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Wednesday, June 13, 2001

A windfall for Nepal's Maoists

KATMANDU -- The picturesque Himalayan nation of Nepal, wedged between India and China-occupied Tibet, was once an idyllic hideaway for Western trekkers and hippies. Although still a popular tourist destination, Nepal has been wracked in recent years by an expanding Maoist insurrection in the countryside.

The unprecedented palace blood bath on June 1 that left most royal members dead has come as a shot in the arm for the underground Maoists and the assorted communist groups that form Nepal's main democratic opposition under the banner of the pro-China United Marxist-Leninist alliance. With the institution of monarchy damaged and the weak elected government under siege, the red star hangs over Nepal.

The crime that wiped out the king, the queen and eight other royals -- including the alleged perpetrator, the crown prince -- has cast a cloud over Nepal's political future. Despite its quasi-divine status, with the king venerated by the Nepalese as the reincarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god of life, the royal family could not save itself from destruction.

This is Nepal's worst political crisis since 1990, when mass demonstrations forced King Birendra to move from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. But in Nepal's modern history, no crisis has undermined its people's confidence, stirred bewilderment and fear and exposed the fragility of its institutions as this one has.

Nepal today is buffeted by a unique combination of forces: palace intrigue; a corrupt, inefficient government; a communist opposition that has staged paralyzing strikes since last winter; a confused and adrift military; and increasingly violent Maoists who call the shots from their mountain hideouts.

Since its inception 230 years ago, the monarchy has symbolized Nepal's unity, sovereignty and solidarity. In the half-century since the Chinese annexed Tibet, the monarchy has also ensured Nepal's independence from the neighboring giants China and India.

As the country despaired over its nine democratic governments in the past 10 years, many Nepalese had begun looking to Birendra again for leadership. But now, with some blaming Birendra's murder on his uncle, Gyanendra, who was vaulted to the throne last week, the biggest casualty has been popular respect for the crown.

The ruling Shah dynasty has a history of palace intrigues. In the latest case, the rumor mill became active simply because Gyanendra was out of town when the slayings occurred and his much-hated son, Paras, known for his violent behavior in public, escaped unhurt despite being on the scene.

Palace insiders, however, have reported that Crown Prince Dipendra, in a drunken rage over his mother's refusal to let him marry the woman he loved, opened automatic fire on his parents, siblings and other relatives before shooting himself.

The only side that stands to benefit from the current political disorder in Nepal is the Maoist movement that has been systematically extending its influence in the countryside, beheading local government officials and enforcing its ban on the singing of the national anthem in schools.

Modeling themselves on Peru's Shining Path movement, the Maoists have made rapid strides as champions of the downtrodden in a country that ranks among the world's 10 poorest states. In less than five years, they have set up parallel administrations in almost one-fourth of Nepal's rural districts. They levy taxes and run a "people's army." More than 1,500 people have already perished in the insurrection.

The Maoist strategy in the current crisis appears to be twofold: to fuel and exploit public suspicions about the palace massacre by questioning the legitimacy of Gyanendra's ascension to the throne; and to step up pressure on Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's nine-month-old government to quit.

Not only is there evidence of their hand in instigating street violence in Katmandu following the massacre, the Maoists were also quick to publicly allege a "grave political plot" in the royal murders. In fact, the second-ranking Maoist leader, in a signed article published in the largest Nepali-language newspaper, went so far as to claim a joint U.S.-India-Gyanendra conspiracy behind the slayings. The publication of the fugitive's article prompted authorities to arrest the newspaper's editor and top two executives.

The Maoists and other communists have thrived the most in Nepal's flawed democratic experiment, which has bred political instability, corruption and lawlessness. The unemployed rural poor, disillusioned with democracy's failure to deliver, have swelled the ranks of the Maoists and the democratic communist opposition.

The growing lawlessness has serious implications for Nepal's internal and external security. The disorder has made Nepal a more attractive hunting ground for foreign interests. While China wields considerable leverage over Nepal (a transit route for Tibetans fleeing to India), New Delhi over the years has sought to keep the landlocked nation within its sphere of influence by providing port access for Nepalese trade and supplying essential fuel and food.

In recent years, Nepal has come under mounting pressure from New Delhi to crack down on foreign intelligence activity directed against India. All Indian Airlines flights to Nepal were suspended for six months after a 1999 hijacking that India said was engineered by Pakistani intelligence operatives stationed in Katmandu. The rising lawlessness raises the question of how long India can maintain the open border with Nepal that permits passport-free travel.

At a time when the Maoist threat to Nepal's unity and integrity is grave, the palace blood bath complicates Katmandu's fight against the extremists.

The Nepalese Constitution does not specifically say that the military answers to the king. But in practice the monarch has controlled the military, with the generals loath to take orders from the elected government. The Koirala government had been trying to reach a deal with Birendra that would allow a greater role for the military in combating the growing Maoist menace. Initially, the king had balked at that idea, but lately such a deal appeared imminent.

Now, with the monarchy, the military and the government at loggerheads over the handling of the massacre, the Maoists have cause to celebrate. At least until the new king earns the people's respect, the Maoists will not only rule the mountains but also be in a position to expand their challenge to Katmandu's authority.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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