Maoists call for new revolt in Nepal
The former underground party has threatened to quit the government if parliament fails to abolish the monarchy by the beginning of next week.
By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch (13/09/07)
Three years ago, the Malla Hotel in Kathmandu, a former palace converted into a flourishing hotel by a scion of the country's erstwhile ruling Rana dynasty, was the target of a guerrilla attack by Maoist insurgents who had been fighting since 1996 to found a communist republic in the Himalayan kingdom.
On Thursday, 13 September, the hotel was to be the venue of a round-table conference called by the rebels to plan the strategy for a new revolt.
Though the meeting was called off at the last moment, apparently because the Maoist chief, party chairman and supreme commander of the People's Liberation Army Prachanda was feeling indisposed, the guerrillas have warned of a drastic change from next week, when their month-long ultimatum to the government runs out.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which ended its armed struggle for the abolition of Nepal's constitutional monarchy and a communist republic last year by signing a peace pact with the new government, is now making fresh demands.
By signing the peace pact, the Maoists agreed to take part in an election where voters would decide if they still wanted a king or preferred to become a republic. Though Nepal, isolated from the rest of the world until 1950, used to revere its kings as gods, it received a shock in 2001 when a midnight massacre occurred in the royal palace in the capital, killing then-King Birendra and nine more members of the royal family.
After Birendra's younger brother, Gyanendra, ascended the throne and began controlling the government by first sacking the prime minister and appointing his own men, anti-monarchy sentiments began to grow. From whispered criticism, the feeling erupted into bold public protests nationwide last year after Gyanendra staged a bloodless coup with the backing of the army and imposed his own rule for 15 months.
Continuous street protests for 19 days that left the economy bankrupt brought the nation to a standstill and snapped Nepal's diplomatic ties, forced the king to step down and hand over power to an alliance of seven major opposition parties. The alliance, which in the past had been resisted the Maoist demand to put the monarchy to a vote, changed its mind after the royal coup and called a truce with the rebels.
Now however, with 69 days left for the crucial constituent assembly election on 22 November, the Maoists are demanding the abolition of monarchy before the election.
Maoists feeling waning popularity
"Nowhere in the world has any reigning monarch ever given up the throne voluntarily," Prachanda told the media last month when his party gave a month-long ultimatum to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. "The palace has been trying to sabotage the election, especially by inciting violence in the southern plains. To ensure a free and fair election, we have to abolish [the] monarchy before the exercise."
The election was first scheduled for June. However, it had to be postponed due to the deteriorating security situation, especially in the plains where more than a dozen armed groups are now waging separate armed battles demanding autonomy.
The postponement left the Maoists unhappy since they had been banking on the high anti-monarchy feeling that prevailed until last year to give them a win at the polls. In return for agreeing to a deferred poll, they wrested a constitutional amendment from the government.
According to the new amendment, if the government feels the king is trying to scupper the November election or indulge in any anti-national activity, it can remove him if two-thirds of the MPs agree.
Now, fearing a waning of their popularity - due to the high-handedness of cadres, the refusal to return the public property captured by them during the civil war and failure to release child soldiers - the Maoists are pressuring the government to abolish the monarchy by using the constitutional provision instead of waiting for a public verdict.
"If the government fails to meet our demand by 17 September, we will leave the government and start a new peaceful but strong movement," Prachanda said in a statement.
With the new "revolt" to include a series of strikes, holding the election would be impossible if the threat was carried out.
Meanwhile, two of the biggest armed groups on the rampage in the south have also issued warnings to the government, saying they would oppose the election in their strongholds.
Ironically, both are groups of former Maoists. Jay Krishna Goit, one of the most senior Maoist leaders from the south plains, led a revolt in the party, saying it was dominated by the elite hill community and did not address the plight of the plains community.
Goit formed the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (Democratic Plains Liberation Alliance), which is asking for an autonomous state for plains people in the south. However, the organization soon split with a second faction now headed by a former Goit lieutenant, Jwala Singh, who also is asking for an autonomous state.
The Singh group especially has become very active in the plans, executing a series of killings, extortion and general strikes. This week alone, it killed two civilians, including the principal of a school.
Last month, Singh issued a press statement from underground saying his group would oppose the election and begin protests from 18 September. Now Goit has issued a similar warning, saying his band would enforce a four-day strike in the plains from 20-23 November, which includes the critical election day.
Besides the armed groups, four different ethnic organizations, who had in the past paralyzed the country by enforcing general strikes, sometimes for several days, are also demanding autonomous states for their communities.
Though the government hurriedly signed new agreements with them in recent times, all of them are accusing it of not implementing the pacts and warned they could start fresh protests.
One of them, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Plains People's Rights Forum), since this year has become the biggest challenge for the Maoists there. There are whispers that the Forum has reached a seat-sharing understanding with Koirala's Nepali Congress, the biggest party in the country, giving the Maoists additional reason to announce a new revolt.
The turmoil is not simply confined to the south.
On 2 September, three near-simultaneous bombs went off in crowded places in the capital, including a minibus, killing three women and injuring 26 people, making it the worst attack on the capital ever.
While police have yet not been able to make any headway besides issuing a sketch of a possible suspect, the Maoists are accusing royalists and the army of having engineered the attacks. Royalists, predictably, are alleging that the guerrillas caused the blasts.
Following the explosions, the army submitted a report to the prime minister, which, according to Nepal's media, portends there could be more violence after the election, if the results are not to the liking of the Maoists.
Political and economic time bomb
As the political complications become increasingly entangled, an economic time bomb is also ticking away, unheeded by the government.
Nepal faces an acute fuel scarcity as Indian Oil Corporation, the sole provider of petro products to the state-run Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), has slashed supplies by over 60 percent for non-payment of dues.
A succession of governments forced the NOC to sell fuel at a high subsidy as a populist measure, which caused it to run up a loss of billions of rupees each year. Currently, the NOC owes over NRS 10 billion to the Indian company as well as a group of financial institutions from which it has been borrowing regularly to pay its fuel bills.
Though the NOC has been urging the government to increase fuel prices, the government for fear of public anger on the eve of the election, has refused to heed the plea. Even aviation fuel stocks have plummeted, causing the NOC to warn the government that the scarcity is likely to affect the election.
Despite the national crisis, the minister for commerce, industry and supplies, Rajendra Mahato, remains preoccupied with a vicious intra-party feud. Dissidents in his Nepal Sadbhavana Party are asking the PM to replace him, and with the uncertainty about the ministry, there is no one to address the oil crisis.
The coming week promises to be critical for Nepal, sealing the fate of the election, the eight-party government and even the peace pact that ended a decade-old violent insurgency in which over 13,000 people were killed.