Conflict in Nepal End of Shangri-La
Julia Chang Bloch
There is no better objective of US foreign policy than the promotion of freedom, to spread benefits of democracy.
Nepal’s democracy has not lived up to its promise. For Nepalis, particularly the poor, democracy has lost its lustre and is fast losing its legitimacy. The mixed response to King Gyanendra’s coup is a reflection of a frustrated Nepali populace. Letters and emails from Nepali friends indicate that many, in fact, welcomed the King’s actions as the last best chance to defeat the Maoists and restore a semblance of stability to the country, while others condemn the royal power grab as a death knell to democracy, benefiting the Maoists. While the major powers have condemned King Gyanendra’s coup, they have not stopped all aid. Two days after the royal takeover, the Asian Development Bank signed a 1.8 billion rupees loan agreement with the government. While Britain and India have suspended their military aid, the US has only frozen an expansion of its military aid. At the same time, Japan announced it would extend $17 million in aid to Nepal for food and development assistance. Although some countries, notably Norway, have drastically cut their assistance, donors face a dilemma – withholding support for the King could strengthen the Maoists, but continuing support could kill efforts to restore democracy.
At a time when democracy has no rivals as a political system, Nepal seems to be out of step, moving backward into an anachronistic past. Nepal, however, presents a lesson on the questions that political philosophers have addressed since Rousseau and de Tocqueville: what conditions make democracy possible, and what conditions make it thrive? And why do so many developing countries have so much difficulty creating stable and democratic societies.
Fareed Zakaria’s in his new book concludes, “…democracy, with all its flaws, represents the
“last best hope” for people around the world. Democracy is the best guarantee of individual liberty and world peace. And I also believed that there is no better objective of American foreign policy than the promotion of freedom, to spread the benefits of a democratic society.
King Gyanendra took an enormous gamble when he fired the Cabinet, declared a state of emergency and assumed power. He said he wanted stability first and democracy second. But the challenge he faces is daunting: find peace with the Maoists, organise elections and reestablish democracy in three years as he has promised. If his gamble pays off and a sustainable peace is negotiated, King Gyanendra will have done a great service to his country. His success, however, may strengthen the monarchy to the detriment of democracy, possibly returning Nepal to an absolute monarchy, as the King may not willingly give up his powers and allow a return to parliamentary democracy.
If he fails to bring an end to the insurgency, as many predict, it could mean the end of the monarchy, as he will have no one to blame but himself. Moreover, he risks turning Nepal into a failed state, possibly putting the Maoists in power and repeating the totalitarianism that once devasted Cambodia. And if Nepal becomes a failed state, it could become another Afghanistan, providing a sanctuary for terrorists. If somehow the coup could be reversed and democracy restored, Nepal is not likely to be able to solve its problems. The parties might be willing to come together in opposition to the king’s dismissal of their power, but they will undoubtedly return to squabbling once their power is restored. Democracy proponents face unpalatable choices, and there is no clear path towards resolving the conundrum. The royal coup, however, was not the best option. The Maoists have survived and strengthened because of the disarray among the democratic parties. What the King could have done was to lead the parties into a united front to pursue peace with the Maoists. Now, he has completely sidelined the parties, going it alone, possibly allowing the Maoists to play one against the other and gain the upper hand. While democratic governments must maintain pressure on King Gyanendra to restore democracy to Nepal, the overriding issue in Nepal’s crisis is to bring an end to the insurgency and restore peace to the country.
Democracy without security is meaningless. There is much at stake in saving Nepal from collapse and misery. Its geography once again defines its importance geopolitically. India and, now Bangladesh, have their own Maoist rebels, who operate largely in the unstable regions bordering Nepal. Should the Maoists succeed in Nepal, it would embolden their brethren in neighboring countries. Nepal also borders Tibet, and China worries that further instability in Nepal could spread unrest east, or even north into China’s restive Xinjiang region.
The major powers cannot afford Nepal becoming a failed state. They need to push for a resolution of this crisis, including a possible UN role if all else fails.
Bloch is a former US ambassador to Nepal