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2 June 2008

Replacing the monarchy

How the once deeply unpopular Maoist rebels of Nepal fought their way to power bringing a new mood o

By Richard Lebon

As the flag is lowered behind the iron gates of Kathmandu’s sprawling royal palace, it falls
upon the 240 year reign of the Shah Dynasty, and when Nepal’s unique two triangles rise
again, it will be upon the world’s newest republic.

The unsmiling King Gyanendra has ruled Nepal since 2001, when his brother and eight members of his family were killed by Crown Prince Dipendra. Gyanendra unpopularity is such that many Nepalis, however unrealistically, believe him involved in the slaughter at the palace. Now he will lose his home and will be forced to support his large extended family on his equally sizeable fortunes in the tea and hospitality industries.

In Gyanendra’s place, the country will be predominantly ruled by the Communist Party of
Nepal, until recently equally unpopular Maoist guerrilla fighters, who have ridden from their rural strongholds to the capital on the back of Gyanendra’s misfortune. At the height of his designs for power in Februrary 2005, the monarch enforced a brief and strict return to absolutism, cutting phonelines and imposing curfews, which provoked outrage and marked a turning point in the conflict.

Since then, characteristic Nepali tolerance has been turned to revolution in two remarkable
events that have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. First, an unprecedented
Maoist-led popular rally marched on the palace in April 2006 and ousted King Gyanendra in a remarkable show for modern democracy.

The resulting agreement brought the Maoists into the political mainstream with the ruling Seven Party Alliance, giving them control of five major government departments and finally bringing an end to the decade-long insurgency. Two years later the Maoists astounded national and international observers with a universally unexpected victory in the 10 April Constituent Assembly Elections, winning 220 of the 601 seats to make them the largest single party in government.

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Under the charismatic leadership of Prachanda, the Maoists have worked hard to distance
themselves from their violent history of insurgency and militant socialism; no longer seeking the closure of private schools or rapid property reforms and now welcoming foreign investment. The international community shares a public mood of optimism, but remains closely watchful: India’s own Naxalite insurgency has been given a new breath, and the US, although they have belatedly begun to speak with the Maoists, unwisely continues to label them terrorists.

The world was surprised when the Nepalis calmly accepted the potentially volatile election
result, showing a remarkable faith in a democracy that has often failed Nepal’s poor and
disempowered. Kathmandu businessman Om Yogi concedes: “The Maoists have been trusted best for the job of economic recovery by the people, so let them do the job.” Many Nepalis believe that the alternatives have had their chance: since 1991, power has constantly shifted hands between and within the main political parties, epitomised by 85 year-old GP Koirala, who has been Prime Minister on four separate occasions.

The mood in the capital is a jubilant and optimistic one, as the third party has been finally
removed in a conflict of shifting alliances, and a new start is seen for Nepal’s ailing economy and welfare systems. However there are warnings for the infant republic, as the army remains deeply hostile to a government who may struggle to keep even their own cadres under control, and who have stoked uncharacteristic ethnic tensions in Nepal’s southern Terai. Furthermore, Nepal’s population has become accustomed to the strike as a frequent, effective and ingrained form of political protest, which has already served as a warning to a new government that is reliant on a base of popular support and its own democratic promises.

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