Key role of Nepal security forces
A fifth protester was killed Monday. The loyalty of police and Army could be pivotal.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL — A nationwide civil uprising gripped Nepal for a 12th day Monday, severely limiting options for King Gyanendra to restore order. Tens of thousands of protesters continued to play a cat-and-mouse game with security personnel, engaging in violent clashes and demanding an end to the 237-year-old monarchy.
With people from all walks of life, including government workers, expressing solidarity with - and even participating in - the movement for democracy, the only remaining bases of support for King Gyanendra are the 150,000-strong security forces, including the Royal Nepalese Army, the Nepal Police, and the Armed Police Force.
Whether they join in the protests, analysts say, may determine the ability of King Gyanendra to hold on in the face of a general strike that has halted traffic, closed schools and businesses, and squeezed the capital's supplies of food and gasoline.
"The only thing that remains for this to be a complete revolution is for the security forces to defect from the king," says Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
"Going by history, in other countries security forces took the side of the people whenever a movement reached this stage," he adds. "Here, they are still with the king. In the case of the Army, this is largely due to centuries of loyalty."
Five protesters have died so far, while thousands have been injured and 1,500 arrested. Among the dead, one was killed Monday by police in the Bara district, south of the capital. Protesters have hurled stones and bricks at the security personnel, but there have been no casualties on the government side.
Nonetheless, a certain defiance of government orders by security forces was visible in Kathmandu Monday. For the most part, they have stood as mute spectators while demonstrators protested in an area where the government had prohibited rallies. But there were reports that police also shot rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators.
A senior police officer says that security agencies are too stretched to deal with the Maoist insurgency on one hand, and nationwide protests on the other. "That is too much to ask," he says.
Security forces have been fighting a violent Maoist insurgency for a decade. The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives so far. The current uprising is supported by the Maoists.
The government has argued that the uprising must be crushed because armed Maoists have infiltrated the demonstrations. But Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala, who is the most senior leader in the alliance, has conceded the "peaceful participation" of Maoists in the demonstrations. The Maoists entered into a 12-point understanding last November, committing to multiparty democracy, with the seven-party alliance that called the current strike. The Maoists have observed a cease-fire in Kathmandu Valley to aid the protests.
With pressures mounting on the palace to cede to democratic forces in this country of 25 million, King Gyanendra talked with foreign envoys Sunday, months after he refused to grant them an audience.
The US, Indian, and Chinese ambassadors delivered strong messages to return sovereignty to the people. Monday, the king met with two former prime ministers, one of whom, Krishna Prasad Bahattarai, told reporters that "there will be changes," but gave no details.
The Army's presence has been largely symbolic so far, except in the resort town of Pokhara, where an Army guard last week shot and killed a demonstrator, and in Gongabu on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where more than a hundred demonstrators were injured.
While Army officers still don't see any possibility of deserting the king anytime soon, they are starting to raise questions.
"For the moment, the Army deserting the king is out of question," says a senior Army officer, who requested anonymity. "We are used to working under his majesty. However, we are certainly worried about how long he is going to last."
Nepal's Shah dynasty dates to 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered several princely states to form Nepal.
King Gyanendra is the 13th shah king of Nepal. He was crowned after the bizarre killings of his elder brother King Birendra and nine other members of the royal family on June 1, 2001, allegedly by then crown prince Dipendra, who shot himself after the killings, according to official reports.
King Gyanendra took over executive powers by staging a bloodless coup in February last year. A skeptical public lost patience after King Gyanendra unleashed a rule of royal ordinances that curbed civil liberties.
Leading analysts here are comparing the uprising - started with a nationwide strike that was called by the parties on April 6 and soon acquired a life of its own - to the French Revolution.
"There is no way to stop the movement now," says Krishna Hatchetu, a professor of political science. "The people's participation is unexpectedly high. It seems that instead of looking for an outlet to the crisis, the King is paving the way for his exit."
• Material from the wires was used.