Hope in Nepal's summer of discontent

A new prime minister takes office later this week, facing the challenges of putting this nation on track.

When Nepal's new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, takes office later this week, he will have many daunting tasks ahead.

Foremost among these is confronting a six-year-long Maoist insurgency that has killed some 1,700 Nepalis, and moved from the distant western region to the very suburbs of Kathmandu. To do this, he will have to fully deploy the Royal Nepal Army, restore faith in the elected government, and help the nation set aside its grief and suspicion surrounding the royal massacre that killed former King Birendra and his entire family last month. In addition, the new prime minister must push through a broad slate of social and economic programs to get Nepal's economy going and to improve the lives of rural Nepalis.

Many Nepalis say Mr. Deuba will have to work fast.

"We have no more time," says Madhav Nepal, leader of the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, which is credited with helping bring down Deuba's predecessor, Prime Minister Girija P. Koirala. "Even then, I am not hopeful they will be able to solve the problem."

For global superpowers and regional powers alike, Nepal has ceased to be merely a peaceful Hindu kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. Mired in poverty, embroiled in a violent insurgency, unable to attract foreign investors, and seemingly unwilling to solve its problems as a new parliamentary democracy, Nepal is fast becoming an unstable land, ripe for revolution.

Powerful neighbors such as China and India fret that Nepal's Maoist movement will spread into their own restive populations, while American strategists worry about instability in a country that has two rival nuclear powers - India and China - at its borders. Whether Nepal's new political leaders, and its hastily crowned monarch, can bring some measure of stability to their country remains to be seen.

"Nepal is facing the most severe crisis in its history," says Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general and security analyst. Noting that Nepali Maoists have set up logistical contacts with Maoist-inspired rebels in India's troubled northern state of Bihar, he adds, "This has a direct impact on India."

On the streets of Kathmandu, citizens seem to be greeting last week's resignation of Prime Minister Girija Koirala with relief. Small wonder. It's been a hard summer for Nepal. First came the bizarre massacre of the royal family by Crown Prince Dipendra on June 1. Next, a series of violent riots in the streets of Kathmandu, as devout Hindus - and apparently a number of Maoist infiltrators - hurled bricks at police and demanded an investigation into the palace murders. Then, in their most brazen attack yet, Maoist rebels captured 71 policemen on July 12 and held them hostage in Nepal's western Rolpa district. The Army has surrounded the Maoists but not attacked them; the Maoists reportedly have used women and children as human shields.

It was this final act, and Koirala's apparent inability to command the Army, that apparently forced him to resign.

Since the Maoists have long demanded the resignation of Koirala, a lifelong anticommunist, as a precondition for peace talks, politicians like Madhav Nepal and others say that peace talks may be just around the corner. But others warn that Maoists are unlikely to join the political process unless they see no other options.

A recent interview with top Maoist politburo member Baburam Bhattarai in the Nepali Times shows that the Maoists may not be in a talking mood. "If the current trends of staggering military victories and surging mass support continue, the revolution will achieve final success sooner than expected," Mr. Bhattarai wrote in answer to a list of faxed questions.

Elsewhere, he indicated that Maoists have no intention to enter the ordinary give-and-take process of parliamentary democracy. "There is absolutely no possibility of the CPN [Maoist] turning into a parliamentary party."

"They are in a winning position," says Mr. Nepal, the opposition leader. "The Maoists will not be rethinking [their insurgency] unless they feel they are not going to succeed in this way."

In any case, it's not clear what the Maoists mean by "peace" or "talks," says Lokraj Baral, Nepal's former ambassador to India. "On the basic issues of education, land reform, health, we can agree," he says. "But on their demands for an end to multiparty democracy, end of free expression, and the abolition of the monarchy, how can we negotiate on that?"

"If the democratic leadership became more assertive, dynamic, radical, and indulged in reform, then it will work, and the Maoists will be dead," he adds. "But in this context, we cannot wait very long. Society is changing so fast."

For his part, Prime Minister Deuba may have some advantages over his predecessor. Like Koirala, Deuba earned his credentials by fighting for democracy and spending some 9 years in prison for his political beliefs. But unlike Koirala, Deuba has worked well with Communist Party activists, both in the 1970s as founder of the Nepal Students Union and later as prime minister from 1994-95.

Perhaps the greatest ray of hope is the reaction of the Nepali people. Just a month and a half after the streets of Kathmandu were filled with tear gas and stone-throwing mobs, Nepal's capital has remained calm.

"The surprising thing is that after one of the most horrific massacres in history, the country is still here. The Army is still in its barracks, parliament is functioning, even the succession of the new king went by the books," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times in Kathmandu. "We Nepalis have a hidden resilience. We need to use that same resilience for nation-building, but we haven't done that yet."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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