Scenic Nepal: in search of unity

THE ancient land of Nepal, whose mountainous splendors delight tourists, suddenly faces unaccustomed internal stresses. King Birendra is under increasing pressure from his people to give them a greater say in the nation's government, by permitting political parties and their representatives to stand for election.

It is a testing time for a King who for years has ruled successfully by making modest compromises as situations dictated. But he has shown reluctance in recent months to make the political compromises that would placate the rising opposition.

For years the King has tried to lead his nation slowly into modern times, modernizing both the economy and society. Until recently he has had the backing of his patient people, who view the monarch as the glue that holds Nepal together. In the past nine months unrest has grown. The backward economy has not strengthened, unemployment has risen, corruption is evident, and poverty remains -- Nepal is one of the world's poorest nations.

The resulting discontent has focused on the system of government: If political parties were permitted, many Nepalis feel, economic and social conditions might improve. Popular support for change has grown; the leading opposition group staged nonviolent demonstrations; and teachers and students went on strike.

King Birendra's response was uncharacteristic. In an apparent bid to prevent protests from gaining much momentum, he arrested perhaps 2,000 citizens who were staging peaceable protests.

A complication arose: A radical splinter group detonated bombs which killed seven Nepalis. The size of this group is not known, but experts do not believe it is large.

Ironically the bombings, which illustrated the depth of some Nepalis' frustrations, provided both the opposition and the King with an opportunity to reach an accord. The opposition seized it. The primary opposition group and the teachers called off their protests and united behind the King against violence.

It now is the King's turn to make a similar gesture for national unity. It would be a proper step for him to permit political parties to organize now, so that they can be prepared to participate in next year's elections to the national legislature. It would defuse most of the opposition pressure.

By providing fuller public participation in government, and then sharing governmental responsibilities with the elected representatives of the political opposition as well as with his supporters, the King would gain more support for his program to modernize gradually his nation and its economy.

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