In the Field
IPJ Editorial Statement on Nepal Crisis 2/10/05
Nepal, an exquisitely beautiful, small nation situated among giants, is in grave danger. The country that never fell to colonial rule, that is known for its lofty peaks and fighting Gurkhas, and that became a destination for mountain climbers and soul-searchers, has been shrouded in manmade clouds of fear. After fifteen years of fledging democratic development within a constitutional monarchy, nine years of challenges by a Maoist insurgency, and three years of confrontation with a monarch apparently committed to a return to royal rule, Nepal suddenly disappeared from electronic sight on February 1, 2005. King Gyanendra put the remnants of political leadership under arrest, cut all phone lines, terminated the free press, and put his newly armed military in control of the streets to stem any possible dissent. The world was stunned to see that in this supposedly borderless information age, it was so easy to cut all access and communication to and from Nepal.
The monarch's publicly stated reasons for placing the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) in charge were the failure of the elected and appointed political leaders in government to control the Maoists and their failure to arrange for political elections in a timely manner. These demands ignored the raging, deadly conflict that has left Maoists in control of at least 85 percent of the country, with eleven thousand people killed since 1996 by Maoist and government forces, and 350, 000-400,000 people displaced, according to the Community Study and Welfare Centre, an NGO advocating the issue of internally displaced persons in Nepal. The Nepalese people value their democratic rights, however new, and want elections. They saw peace, or at least a ceasefire with talks underway with the Maoists, as precursors to elections. Fearing their voices and rights will be lost forever, representatives of Nepalese civil society point out that the King and his army do not represent citizen constituencies and that recent history suggests the army acts with impunity, just as the Maoists do. Indeed, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was in Nepal just a few days before the King dismissed and detained the leadership - including all of the former prime ministers since 1990. Arbour had pointedly called on all parties to end human rights abuses.
Under this shroud of mystery and mayhem, an armed force that does not have the moral commitment or training for its mission will prolong and incite more abuse. Prior to February 1, the Nepal Human Rights Commission (NHRC) verified extensive human rights violations by Maoists and by the government security forces. There is verification of raping, detaining and torturing civilians who were merely suspected of associating with Maoists. With most of the country under Maoist control, extortion by the Maoist forces is rampant and forced association is thus unavoidable.
Great Britain, Germany and others, including most recently India and the U.S., met with the King, to ask that he not try to control the festering Maoist problem by discarding the constitution, as this would most likely exacerbate the conflict and reduce public support for efforts against the Maoists. The Maoists can now claim they are fighting a repressive king and not a representative government. Although rejecting the insurgents' violence, most ordinary citizens are attracted to some of the Maoists' goals, such as ending caste discrimination, enacting land reform, and providing greater access to education and health care.
Both the government and Maoists have put out feelers for resolution to the stalemate consistently over the last four years, encouraging a rollercoaster of hope among the people. Several factors consistently limited follow through, not least the King's declaration of state of emergency several years ago and frequent replacement of the political leadership he found incompetent, or non-supportive. He, perhaps, trusted the West would not object to the suspension of democracy too dramatically, as the Maoists were designated "terrorists" two years ago by the U.S. despite protests from those Nepalese working to maintain a ceasefire and set up peace negotiations. Labeling a group "terrorists" provides an easy cover for dictators with few democratic tendencies to eradicate or eliminate whatever freedoms existed. It also provided an argument for the U.S. to assist in the RNA build-up two years ago, and which is instrumental to the King's the military prowess now. Without the RNA's new firepower and rise in stature, the growing disenchantment with the King - evident in polls which show the vast majority of Nepalese want to limit the monarch's powers, and apparent in mass street protests over the past two years - was likely to be met with greater resistance. According to the National Democratic Institute's survey last year, 96 percent of Nepalese favor talks with the Maoists.
While the phone lines and Internet were back up after eight days, military officials and censors are sitting in the offices of major news outlets. Kantipur Online , the online news website for four major papers and Kantipur Television Network, noted as they came back online that "we are also now under strict media guidelines which we are obliged to follow as we are based and operate from Nepal."
The man who seized absolute power this week may truly believe that rule by divine, historic royal decree is the future for himself, his son, and "his" country and that this is a means to peace in the Kingdom of Nepal. But it is doubtful that citizens throughout the nation still identify themselves as merely the King's subjects. They have a history of their own in recent years that not only includes participatory citizenship under a constitution, but a free and diverse press, and an outspoken human rights community. The often-debilitating, Maoist-instigated conflict and the self-serving, corrupt and nepotistic political party leadership jostling for power in recent years have forced formerly "invisible" people to take new leadership roles. Demands for an end to impunity by both the State and Maoists have been growing within civil society. While separated by traditions of caste, ethnicity and class, and despite conditions of illiteracy and extreme poverty, the Nepalese have begun to find common human security interests and have made progress towards democracy in the midst of national forces' abuses and Maoists' exploitation and torture. Ethnic groups, Dalits (untouchables) and women are visible as never before. It is to be hoped that the new oppression and expanding violence will not quell these voices. They are ready to participate in a free and democratic Nepal.
Members of the human rights communities in Nepal, although in grave personal danger, sent an urgent appeal to world leaders and organizations on February 5. They asked that global powers - the UN, nations, corporations, media, and international non-governmental organizations - call Nepal back into compliance with protection of the fundamental human rights of its citizens promised in its own constitution and the international treaties to which Nepal is party. They specifically request pressure from the international community to end illegal, secret, and torturous detention of the leaders of the political parties and students' organizations; to assure the safety of human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers trying to conduct investigations of human rights abuses; to discontinue all foreign governments' military support, including the supplying of arms and ammunition to the Nepalese government, "which are being used to brutally suppress the rights of the common people;" to encourage Nepalese authorities to "reinstate all suspended fundamental human rights of the citizen that are indispensable, inalienable and indivisible;" and to take diplomatic action to convince the King to lift all forms of media censorship. Some from the international human rights community have responded. The UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) called for an end to "arbitrary detention" and reminded King Gyanendra that basic human rights must be respected, even in a state of emergency. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Committee of Jurists have called upon the UNHCHR to appoint a Special Rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Nepal. The U.S. Department of State is calling for the King to release detainees and restore civil liberties.
On the ground, it is difficult for people to organize or protest and, in rural areas survival itself is in question for subsistence farmers and shopkeepers caught in the middle. Fear is overwhelming. It will take the strong and united voice of the international community to help this fledging democracy. If the oppressed Nepalese are to emerge from this nightmare they are now enduring with any sort of democratic and free nation intact, the world cannot sit by. The King should be encouraged to see the regal value in fostering democracy and becoming a partner in addressing the poverty, social and ethnic inequalities, and other root causes of the problems fueling discontent now exploited by insurgents. Training in conflict mitigation and resolution for the agitating political parties to join in a stronger and more inclusive political leadership had been initiated and is still viable. Both the political parties and civil society have begun to develop talents to engage in negotiations with the groups who will come to the peace table sooner or later.
The world cannot wait and see, nor resort to military might this time; all states concerned with seeing Nepalese democracy emerge from this shadow must cease military aid, monitor human rights, secure the safety of detainees, and create the opportunity for the King to help facilitate real peace with and for the Nepalese people. With the world talking about promotion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere, Nepal deserves close attention. This is a country that had the taste of democracy and deserves the freedom to move forward. The international community's commitment to human rights, democracy, and peace with justice needs to manifest itself now in the face of this threat to human security in the small nation whose citizens are asking for assistance.
Dee Aker, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (IPJ), University of San Diego. The IPJ has been working with Nepalese political leadership, human rights community, women's organizations and journalists since 2001. Aker directs the Nepal Project. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org