In the Field
In Nepal, the people spoke loudly
By Laura Taylor and Dee Aker
The San Diego Union-Tribune
April 28, 2006
KATHMANDU, Nepal – Fifteen months after a royal coup pulled Nepal into a black hole and off the face of the electronic map – silenced for eight days without media, the Internet or phone – the people responded with a blackout of their own. And it led to King Gyanendra capitulating to the protesters and agreeing to reinstate the small Himalayan nation's parliament. That move may lead to the writing of a new constitution that may eliminate the monarchy.
But for 19 days, things looked different. A pro-democracy movement had brought the masses to the streets, and the government set a shoot-to-kill curfew. From 8 to 9 p.m. each evening for three consecutive weeks, the people of Nepal waged a silent protest. Those “jailed” in their homes by government-issued curfews showed their solidarity for the movement sweeping the nation by turning off their lights each evening.
Gyanendra, a god-king according to the Hindu tradition in Nepal, displayed one of his first signs of humility when he addressed the nation on the 16th day of demonstrations. His speech, however, fell short of addressing the majority of root causes of the decade-long armed conflict with the Maoists or meeting the demands of the mounting pro-democracy movement of the people. It also ignored the tenets of the November 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the seven-party alliance, or SPA, a coalition of the major political parties that jelled in May 2005 in response to the royal coup.
While many have suggested the king's statement put the ball back in the court of the political parties, that was only partly true. The pro-democracy masses assumed a weight of their own. This created a rare situation in Nepali history: the political parties were being held accountable to the people.
The conflict in Nepal has fluctuated between bipolar and tripolar confrontations among the king, Maoist and political parties. During the protests, the conflict had a fourth actor: the people of Nepal. Many hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets not only in Kathmandu, but also throughout Nepal. Millions more showed their solidarity with the flick of a switch each evening.
In the last year, the movement swelled. Initially led by political parties, human rights activists, journalists and student groups, the movement progressed as civil society, lawyers and doctors joined the ranks in the fall of 2005. The inclusion of the business sector and government civil servants during the protests this month intensified domestic pressure on the king.
Without a specific spokesman or spokeswoman for the pro-democracy masses, there was a general consensus among those we spoke with in Kathmandu: that the king's initial response was grossly inadequate. After that, the tenor changed from pro-democracy to overtly anti-monarch. This sentiment deepened with the deaths of 16 civilians at the hands of government security forces over the 19-day protest.
The people of Nepal had a taste of freedom in the relatively peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy in 1990. In the growing denial of their rights, they waged a 19-day struggle to bring to life the essential pillars of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to determine their own political destiny. No longer is the country so constrained by its feudal past; this movement has brought together a collective voice for change.
King Gyanendra followed his initial public statement with a second concession that the parties and the people accepted: the restoration of the 1999 democratically elected parliament. On Tuesday, what was scheduled to be the largest pro-democracy protest transformed into a Victory Day Rally. “The doors of democracy have been opened. ... It is your responsibility to keep it that way,” one banner reminded the SPA. Chants of joy and warnings that they would be watching were heard throughout the crowd of nearly 1 million.
Many challenges lie ahead. Political parties will have to regain the trust of the masses, particularly rural populations alienated and ignored in the early 1990s. While all eyes are on the members of the restored parliament who officially assume power today, the real engines of change must not be forgotten.
The people of Nepal will not be silenced by the king or sidelined by the political parties. Now, with a sense of their own agency and power, what will they do to bridge the historic rural/urban divide? How will they incorporate the throngs of youth who have been mobilized around the pro-democracy movement? Will the people of Nepal be able to maintain their momentum and lead the way to peace?
Taylor is Nepal program officer and Aker is deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. They are currently on assignment for the institute in Kathmandu.