Fear rules in Nepal

Analysts worry that the continuing turmoil in the Himalayan kingdom could have spillover effects throughout the region.

By Simon Tisdall
Published March 23, 2005 4:19PM (EST)

When King Gyanendra sacked the Nepalese government, locked up leading politicians, curtailed press freedom and imposed emergency rule on Feb. 1 international condemnation flowed thick and fast. Britain briefly recalled its ambassador and suspended military assistance. India halted defense-related aid. The United States deplored the regal coup. The U.N. demanded "immediate steps to restore democratic freedoms and institutions."

But nearly two months later all this huffing and puffing has had almost no effect. Nepalis are still trapped between military-backed absolutist monarchal rule and a Maoist-inspired insurgency, and the unrest is intensifying. Analysts say turmoil in the Himalayan kingdom has the potential to destabilize the region, drawing in India, China and Pakistan.

Kate Allen, U.K. director of Amnesty International, said after visiting Kathmandu last week that the human rights situation was extremely worrying. The judiciary is barely functioning and journalists are being jailed or harassed. "What really struck me was how seriously personally afraid everyone was," she said. "It's all about intimidation and control. It's nasty and it's probably going to get much nastier. But it's absolutely clear that people don't want to give up on democracy."

Amnesty has called on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to send an investigator to Nepal. Many Nepalis believe that resolute U.N. action in Geneva could force the king to retreat. But although there was a token release of politicians before the U.N. meeting, protest rallies by students and rights activists are routinely broken up by the riot police, backed by the army, and hundreds are in jail.

In a report this month Human Rights Watch said the Nepalese army was "one of the world's worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances." Its spokesman said: "Given the scale of the documented disappearances, the heightened role of the army after the king's seizure of power is frightening."

Meanwhile, the brutal Maoist insurgency, the pretext for Gyanendra's takeover, shows no sign of abating. The rebels' leader, known as Prachanda, has demanded a general strike on April 2. The rebellion feeds on the chronic poverty of most of Nepal's 24 million people. Yet despite their liberationist ideology, the rebels have killed more civilians than soldiers in nine years of civil war that has cost 11,000 lives.

Until recently they were said to be losing popular support. But far from deterring them, the emergency may be helping. According to Gareth Price of the think tank Chatham House, the Maoists are "the clear winners" in the post-coup period.

India's decision to strengthen border security has underscored its nervousness about what one minister called possible "spillover effects in neighboring states."

Stephen Cohen, a senior South Asia analyst and author based at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said such fears were well founded. "Nepal has to be seen in the context of failed states," he said. "The central government has no capability. Democratic forces are fragmented. Then there's the Maoist rebellion. It's a perfect storm. The only thing lacking is WMD."

Nepal needs outside help, Cohen said, but there is no sign that any country is prepared to step in. "This is primarily India's baby. This is a country where India will have to take the lead. They may have to think about an international stabilization force and a Bonn-type process of nation building, like Afghanistan."

Analysts suggest that the worsening instability could draw in neighboring China. And an offer from Pakistan of arms in place of those withheld by India illustrates the potential for stoking regional tension.

But an Indian government spokesman said New Delhi has no plans to lead an international intervention and was principally relying on diplomatic pressure. "What we want is to see democracy restored. We have said this to the Nepalis in no uncertain terms. We don't see Nepal as a failed state. But it certainly is a bit of a mess."

Simon Tisdall

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