Nepal's Political Crisis: A Look Back, A Look ForwardAmbassador James F. Moriarty
Speech to the Ganesh Man Singh Academy
February 15, 2006
Released by the U.S. Embassy Kathmandu
Namaste. Thank you, Soni, and thanks to Dr. Bhandari and all of the members of Ganesh Man Singh Academy for co-hosting this event with the American Center.
I would like to dedicate these remarks today to four Nepali citizens – Bijaya Lal Das, Tribeni Majhi, Jitendra Shrestha, and Umesh Thapa. All recently perished. To my knowledge, I never ever met any of them. I’ll return to them at the end of these remarks.
*** I address you exactly one week after the February 8 municipal polls, and one year and two weeks since King Gyanendra took over the reins of government on February 1, 2005. I want to talk to you today about this momentous period, and offer some thoughts on what the future might – or could – hold for Nepal.At the outset, I wish to take note of the ruling by the Supreme Court this week to abolish the Royal Commission for Corruption Control, which also enabled the release of former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. This decision was a positive step, and it was encouraging to see this issue settled through the rule of law.
As the polls just occurred, let me also note my country’s official view on their relevancy. Just as we had feared, the municipal elections unfortunately proved a hollow exercise. Elections are the fundamental building block of democracy, and we would have liked to have seen municipal elections that served this function. Yet the continuing polarization between the monarchy and the major political parties prevented this. The major parties boycotted the polls, relatively few candidates ran, and few citizens voted. In sum, the elections represented yet another missed opportunity to effectively begin tackling Nepal’s political problems.
The Maoists, however, were not content to urge a boycott of the polls they deemed illegitimate. Instead, they unleashed violence to thwart the vote. The insurgents threatened candidates and their families and even assassinated two office seekers. Absolutely nothing justifies such measures, and all supporters of a just and peaceful Nepal should condemn them. As for the year of authoritarian rule by the palace, it has clearly been unsuccessful. The results of the past year are the opposite of what the monarchy envisioned in seizing power in early 2005. As my government said to mark the first anniversary of the royal takeover, "Twelve months of palace rule have only made the situation more precarious, emboldened the Maoist insurgents, and widened the division between the country’s political parties and the King." This is a harsh – but accurate – summation of palace rule. Yet the monarchy persists in its hard-line policy, its face set against the parties. In frustration, they have turned to the Maoists to seek political leverage against the palace.
The King and the parties, in fact, seem locked in a circle of mistrust, going round and round – but never advancing – as they launch continuous charges at each other of ill-will, animosity, and condemnation. Meanwhile, Nepal’s desperate need for peace, security, and democracy only deepens. Moreover, both sides seem to view the insurgents as a kind of bargaining chip in their ongoing struggle of wills. "How can we use the Maoists to advance our immediate political position?" they seem to independently ask themselves. These leaders should rather answer a far more difficult but essential question: "How can we work together to return democracy to Nepal, and defeat the Maoist threat to our country and its people?"
Without real progress between the two legitimate political forces, the Maoists will only continue to gain advantage – in the countryside, among people of goodwill tired of the King-parties standoff, and among others who desperately believe, or want to believe, that the insurgents will shed their ideological stripes and join the political mainstream. Alas, wishing that something were so does not make it that way, as we all learn in life. But the political parties, who entered the 12-point understanding with the insurgents in November, seem to want to do exactly that – to wish away or otherwise ignore the uncomfortable fact that their Maoist partners are committed to violence to achieve political ends. In this regard, here are some questions that I have asked myself in recent weeks, with the uncomfortable answers I have reached:
Not if you read the understanding itself. And certainly not if you read the recent statements of a senior Maoist, Baburam Bhattarai. The very first point in the understanding underscores that the signatories – parties and Maoists – will "establish absolute democracy … with all forces focusing their attack against the autocratic monarchy." For the Maoists, this simply means they will continue employing murder, extortion, and intimidation as tactics of choice. The Maoist leader provided chilling insight in this regard in several articles in different Nepali publications in recent weeks. For instance, if autocracy is to be defeated, he argued in a Samaya article, "armed and unarmed struggle must go hand-in hand."
Actually, a close reading of the understanding reveals that the insurgents seek to bring the parties further into their sphere, and to the Maoists’ advantage. Again, Bhattarai made Maoist thinking clear in several other articles. "Since our working policy [with the parties] is now the same, we have forged this partnership," he said of the 12-point agreement. "But tomorrow if the nature of the political intercontradiction changes, the nature of our relations could change as well." The translation here is icy: The Maoists pledge their partnership with the parties, until … they don’t need them any longer.
The answer here is particularly worrisome: The Maoists would be armed; the parties would be unarmed. Presumably, to have reached this point, the Maoists would have co-opted or neutralized most parts or all of the Royal Nepalese Army, thereby removing the parties’ one logical source of defense. Maybe this is the moment Bhattarai has in mind when he speaks about the "political intercontradiction" changing. In any case, this stark scenario leaves the parties, and the people, defenseless against ideological "partners" long used to settling arguments with a gun.
These questions are provocative, which is their aim. After all, if ever the phrase "politics makes strange bedfellows" was appropriate, it is in Nepal in 2006. When the Maoists took up arms in 1996, they were attacking a struggling Parliamentary system; they killed hundreds of party activists and chased the parties out of the countryside. More recently, however, lack of leadership and unwillingness to compromise, primarily but not totally from the side of the monarchy, has resulted in a curious polarization. Two legitimate constitutional actors – who should be on the same side – are divided, with one of them aligned with a separate violent force that has long sought a totalitarian state.
At first glance, as mentioned previously, there seems much about the 12-point understanding that is hopeful. But the United States views the uneasy partnership between the parties and the Maoists as wrongheaded. Worse, as the questions posed earlier underscore, we believe cooperation along current lines between the Maoists and the parties is fraught with danger – for the political parties themselves, and for the future of the Nepalese people. Political terror by the Maoists, practiced with particular ferocity in the run-up to the municipal elections, sets a fearsome precedent and could impair the democratic credentials of their political party partners.
An interview with in the Kantipur newspapers caused some to swoon over the Maoist leaders’ apparent democratic leanings. Yet the Maoists themselves underscored the danger of cooperating on their terms, if anyone cares to pay attention. In the same interview, the Maoist known as Prachanda urged widening of the armed struggle that has bloodied Nepal for 10 years. He said, and I quote: "We say, let’s make a common army for constituent assembly and a democratic government of the parties and the Maoists. Let’s form a parallel government of the parties and Maoists." A parallel government with a parallel army? This is a recommendation that the political parties join the Maoists in an underground, violent struggle against the state -- a formula to expand the bloodshed and misery in Nepal for the advantage of the Maoists, not to seek a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the conflict. I know what the response by Mahatma Gandhi, or indeed, K.P. Bhattarai would have been to such a suggestion.
Of course, to Maoist thinking, bloodshed is the byproduct of politics. Consider Prachanda’s speculation in a BBC interview this week that, in five years’ time, the King will "either be executed by the people’s court or maybe exiled." Or, as Baburam Bhattarai noted in another interview last week, "every revolution in history demands its quota of sacrifice if it has to succeed." Presumably, he is thinking of the final sacrifice other Nepalese men, women, and children have made or will be forced to make for his revolution.
Now it’s true that when the King took power last year, many were hopeful that the goals he cited for his action would be achieved. They were not. The international community recognizes this, as do many patriotic Nepalese citizens. Perhaps the government does as well, but balks at reconciliation with its legitimate partners because of fear that it may look weak or that it otherwise may no longer "control" Nepal’s destiny. On the first concern, no honest supporter of reconciliation and progress would fault the King for reaching out to the parties and returning the country to democracy. On the contrary, such decisive leadership would be roundly welcomed. On controlling Nepal’s destiny, I repeat, this is exactly the issue. Without engaging the legitimate civilian political forces, the palace is continuing to lose control of its ability to shape the country’s future. And the Maoists only gain confidence and influence as this polarization eases their divide-and-conquer strategy.
As I have done repeatedly, and as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command did in Nepal here two weeks ago, the United States continues to call for reconciliation between the King and parties. We did so again last week after the failure of the municipal elections. Major international partners have urged a similar course. I make the same common sense plea here today.
There is no other practical, workable solution to your constitutional crisis and to effectively face the most immediate, as well as the most serious long-term, threat to your peace and prosperity – the insurgency. To establish a foundation of trust, the United States believes it is up to the King to initiate this dialogue, assuring the major political parties and the Nepalese people that the monarchy is serious about returning democracy and peace to Nepal. And, once such an opening occurs – sooner rather than later, I hope – we urge the political parties to respond and enter talks in good faith.
Hard compromise, tough give and take, will be required if the monarchy and the parties are to hammer out a return to democracy and devise an effective response to the growing Maoist threat. This kind of negotiating, moreover, will not lend itself to daily headline seeking and one-upmanship by press release. At some point, for the sake of Nepal, senior party and palace leaders must gather together in a room and begin hashing out the hard details of the way forward. No one else can do it for them.
And there certainly is no way for the parties or the King to successfully ride the Maoist tiger for their own advantage. One could easily fall off … and tigers get hungry.
I'll be blunt: there is no easy way out of Nepal's current crisis. History and common sense, as well as their leaders' own statements, suggest that the Maoists will feel no need to abandon their goal of absolute power as long as they believe they are winning. And as long as the King and the Parties remain divided, and as long as there is no coherent strategy in place to roll back the massive gains the Maoists have made over the past decade, the Maoists will rightfully conclude that they are winning. The simple, but unpalatable, truth is that, there will be no real reason for the Maoists to compromise until they begin to see in the areas they now terrorize:
Until that day, I fear, the understandable hopes that the Maoists will simply tire of their struggle or decide that a genuine multi-party system is preferable to their own unchallenged rule will prove mistaken.
And only a unified civilian and democratic government will be able to begin the process of convincing the Maoists that they will not be able to impose their will on the people of Nepal. The United States, for one, would look eagerly for ways to assist a new Nepal government that respects and supports democracy, human rights, and freedom. This also could include renewing assistance for the Royal Nepalese Army. I am confident that other nations, friends of Nepal, would do the same.
I hope the immediate future I have outlined sounds appealing, if difficult. Such a future calls for statesmanship and vision from all of Nepal's legitimate political actors. First, to protect their reputation as supporters of peace and democracy in Nepal, the parties could consider issuing a strong public statement unequivocally warning their Maoist partners about the unacceptability of violence. Second, the palace needs to devise some effective gesture to make absolutely clear its willingness to enter formal and concrete talks with the major political parties to restore democratic government in Nepal and address the Maoist threat.
Finally, I return to the cynical Maoist mantra, "every revolution demands its quota of sacrifice." And here I point to three of the people to whom I dedicated these remarks.
Maoists murdered all three in recent days. I mean no disrespect here. I cite these victims merely to remind us all of the unacceptable human cost of Nepal’s ongoing tragedy. Three fellow humans were murdered because someone else with a gun thought their deaths would advance a particular political viewpoint.
There was also a fourth victim -- Umesh Thapa, a party activist shot by security forces after a rally protesting the municipal elections. His death served as a tragic reminder of the deep and growing divisions between the government and the legitimate political parties. My fervent hope is that, instead of using his death for short-term advantage, the government and the parties will view his sacrifice as a catalyst for reconciliation and compromise.
For Nepal is now facing a choice between three possible futures: If the King and the Parties reconcile, they can find a path back to genuine democracy and an effective means to counter the insurgency. If the King and his government opt for greater repression, their attempts will ultimately fail and Nepal will suffer greater misery and bloodshed. And if the armed Maoists and unarmed parties successfully implement Prachanda's and Baburam Bhattarai's vision of a violent revolution, the Maoists will ultimately seize power, and Nepal will suffer a disaster that will make its current problems pale in comparison.
Nepalis themselves will choose which future they want. The outside world is eager to help, but can do nothing if the wrong path is chosen. I love your country and I believe that the Nepali people are among the finest and hardest-working that I have met anyplace in the world. For that reason, I hope and pray that everyone in this room and everyone who hears my words in whatever form does everything possible to ensure that the leaders of your country choose the path of reconciliation, democracy, and genuine peace in the coming weeks and months.