REHEARSING FOR THE APRIL ELECTIONS: UNHARMONIOUS PRELUDE
In the first eight weeks of 2008, the Nepali power struggle was a flurry of elbows – a mishmash of baton-wielding conductors vying over who should lead the orchestra, the result being that not enough attention was paid to the orchestra: Some musicians disdained the sheet music; some had tin ears and never should have been allowed to play in the first place; some played instruments that were either anachronistic or foreign; some couldn’t get to the hall because their cars were out of gas; and some simply boycotted the rehearsals, preferring to play the military marches of regional bands.
Outside the rehearsal hall you could sense the dismay. There was no law and order in much of the country. Uncertainty over the army’s role loomed in the background like a tree full of bats. Acts of violence and crippling strikes in the Terai induced ever-widening rippling effects, especially within the economic sector, which was rocked again and again. The youth defined Nepal as “that place from which one escapes if one has the chance.” The Maoists’ end-of-the-year victory in getting lawmakers to agree to abolish the monarchy subsequently bloomed thorns with the announced resumption of a “parallel government”, the YCL’s continuing back-alley reprehensibility and, most recently, Prachanda’s double announcement that he would become president and, if need be, the Maoists would again take up arms. In spite of this – or perhaps because of this – after a long absence, an emboldened King Gyanendra tiptoed onto the stage and played to (real or imagined) royalist sentiments. And while the public ached to advance toward the April elections, the remarkable stealth of the status quo of Kathmandu’s political system continued to serve the men in power.
THE PAST EIGHT WEEKS IN REVIEW
December 30, 2007
The interim government approved the appointment of five Maoist cabinet ministers.
1. Minister of Information and Communication: Krishna Bahadur Mahara
2. Minister for Local Development: Dev Gurung
3. Minister for Forestry: Matrika Prasad Yadav
4. Minister for Planning: Hisila Yami
5. Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare: Pampha Bhusal
January 4, 2008
The United States fiddled with its official stance on Nepal. Ambassador Powell publicly expressed satisfaction over Nepal’s 23-point agreement and noted that the inclusion of Maoist ministers into the cabinet was a positive step – an American position unthinkable a year ago. She also indicated that she was confident that the April constituent assembly elections would go forward as planned.
January 7, 2008
General Rupmangat Katuwal, commander of Nepal’s army, nixed the notion that former Maoist rebels would be integrated into the nation’s army. “Nepal’s army cannot recruit anyone who has been indoctrinated with political ideology. The national army should be competent, professional, impartial and obedient to the order of the military chain of command.”
On the same day, some 1500 street demonstrators came out in support of the king, lamenting the loss of Nepal’s traditional status as the world’s only Hindu nation. Many regarded the protest as a direct response to the interim government’s decision to abolish the monarchy in mid-April.
Meanwhile in the Terai, the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha-Goit faction announced the formation of a people’s government and a people’s court in the southeastern districts of Sunsari and Morang. The party’s statement listed evildoers in the districts who would face homegrown justice. Targets included criminals involved in the black market, corrupted officials and anyone who had attempted to stand in the way of the Terai uprising.
January 9, 2008
Good news and bad news for the Maoists. The bad news was that Prime Minister Koirala backed General Katuwal’s statement made two days earlier by saying: “The army is the nation’s wing and it should not be politicized. There is not a single example of integration between indoctrinated fighters and the professional army in the world. Even in our context, the Maoist army will not be integrated with the Nepal Army.” Perhaps as a concession to the ex-rebels, the government expanded the cabinet to include two additional Maoist posts.
January 11, 2008
Sir Edmund Hillary – a man who exemplified selflessness -- passed away to the sorrow of a nation that was in dire need of self-effacing heroes.
January 17, 2008
Three prominent Terai groups united to oppose the April 10 constituent assembly elections unless their demands were met. They met in Bihar, India, to map out their agenda. The leaders included former minister Rajendra Mahato (head of the Sadbhava Party), Upendra Yadav (head of the Madeshi Forum) and Jay Krishna Goit (head of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha Party.) Their demands included:
1. The Madesh has to be declared an autonomous state.
2. The election laws have to be amended so that Madeshis receive 50% representation, as apposed to the current 20%.
3. People killed during the recent Madeshi movement were to be declared martyrs and the victims’ families had to be compensated for their loss.
4. There had to be proportional representation for Madeshis in the army, the police and the bureaucracy.
From another quarter in India, Lal Krishna Advani, the leader of India’s main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that both India and Nepal would suffer dearly if the monarchy were dumped in favor of the Maoists. (BJP is a religious conservative party dedicated to defending traditional Indian culture, including the subcontinent beliefs in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism.) Advani lambasted the current Indian government for remaining passive while the communists trashed 250 years of royalist tradition, something that had “grave implications for India” given the close relationship between “extremists on both sides of Nepal’s border.” The monarchy, he claimed, was the true source of stability in Nepal; Nepal should remain the “lone Hindu state in the world.”
January 18, 2008
A bus bombing in the Terai resulted in 7 deaths and 22 injured passengers. The Terai Army took credit for the slaughter, saying that they attacked the bus because it defied a transport strike organized by the group. The OHCHR issued a statement saying what everyone already knew too well: “Such activities are having a serious impact on the human rights of others and on establishing an environment conducive to free and fair Constituent Assembly elections.
January 22, 2008
Gunmen attacked several police stations in eastern Nepal (Khotang district), making off with arms and ammunition. 50-60 men overwhelmed the Chisapani police post with automatic weapons. The police posts at Falung and Devighat also fell to gunmen. Although it wasn’t clear who was behind the attacks, the assumption was that it was one of the many ethnic groups opposed to the April election because of their conviction that the “constituent assembly” will fail to properly represent them.
January 24, 2008
Nepal’s newly appointed ambassador to the US, Dr. Suresh Chandra Chalise met with George W. Bush at the White House. The president, who previously supported the monarchy said, “Nepal has undergone profound changes, moving from monarchy to an emerging democracy, with an emerging economy.” He also urged the government of Nepal and the Maoists to jointly work to ensure the successful implementation of the CA polls in April.” This was the first time the US administration had asked Nepal to “jointly work” with the Maoists, although the ex-rebels are still listed as terrorists in the State Department. He also told Chalise that Nepal must “restore harmony” in the Terai.
January 25, 2008
One of the Terai’s main groups, the Madeshi People’s Rights Forum, apparently wasn’t interested in Bush’s plea for restoring harmony. It called a general strike in the Siraha, Saptari and Dhanusa districts, thus grinding normal life to a halt. Major highways, markets and schools were shut down.
On the same day, another Terai group, Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), led my Jwala Singh, took responsibility for a series of bombings in Rajbiraj. Four policemen were injured. The explosions occurred even as the government deployed special security forces in the troubled areas.
January 26, 2008
Hitman Shakya, a Maoist central committee member announced that if the April elections were not held, “the Maoist Party was ready to initiate yet another people’s revolt to capture the State. We may have rejoined the government but we have not completely ignored the option of people’s revolt.”
January 28, 2008
Sushil Koirala, acting president of the Nepali Congress party, announced that if unfavorable conditions prevailed for the April elections, the Nepal Army could be mobilized to maintain security. Speaking in Biratnagar, he castigated the Maoists for not returning seized property and not stopping the YCL’s negative activities, adding that the country might descend into civil war if the polls were not held.
On the same day in Terai, in Janakpur, a bomb was detonated at the Maoists’ district office. Janatantrik Teri Mukti Morcha—Jwala Singh (JTMM) took responsibility for the explosion.
January 30, 2008
In the Terai, a series of bombs exploded before and after a mass political rally, wounding 45 people including the chief government administrator in Birgunj. The Indian border town of Birgunj is an extremely strategic city for insurgent activity: approximately 60% of all imports coming from the outside world come through Birgunj.
Meanwhile in Kathmandu, King Gyanendra broke his silence by granting an interview to a palace-friendly weekly called “Rastravani”. Although he didn’t say there was a secret pact between the king and opposition parties, the innuendo was there: “Don’t ask me about the pact now. Both the parties and I know what was in it… Democracy has weakened, so it is necessary to strengthen the bond between monarchy and democracy… Nepali people have a large heart. They can accommodate all Nepalis, including the king.” Most analysts regard the interview as a calculated move by Gyanendra to gauge the reaction of the people, who are fed up with the government’s failure to provide security, control inflation, corruption and the mounting fuel and power crises.
Meanwhile in India, in a bit of foreign policy fine-tuning, US Ambassador Nancy J. Powell hosted a luncheon with guests including former Indian ambassador to Nepal K.V. Rajan, General Ashok Mehta and security expert Ajay Sahani. During lunch, journalists reported Powell saying that the US does not want the total domination of the Maoists in Nepal government. During her visit, Powell also met with Priti Saran, the Nepal and Bhutan Desk chief at India’s Foreign Ministry.
February 1, 2008
The question of political dynasty in Nepal is not confined to the royal crown. Sujata Koirala, the daughter of the aging prime minister was anointed minister without portfolio. Outspoken and reviled by many as a royalist, Sujata, in an interview with Agence France Presse, said: “I am not so power-oriented. Of course I have a lot of supporters who ask me, who want me to be prime minister…but you can also work without being a prime minister.” Clearly, her father has a more focused goal set for her. On New Year’s Eve, he told a women’s gathering: “Very soon we will have a woman prime minister.”
February 5, 2008
Diehard followers of ousted King Gyanendra renewed their efforts to forge an alliance to save the beleaguered monarchy. Acting president of the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal) Padma Sundar Lawoti said, “We have invited like-minded people to form a coalition that would fight to save constitutional monarchy. According to Lawoti, about 20 parties attended the conference including representatives from the Nepali Congress (Rastrabadi) Party and Nepal Shiv Sena, an associate of India’s powerful rightest group Shiv Sena. Most analysts, however, assessed attendees as having negligible clout. It is perhaps more interesting to note which parties, (previously regarded as pro-palace) did not attend: the Rastriya Janashakti Party and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, headed by Pashupati Shumsher Rana.
February 6, 2008
Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai announced the revival of the United Revolutionary People’s Council (URPC), a court used during the armed rebellion and which, for all practical purposes, operated as a parallel government within Nepal. Said Dr. Bhattarai: “Since the local bodies have still not been re-constituted according to the agreement among the seven political parties, the people’s government has been activated to resolve the problems faced by the people in the district and local level and extend help in development related works.”
That same evening, police raided the Kathmandu offices of the Maoist’s Young Communist League (YCL).
February 7, 2008
Enraged by Wednesday night’s police raids at the offices of Young Communist League (YCL), the Maoist youth front alleged that police carried out the raids with an intention to disrupt the Constituent Assembly elections. Organizing a protest rally in the afternoon, the YCL condemned the raids saying they were carried out in a “burglary manner” and without search warrants. YCL Chairman Ganesh Man Pun threatened that they would “capture the valley in five minutes” if the government tried to evacuate the YCL offices.
February 8, 2008
King Gyanendra granted another rare interview, this time to a Japanese newspaper. With newfound defiance, the king challenged the Maoists and the interim government by saying, “The decision to abolish the monarchy [in April] does not reflect the majority view of the people. This isn’t democracy. Some leaders have tried to take action that is against cultural, social and traditional values.”
In a separate development, the Nepali Congress Party criticized the Maoists for attempting to resurrect the URPC, which operated as their parallel government during the insurgency. The NC called it a blatant violation of the peace agreement.
February 9, 2008
According to a poll by Asia Foundation, 49.3% of Nepalis think there should be a place for the monarchy while 38% think the monarchy should be abolished. 12.7% were undecided. The methodology for the poll: Interviews with 3000 adults in 30 of the 75 districts, conducted in December ’07 and January ’08. No margin of error was provided.
February 11, 2008
The Nepal Monitor reported that, according to an official register at the Department of Labor and Employment Promotion, approximately 600 Nepalis leave the country daily for foreign employment. This would mean that Nepal’s labor resource decreases by 219,000 workers per year.
February 13, 2008
A new general strike was called in southern Nepal, blockading essential supplies. Fuel supplies, already extremely low, became the immediate worry. Strike organizers in the Terai were targeting tanker trucks. Suppliers suspended transport of petroleum citing lack of security. The United Democratic Madeshi Front spearheaded the general strike.
February 14, 2008
In the second day of the Terai strike, the impact on the Kathmandu Valley was dramatic. Long queues of motorists backed up outside the few petrol pumps in the capital that were still operational. Fuel was rationed. The wait was up to six hours.
Meanwhile in the south, where at least a dozen districts were affected by the strike, markets, offices, industries, educational and financial institutions were closed. Violence broke out in Lahan where clashes with the police resulted in 10 injured. In Birgunj, roadblocks of burning tires choked the city. Cars that attempted to break the barriers were torched.
The strike continued. Roughly 90% of Nepal’s imports travel from India via the southern roads, which had now been transformed into “no man’s land”. Activists destroyed several oil tankers that dared to run the blockades.
The government implemented emergency measures to deal with the fuel shortage by providing armed security escorts for oil tankers coming from the south. “Security personnel will also be deployed at regular intervals in the highway to prevent attacks,” promised Supply Minister Shyam Sundar Gupta. Most public transport vehicles were not operating in the capital. Traffic was reduced by 50% in the fourth day of the strike. Although the prime minister held talks with UDMF chief Mahanta Thakur (who spearheaded the strike), no progress was reported.
Meanwhile in the southern border town of Nepalgunj, there was a bomb attack on the office of the Nepal Election Commission. No one was injured. Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha-Jwala Singh (JTMM-J) claimed responsibility.
February 17, 2008
At least 45 people were injured in violent protests in and around the border town of Birgunj. Agence France Presse quoted a police officer: “There are protest rallies every day and clashes every now and then. The town is shut down. All the schools, businesses and shops are closed with no sight of any vehicles and the volume of people is very low on the streets.”
Meanwhile in Washington DC, former US Ambassador to Nepal, Julia Chang Bloch, organized a reception for Nepal’s new Ambassador to US, Dr. Suresh Chalise. Also present were former US Ambassador to Nepal James F. Moriarty, officers from the South Asia Desk (State Department), World Bank, Nepalese intellectuals and journalists, and officials from the Chinese Embassy. Ms. Bloch kept the mood upbeat: “If democracy and peace prevail in the country, Nepal would take off very fast economically – in ten years." She also mentioned that the rising economies of India and China were likely to have a positive impact on Nepal’s economy.
In Kathmandu, Sujata Koirala, the Prime Minister’s daughter (and Koirala heir apparent) was in a less diplomatic mood than the folks in Washington. She came out swinging against the Maoists: “The communists are deadlier than the monarchy…I have been advocating the cause of monarchy only after witnessing for myself the Maoists erratic activities and utterances being made of late.” Sujata’s outbursts fan rumors that, in fact, she has clandestine links with the monarchy and that she surreptitiously supports the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu fundamentalist party in India.
February 18, 2008
The sixth day of the general strike: violence worsened, fuel was close to non-existent in the capital and in the southern town of Nepalgunj – where 59 police and protesters were injured and one protester was killed over the weekend – a curfew was set.
February 19, 2008
A convoy of oil tankers arrived triumphantly in Kathmandu under armed police guard – the first major delivery of fuel to the capital since the general strike. Although the arrival was a relief, Purushottam Ojha, a senior official in the Ministry of Supplies cautioned that it was “not enough to ease the scarcity” of fuel.
In the south, Nepali security forces shot dead an anti-government protester during a stone-throwing demonstration.
February 20, 2008
Additional oil tankers arrived in Kathmandu but it was still only a fraction of what was needed to get the capital up and running. Schools remained closed and price hikes for food and other supplies were soaring. Thus began the second week of the general strike.
February 21, 2008
Rajendra Mahato, the leader of the United Democratic Madeshi Front (UDMF) escalated his campaign for more political power by saying his group, which instigated the general strike, would boycott the April elections. Election officials confirmed that ethnic Madeshi parties from the south, who claim to represent nearly half of Nepal's population, missed Wednesday's deadline to register candidates for key polls on April 10. The chance of peaceful and inclusive elections in April now seemed ever more remote.