Nepal's Endless Political Turmoil

Kathmandu residents protest the king's treatment of parliament, June 30, 2003
Nepalese activists protest King Gyanendra's treatment of Parliament, June 30, 2003 (Photo: Devendra M. Singh/AFP-Getty Images).

In late May, as mountaineers from around the world were trying their luck at reaching the top of the world—8,848-meter [29,028-foot] high Mt. Everest—and others were pouring into Kathmandu to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the peak, Nepalese political party leaders were clashing with riot police. In the process, upper-house lawmaker Krishna Maharjan suffered a serious head injury and fell unconscious, former Health Minister Arjun Narsingh fractured his elbow, and former Minister for Foreign Affairs Ram Sharan Mahat was seriously wounded. Four-time Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and former Deputy Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal conducted a sit-in in front of the Singha Durbar, the official government complex, under the scorching sun.

These political leaders were trying to press King Gyanendra, enthroned after the gruesome June 1, 2001, massacre, in which nine members of Nepal’s royal family were killed, to rectify his errors. The king dissolved the 205-member House of Rep-resentatives on May 22, 2002. On Oct. 4, 2002, he sacked the elected government. The political parties are now demanding either the formation of an interim government representing all political forces or a revival of the House.

General strikes and sloganeering have become common in this Himalayan kingdom. Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand (picked by the king after the royal takeover in October) tried to pacify the parties, but eight months after his appoint-ment he still had not been able to hold elections.

On May 29, Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who, along with Nepal’s late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, scaled Mt. Everest 50 years ago, was granted honorary Nepali citizenship by Prime Minister Chand. But by the time the 83-year-old mountaineer boarded a plane home the following day, Chand had resigned from his post. On June 4, the king handpicked another royalist, Surya Bahadur Thapa, as the country’s new prime minister. 

Chand’s resignation was welcomed. The agitating political forces called it a “positive step ahead.” A May 31 editorial in The Kathmandu Post said: “During his seven-month stint as prime minister, Chand was always perceived to be a shadow of the king.” 

But Thapa’s nomination was seen as a snub to the parties. “Thapa is leading just another government of the king, by the king and, by implication, for the king,” renowned journalist C.K. Lal wrote in the June 6-12 issue of Nepali Times. Said the Nepali Congress president, “This [new government] is the old wine in a new bottle. The king didn’t take up our recommendations, so the protests will continue.”

The Maoists, who have been at the center of Nepalese politics since they took up arms with the aim of eliminating the monarchy and establishing a republic seven years ago, also slammed the king for the leadership change. A June 5 statement by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), argued that the king “is pushing the entire nation toward confrontation.”

The Maoists are largely responsible for Nepal’s fast-changing political reality. More than 80 percent of Nepal’s people live in villages, with little government presence, and many have fallen into the Maoists’ grip. Every government formed since the rebellion began has vowed to solve the crisis—but all have failed. And the number of people killed has soared to about 8,000. Now, the agitating political parties are warning that they will join the Maoists to push for the creation of a republic if the king betrays them again. Political observers say this would be fatal for the monarchy.

The recent political developments occurred while about 300 foreigners were in Kathmandu to participate in the Everest festivities—and they, too, expressed deep concerns. Said Ang Chhiring Sherpa, the first South Asian journalist to climb Mt. Everest: “When I was atop Everest, I thought I did a lot for the country but all enthusiasm and hopes were shattered after returning to Kath-mandu, where the political leaders were playing nasty games. Had there been a smooth political and national situation, the Everest summiteers could have been bestowed warmer honors.”