteracy remains as high as 60%--some reports say as high as 80% among women, who do most of the fieldwork.
The urbanized areas are jarringly different. Poverty and illiteracy abound but communal aspiration attaches itself to a resolutely non-pastoral future. What one sees in Kathmandu and the other industrialized areas are cyber cafés, cell phones, very poor air quality created by non-regulated auto emissions, and malodorous factories excreting waste into holy Hindu rivers. The townies are thoroughly addicted to the high-tech gadgetry of Western culture as advertised through satellite TV. They are stuck in the honeymoon: For most citizens, it is inconceivable that there could be a downside to their infatuation.
And then there is the monarchy. Up until a few years ago, the Hindu king—the only one in the world—was revered as an avatar of Lord Vishnu. The advent of Western influence and empirical science compromised the sanctity of the king’s claim. Paying tribute to him—particularly among the younger generation—became more a matter of good Hindu manners than personal belief. Blind adoration to His Highness began to seem quaint, if not stupid. Politically, the monarchy was gaining no converts either. The royal family and the caste to which it belonged paid little heed to the social ills fomenting outside the palace walls.
In 1972, a new king assumed the throne: King Birendra. He wielded power under a disingenuous political structure called the Panchayat System. The Panchayat System claimed to represent the needs of the people but was, in fact, a one-party cabinet consisting of five high-caste “advisers” who kowtowed to King Birendra’s every whim. King Birendra was Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Army. He controlled all three branches of the government—executive, legislative and judiciary. The king also controlled the civil service. Numerous members of the royal family were integrated into positions of power as well, reaping untold fortunes. Little wonder that donations from the international community somehow got “misplaced”. Instead of using foreign aid to solve Nepal’s burgeoning problems, the palace grew richer while poverty levels rose in the countryside and inflation soared.
Meanwhile, in India, the lower classes were throwing off the yoke of ancient societal and political systems. A militant Mao Tse-tung-inspired group of dissidents in northern India, the "Naxilites", caught the attention of like minded Nepalis. A grassroots movement of insurgency developed, especially in those areas grazing the southern border towns of Nepal, where trade with Indian towns was the lifeline of the economy.
The 1980s: Tourism was never better in Nepal. But the feeling of disenfranchisement grew during that decade, as did the erosion of the traditional Hindu acceptance of a "god-king". Few really understood how widespread student and working-class resentment had become until 1989, when dissidents staged a hugely popular protest called the Jana Andolan (“People’s Movement"). The movement was perhaps emboldened by the political and economic implosion going on in the USSR. But the flash-point occurred when King Birendra and the government of India fell into a heated trade dispute--a stand-off that resulted in an India economic embargo on Nepal that revoked all trade agreements between the two countries and closed all but two border entry points at the Nepali-Indian border. Nepal, utterly dependent on Indian-supplied oil and other vital goods, blamed King Birendra. Massive demonstrations erupted in the streets of Kathmandu. People were gunned down by Royal police. Tourism ground to a halt. The situation became so acute that, ultimately, the king was forced to compromise. Under pressure from the Jana Andolan, he eliminated the hated Panchayat System, legalized political parties and allowed for a new constitution to be written that embodied, at least nominally, a constitutional monarchy.
On the surface, things looked vastly improved. There was a tremendous feeling of hope among the people in 1989.
1990: Free elections were held for the first time. On the ballot was a wide variety of political parties from which to choose: from royalists, to centralists, (closely associated with the Congress Party of India), to communists and Leninists—and everything in between.
But there were self-defeating non-democratic loopholes in the new constitution: Especially questionable was the clause that allowed King Birendra to retain complete control of the army.
Equally compromising was the deplorable character of most of the politicians elected to public office. In terms of corruption, they proved themselves no better than the king. New elections were held, one after another.
1990-2001: There was a change in leadership within the Parliament almost every year—an astounding turnover that did little to achieve stability within Nepal. Each successive government seemed more cynical and self-serving than its predecessor: Congress members’ prevailing interests focused on building private estates for themselves, purchasing imported SUVs, and sending their wives on shopping sprees to Paris and London.
It is true that freedom of speech improved during the 1990s. Other civil liberties increased as well. But by and large the elected officials’ interest in democracy played second fiddle to favoritism, personal financial gain, courting and siphoning NGO money, securing contracts for building projects through family-owned companies, and other abuses of power. Essentially, the double-headed corruption of Congress-and-Monarchy set the table for Maoist unrest.
The Maoists initial support came from the peasants, perennially forgotten by Kathmandu-centic politicians. Where were the promised roads and bridges and schools and medical clinics that were supposed to bring relief to the remote villages? Foreign aid tagged for rural development simply never made it over the mountains and the peasants wanted to know why. The Maoists proffered desperate solutions to desperate times: The monarchy must be overthrown, among other things.
In the nascent years of Nepal's brand of Maoism, King Birendra and Parliament underestimated and even scoffed at the movement. But when the government realized that the peasants were intently listening to what the "rabble-raisers" offered—gender equality, elimination of the caste system, etc.--when it became apparent that an insurgent disposition was enthusiastically growing in the mountainous districts of the west—King Birendra went against his non-confrontational nature and ordered the Royal Police to get tough in the hinterland hot spots. Interestingly, he refused to deploy the Royal Nepalese Army, as some ministers advised him. Why? Perhaps, for purely economic reasons: Birendra feared that the internationally community would suspect army deployment as a red flag indicating a king who was losing control of his subjects. Such an impression might (and eventually did) compromise future foreign aid, which had larded the royal coffers unchecked.
In the event, the situation in the hills was unraveling with a rapidity that could no longer be silenced by a condescending Parliament and monarchal propaganda. People were dying. The higher the body count, the more popular the insurgency became. The unrest escalated. In 1996, the Maoists took their movement underground. A “People’s War” was declared by the two masterminds of the Maoist insurrection: Prachanda, (“the terrible one”, the nom de guerre of the chairman of the party), and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, an author, an accomplished ideologist and, in the academic world, a highly regarded professor of economics.
By 2000, it was estimated that the Maoists controlled 50% of Nepal’s landmass, although the king and Parliament adamantly denied it. On the humanitarian front, foreign money continued to pour into Nepal, but with increasing misgivings.
June 1, 2001: An astounding and grotesque event occurred that no one could have foreseen. In the heart of Kathmandu, King Birendra’s royal palace became the stage for the most extensive monarchal bloodbath in the history of mankind. Regicide, patricide, matricide, fratricide and suicide were among the crimes committed that night...
The occasion was a regularly scheduled monthly royal family dinner—a mandatory function that rotated from one royal residence to the next. It was a three-decade-old tradition established by King Birendra. That fateful evening, the dinner was held at the Heir Apparent Crown Prince Dipendra’s bachelor bungalow within the Palace compound. The prince was 29 years old. Cocktails had been served in a large L-shaped salon. A casual buffet dinner was to follow. At one end, some of the men played billiards. The old Queen Mother was deposited in an adjacent salon, not really part of the dinner party, but available to those who felt obliged to pop in and pay their respects.
The young Prince Dipendra, dressed in full combat gear, drunk and high on hashish or heroin or both, burst into the room of guests through French doors on the garden side of his residence. He walked up to his father, the King of Nepal, who was sipping a cocktail. The prince, with no expression on his face, opened fire. Before the night was over, he also murdered his much younger brother, his sister, one paternal uncle and all three of his paternal aunts. Then the action moved outside. Screaming into the night, his mother followed him, apparently trying to chase him down. At a picturesque footbridge, Dipendra turned on the queen of Nepal and dropped her to the ground with a fatal blast that nearly removed her head. He then turned the gun on himself. His aim was off. He succeeded only in putting himself in a coma.
And, as if things were not grotesque enough, protocol came into play. According to tradition, Nepal could never be without a monarch. Like it or not, the comatose Crown Prince—and now alleged mass-murderer of most of his immediate family—was pronounced the new King of Nepal by the Privy Council. Dipendra's reign lasted two days in the ICU before his heart gave out. Metaphorically, so did the entire nation’s.
Next in line to the throne was Gyanendra, a haughty and unpopular brother of the recently murdered King Birendra. To this day, most people on the street will tell you that it is the current king, King Gyanendra—along with his son, Prince Paras, equally despised—who orchestrated the palace massacre. The Privy Council’s official version just did not add up. Why was Gyanendra in Pokhara, (a lake resort in western Nepal), instead of Kathmandu on that fateful night? He was seldom absent during these mandatory dinners. Even more perplexing was Gyanendra’s first order of business, once he returned to the capital: He ordered the murder victims cremated before autopsies could be performed, thus eliminating crucial forensic evidence. Nepalis were dumbstruck, then furious. Where were the innumerable palace guards and the ever-attendant ADCs attached to King Birendra when the massacre took place? Why did no one try to stop the crazed prince? What event could have taken place that turned the publicly coddled Prince Dipendra into a diabolical monster? (An ongoing spat between Dipendra and his mother over a suitable bride was offered up as the probable motive, but ordinary Nepalis balked, unconvinced.) And there was also this: Of all the people who were murdered that night, the three key members of the royal line who stood to gain the most from the massacre—Gyanendra, his wife, and their son, Prince Paras—did, in fact, dodge death.
Be that as it may, a stunned Nepal was stuck with three kings in three days, the blood soaked monarchy was left in shambles, (no one was calling the new king “an avatar of Vishnu”), while an alarmingly widespread conflict--many were now calling it "the war"-- between Maoists and government forces raged beyond the Kathmandu Valley.
Unlike the murdered King Birendra, King Gyanendra seemed to take pride in a natural belligerence. He had no qualms in beefing up his Royal Army and preparing them for deployment. The army was sent to the mountains to make quick work of the Maoists. The escalation had the blessings (and limited assistance) of the Indian, American, and British governments. Gyanendra boasted to the world that the Maoist insurgency would be wiped out within months. Instead, the fighting intensified.
November 2001: King Gyanendra declared a State of Emergency. He took control of the entire government. Overnight, a decade of hard-won civil liberties—including freedom of the press as well as freedom of assembly, expression and movement—were suspended.
2002: The fighting continued to escalate.
2003: The fighting--what now was beginning to be called a "civil war"--continued to escalate. Despite the Royal Army’s superior military hardware, it was obvious that the king's army was losing ground, not gaining. The Maoist war was waged along classic guerrilla warfare guidelines—hit-and-run, advance-and-retreat—and the government troops were no match for the Maoists’ mountain network of hideouts and local support. (According to many, local support was increasingly coerced.)
2004: It was now estimated that 90% of Nepal’s landmass was effectively in the control of the Maoist insurgents—everything, in fact, save the main prize, the Kathmandu Valley. The king blamed a corrupt and ineffectual Parliament, an argument that had merit if one disregarded the king's equally corrupt and ineffectual leadership.
February 2005: King Gyanendra dissolved Parliament altogether, dumped the so-called constitutional monarchy and, with the support of his loyal army, became dictator. The army was given new and more draconian directives. Violence soared, including in the capital, while the international community—all save China—condemned the rebel army.
Beginning of 2006: Approximately 14,000 Nepalis had been killed in the decade-old conflict.
There was plenty of blame to go around for casualty count. The Maoist rebels were reported to kill their own mountain people if they suspected them of supporting the king or the Kathmandu government. In turn, the military police and the Royal Army raided those same villages in search of Maoist supporters—roundups that often ended in rape, torture and, in some cases, mass executions of innocent men, women and children. Amnesty International stated that, in terms of atrocities, the Royal Army was “ahead” of the Maoists in lethal outrages. One thing was certain: scorecards did not help the besieged peasants, who were being extorted and shot at from all directions. An exodus arose, especially among the young people who faced recruitment into the Maoist Army and agonized over the impossibility of continuing their education if they remained at home.
Many villages in Nepal are now ghost towns. Nepalis continue to flee across the Indian border, preferring indentured labor and—in the case of many girls—sex trade to the indiscriminate wrath of mountain lawlessness. Tourism is a shadow of its previous self. In all sectors, the economy has taken a tremendous hit from ten years of insurgency and counter-insurgency. At the beginning of 2006, the most pessimistic economists went so far as to predict bankruptcy by June. Their divinatory prowess proved unfounded, but it remains a good indication of how precarious, in general, Nepal perceives its crisis.
Meanwhile, King Gyanendra was in a state of denial, still insisting that he had control of the country when, in fact, the Royal Army was afraid of being posted to rural areas because they feared the Maoists would kidnap them, torture them and—if the mood struck the rebels--unceremoniously push them off the nearest cliff.
Then, in April 2006, the Maoists moved into and around the Kathmandu Valley. They set up roadblocks—somewhat echoing the 1989 Indian embargo—and effectively shut off all supplies going in and coming out of the nation’s capital. The business community locked its doors. People flooded the streets in the tens of thousands. The king responded by issuing orders to the Royal Army to open fire with live ammunition if necessary. Unarmed protesters were gunned down with the cameras rolling. The public’s outrage only intensified. The daily demonstrations grew in strength to the hundreds of thousands. (The uprising, by the way, became known as the Rhododendron Revolution because the demonstrators refused to take up arms. Numerically and psychologically, they had the advantage. People remarked that it was almost as if Gandhi were hovering above their shoulders.) The Rhododendron Revolution was a huge turning point. After 19 days of increasing civil unrest, King Gyanendra was forced by his own generals to step down as leader of the nation.
It’s now December 2006. The country has been in a holding pattern since the 19-day uprising.
The Parliament, (dismantled since 2005), has reconvened as the “Seven-Party Alliance”—a stop-gap government established until proper elections can be held—presumably in 2007. The Maoists have called for and extended a unilateral cease-fire and the United Nations has entered the arena to help oversee a demilitarization of both sides. (In what must be a "watchdog" first, the Moaists will lock up their weapons but retain the keys that open the padlocks, not the UN monitors. Presumably, the installation of floodlights, surveillance cameras and burglar alarms will soothe the raised eyebrows of cynics.) In the meantime, signed agreements between Parliament and the Maoists have come in rapid succession--the most important of which bear down on the eventual elimination of the monarchy, the main goal of the Maoists. What happens if Parliament backpedals on this issue?
Since April, the meetings between the Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists have broken down time and again. Maoist acts of intimidation and extortion are reported to continue unabated. The crucial question of ultimate leadership remains unanswered. Can a reinstated Parliament made up of vastly divergent ideologies, with the novel component of Maoist muscle now part of the policy-making process, manage the nearly bankrupt country any more honestly or effectively than it did in the past? What is clear is that the Nepali Congress lacks the wherewithal to bully the rebels into submission. Now that the Maoists have been included into the legitimate political process, all bets are off. And supposing "free" elections do transpire in 2007: Will the Maoists accept the verdict of a popular vote if it does not tip in their favor? How sincere are they when they claim they are prepared to enter the political mainstream and accept the people's mandate, no matter which issues the electorate favors?
And what are Nepal’s mega-neighbors, India and China, doing in the meantime? Although they deny it, both countries would love to have the strategic advantage of controlling Nepal’s landlocked topography. This is not to imply that either country is entertaining the notion of direct intervention—far from it. They hardly need to flex their military might in order to exert influence over Nepali leaders and, in any case, it is in their interests to nurture Nepali stability from the comfortable shadows of the sidelines. But it is undeniable, particularly given their booming economies and ever-increasing need for additional sources of power, that both countries covet Nepal’s one great natural resource: water. (The untapped estimate for hydro-electricity in Nepal is second only to Brazil: 83,000 megawatts; enough to power Great Britain.) Whatever their diplomats may say to the contrary, it is probably reasonable to characterize their interest in (and their assessment of) Nepal as a prize the other country must never fully possess.
Meanwhile, the people in the countryside—the other Nepal that consist of 85% of the total population—continue to suffer harrowing hardships. Humanitarian watch groups do not discount the possibility of worse violence than has already taken place. One of Nepal’s leading organizations for anti-trafficking, Maiti Nepal, announced that the number of girls trafficked into Indian brothels in 2006 had increased 21% from the previous year. The UN has tagged Nepal as “the #1 nation for “human disappearances”. The average annual income has dropped below the $200 mark—this in a country already listed as one of the ten poorest countries in the world. 20% of Nepal’s infants continue to die in their first year. Illiteracy is still 70%. In many areas, life expectancy for men is 50—lower for women, who face inordinately high risks before, during and after pregnancy.
There is the refugee crisis to deal with as well. Beijing continues to pressure Nepal in accepting the “One China” policy, which means that the communists want Nepal to deport Tibetan refugees back to China—a sentence that guarantees imprisonment (or worse) for people who seek freedom of religion.
In the eastern districts, 106,000 Bhutanese refugees are still stranded and forgotten in the squalid camps where they have been sequestered for the last 16 years. Why? Because the King of Bhutan is actively involved in ethnic cleansing within his borders and Nepal is helpless to address the problem unless India takes the lead, which, to date, New Delhi seems unwilling to do.
The question for non-Nepalis is this: Why should we care what is going on in Nepal?
The answer is that if stability is not achieved fairly soon, Nepal could become the single most important breeding ground for revolutionary ideology in Southeast Asia—prime real estate for the exportation of terrorism. Key elements are in place: approximately 65% of the population are under the age of 30, most of whom are undereducated, poor-to-destitute, and without hope of decent jobs; the Maoists are remarkably and pervasively organized throughout the country, adept at capitalizing on disenfranchisement. The Maoists may be the only organization, in fact, that speaks persuasively to illiterate youth. Support for Moaist ideology extends well beyond the borders of Nepal. The Maoists openly associate with the Indian Naxilites and other revolutionary groups further abroad.
There is also clear evidence that Pakistani terrorists have been using the southwestern corner of Nepal as a transit state through which they illegally enter India. Because of the ongoing unrest in Nepal, controlling such movement is all but impossible. Geopolitically, Nepal's southern border, from east to west, appears to offer a disturbing variety of terrorist-related movement.
Which brings up the Muslim-Hindu issue. There is an emerging concerted effort to transform Nepal into a secular state. It would be a mistake to force the issue if there is not a strong mandate within the citizenry itself: An imposed secular remodeling of the country could have long-term ramifications. It should be kept in mind that, until now, Nepal has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Asia. But there is a growing element of Hindu fundamentalism in Nepal which would be further nurtured if a newly installed government steamrolled over Nepali relgious leaders and their millions of deeply conservative Hindu followers. Given Nepal's centuries-old self-identification as a protector of Hinduism, a suddenly enforced shift to secularism could become a major source for political unrest within both young and old demographics.
Finally, there is the prevailing attitude of the international community which implies that Nepal is, politically speaking, backwater and of but passing interest. Condescension toward Nepal is dangerously wrong-headed. (For the moment, most reports seem intent on putting an optimistic spin on the latest developments in Nepal and there have been welcome developments in the last few months. Nevertheless, a sunny future remains a prospect, not an inevitablity.) The reality is that Nepal remains a nation teetering on the edge of “failed state” status. To describe it otherwise is to invite international complacency, which, in turn, could prove costly for decades to come--not only in the Southeast Asian arena, but on the world stage as well.